Is competition God?given, and therefore fundamentally good? ?Or a result of the fall and therefore fundamentally bad, or somewhere in-between? To what extent are you motiv
ated by your competitive instincts in your workplace? Like ambition, competitiveness can be a very positive Christian quality when it channels the drive to fulfil our God-given potential to be creative, to serve, to step out in faith. It can also be very bad when it leads to self-obsession, self-aggrandizement and self-promotion.
I have never heard a sermon or talk in a Christian context about competition. Maybe I have missed out somewhere. Maybe it means that ?competition? is not something Christians need to talk about or, want to talk about, in church settings. I suspect it?s the latter.
Competition is very closely linked with the desire to get ahead and to personal ambition to succeed. It is unusual to find an ambitious or successful person who does not have a strongly developed competitive instinct. Where does the competitive instinct come from and what role if any does it have in Christian character and behavior?
Evolutionists might say it comes from the primeval swamp where we had to compete to survive in the jungle. It?s part of our DNA; an inbuilt response. ?If you threaten my turf, my position, my possessions or my self ?respect, then I will strive to get an advantage over you?.
To state the obvious, every person alive is seemingly already a winner in the competition of life? the sperm that led to your conception was just one of the millions who made it to fertilize the female egg! Should we therefore congratulate ourselves on our first success in serious competition? Or should we rather bow in worship before our Creator who planned it so? (Psalm 139).
In competition, there are always winners and losers by definition. Worse, it seems the majority are ?losers? and there is only one winner in most competitions. Only one team wins the premiership. Only one athlete gets the gold medal.
Competition in the game of life
Competition starts to show itself in every part of life from an early age. Children learn to compete in family games, they compete for attention; they compete in the playground for friends and for the approval of their teachers and parents.
In teen years, the game changes as young people compete for the acceptance of their peers; they compete in exams, in sport and compete for a job or a place at college.
Most of us have to compete to get a job. We prepare our best resume, press the send button and wait. We might hear nothing. Later we hear the job went to someone in the organization who was acting in that position already. It was not a level playing field, not a fair competition because not everyone was starting at the same point, or understood the rules of the game to the same extent. The job market is competitive and we quickly learn to understand the rules. We may apply for a job where there are over one hundred applicants. In that competition, there is one winner and ninety nine who ?lose?.
Parents can be very competitive. Typically they want their child to have the best roles in the school play, or the best position in the team. We all have different degrees of competitiveness in our character and different ways of expressing it. Some people just can?t help being competitive in everything. Our family gets very competitive when we gather at Christmas and start on our favorite card games. I had a friend who could not stand to get beaten in a game with his young children!
More seriously, C.S. Lewis exposed the dark side of competition in a penetrating address called the ?Inner Ring?. He characterized, the inbuilt fear in many of us of losing out, of being excluded, whether, from the ?in crowd? ?the cool people?, ?the decision makers?, the ?recognized ones,? the ?honored ones?, the ?accepted?. It?s a fear which can drive the worst kind of competitive behavior. It?s there in the school yard, the sports team, and the office; in business, in college and in politics. Lewis summed it up in these words: ?I believe that in all men?s lives at certain periods, and in many men?s lives at all periods, is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside?.
Striving to be included and accepted means we take our eyes off our goal to serve the Lord. One Christian university professor shared with me how she had gone through a period in her career striving professionally for this acceptance which gave her no satisfaction. In that process she said ?I did not like the person that I was becoming?.
Competition at work
You can?t succeed in business without being competitive. Your product or service has to be higher quality and/or lower cost than the next guy?s. Everything has to be geared to that. Businesses that cease to be competitive quickly cease to exist!
The desire to compete and win in business, and in life, is a powerful motivator for many. I spent my life working in the infrastructure business. Companies compete to carry out work. They put in long hours preparing the bid documents. Maybe 5 or 10 firms or consortia bid? only one wins. Most companies will need to win at least 1 in 5, or preferably one in 3, to stay in business. Competition drives hard work, innovation and commitment.
?A Biblical perspective: ?Competition and Christian faith
?An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest? (Luke 9:46)
Competitive instincts may not be wrong in themselves but, like all human characteristics, they get spoiled by sin. Jesus got really angry with his twelve disciples when they lapsed into squabbling about which of them was the greatest.
Paul got equally angry with the Corinthian church because they were boasting to one another about the status of their respective leaders… ?I follow Paul. I follow Apollos, I follow Cephas? (1 Corinthians 1:12). They were seeking reflected glory, success by association. They had lost sight of the centrality and authority of Jesus as the leader of the Church. Unfortunately, we still see this today, when churches start to feel a smug pride because their church has got a more famous preacher or worship leader, or has a longer history, a bigger congregation or a better building than the one down the road!
Competition intrudes everywhere into Christian organizations, into churches, and even into mission organizations who compete for funds. In some countries it is not uncommon to find several Christian churches fishing in the same pond, competing for converts! It?s not a good look.
Competition drives innovation. The race between the superpowers in the 1950?s and 60?s to put a man into space and to land on the moon drove innovation in technology? which have had much wider benefits.
Competition brings out human courage and endurance; think of the ?race? to reach the South Pole in the early 20th century and the race to be the first to climb Everest.
?Competition develops character. For every winner here are many ?losers? who have to learn to cope with setbacks and failure and develop the qualities of resilience and persistence in the process. For anyone involved in the business of competitive sport, winning and losing is simply part of the business.
Competition can lead to arrogance, abuse of power, corruption, cutting corners to beat the other guys. It can seduce us into denigrating the opposition and comparing ourselves with others. Even the Apostle Paul recognized this temptation:
?We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise?. (2 Cor 10:6).
As one leading Christian business woman said to me recently: ?When I start to compare myself with other people, I don?t feel good and that?s one of the results of sin?.
It is usually impossible to unravel the complex weave of mixed motives that characterize human behavior. Most of us just want to win! If you don?t have a strong competitive instinct, then you may have skimmed through these thoughts as of little relevance or interest to you. But don?t dismiss too readily those who have strong competitive instincts as ?non-Christian?. Rather pray that God will use their instincts for good purposes. If you have a strong competitive instinct, ask God to channel that into the right direction, so that you always seek to do the best you can for the good of others and not just for yourself.
- How strong are your competitive instincts? How do they manifest themselves?
- What difference does your Christian faith make to the way you harness and channel those instincts at work?
- What encouragement and warnings do you find in the Bible abut good and bad competition?
Closing thought?Running the race
The picture of an athletic race to describe the Christian life is used several times in the New Testament (see for example I Corinthians, 2 Timothy, and Hebrews 12). But is it not so much a picture of a competitive race but rather of finishing the course set before us. In today?s culture, it is more like a marathon which, for most amateur runners, is about completing the event and performing a personal best time, rather than winning. Thank God, he does not present us with the prospect of a competition for a limited number of slots in heaven! The Christian race is not one where only the ?best?, the most loving, the most self-sufficient the most religious get in. It?s not like an entry exam where only the top five percent ?make the cut?. Jesus? ministry in the gospels makes that very clear. His comments to the Pharisees , and to his disciples that ?the last shall be first and the first last? made clear that the popular favorites to be first into heaven (the religious leaders) were, in truth, right at the back, behind the rejects of society who were humble enough to recognize their need of the grace of God.
It is true that Jesus said ?Narrow is the gate??..? (Matthew 7). But he also said ?Come to me all you who are heavy-laden?? (Matthew 11:28). This is an open invitation, not a ticket for a competition. It is the best free offer we will ever receive and if we are wise we will respond gladly, thankfully and unreservedly.
Graham Hooper June 2015
Graham Hooper is an independent consultant and author of ?Undivided- closing the faith life gap?, IVP 2013. He contributes regularly to the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, to Malyon Workplace and the Melbourne City Bible Forum.
 ??the Inner Ring?, C. S. Lewis, memorial Lecture at King?s College, University of London, 1944