Competition in the Christian Narrative

For months my friend Ryan Adams has been asking me to write a post about how competition fits into the Christian narrative. I’ve been a slacker friend, so needless to say, here we go…

So on December 26 of 2011, Ryan sends me an email that says the following:

“I just read your blog posts on Tebow and the UofM/OS rivalry. So I’m not a sports guy AT ALL, and I was interested in your thoughts on how competition fits within the Christian narrative. Is there a place where competition breeds into our DNA a place for us vs. them? Is there even a healthy balance attainable? Or does it only lead to, inevitably because of human nature, division and hierarchy among people? What’s the point of competing/supporting competitors to see who’s better on any given day, especially in the light of the Gospel?”

I am pretty sure that, at this point, I wrote something back stating that I would respond in time… and I simply haven’t. So then months later Ryan posts on my Facebook Page:

“Thesis: ‘Competition, even the casual appreciation of such, perpetuates the cycle of hierarchy and division among men (imago dei). As such, if the structure of heaven contains no ranking system (for we are defined by God’s love), why do we partake in oppressive systems of the present age? The Christian vocation is to work alongside God to ‘make straight the path’ for our Lord. Any activity that deviates from this and continues to separate man from man is idolatry.’ Rebut, dawg! (on yr blog, of course)”

So here we go Ryan, special delivery – my response:

Let me begin though by noting that if I respond as a rebuttal that does mean that we have entered into competition of sorts right? It could be called a competition of the mind? Would this be a vast pursuit of idolatry destined to divide us? I think not. The point of such rebuttal would simply be to gain a better understanding of who we are as humans via our relationship that is embodied in relation to God.

Now, say if one of us individually took pride in the acquisition of our knowledge of ourselves or of God as something that we have done by ourselves. Then I would venture to say that that is idolatrous. Because in actuality it was the interaction of persons in relationship that drew out the knowledge attained. Had you not persistently sparred me into competition of such thought I might never have replied and thus it is possible that neither of us might have dove any deeper into this topic. Our potential therefore would have remained where it once was, not where it now is, or where it shall come to be in the future. Thus, in our engagement itself, we come closer to being whom God has made us in God’s image.

The same is true of athletic competition, in my opinion, if we understand competition in light of Christ. It is not a battle against one another, instead it is a competition for one another. We push each other, through relationships, to attain feats beyond what we believed that might be possible of us. We seek through interaction with one another to embody what God created us to be, fully.

Of course this is not typically what the world focuses on. It instead idolizes whoever has the most points, most rings, or the most pride. It often forgets sports where the goal is to reach a destination – or sometimes where the goal itself is the persistent attempt at reaching the destination… i.e. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Competition in the light of Jesus Christ is an opportunity to grow as persons bettering ourselves in/through/for one another, and for God.

In the movie Chariots of Fire the actor playing the famed Olympic runner Eric Liddell says: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

This line resonates with people because anyone who has ever enjoyed a sport knows the feeling that Liddell is talking about and it has nothing to do with outdoing anyone else. Some call this feeling being “In the zone” – when every basket you shoot goes in, every swing you make is right on, when everything is “clicking” just perfect. It can happen running or biking, shooting pool or throwing darts, driving a race car – you name it – but you are firing on all cylinders and in that moment you know it.

In eastern religions one might talk about this in a similar vein as being “one with things”.
I don’t think that such concepts of harmony are necessarily contrary to Christian understandings of us living in God’s Image. Thus I believe that, competition, envisioned in right relationship, can help us to attain such heightened states of humanity.

And when we see such occurrences… we marvel and we cheer – and rightly so.

They can fuel our vocations as we fully embrace who we are in God.

Additionally, I’d caution one on having a negative eschatological view of hierarchy. If Christ is King, and a servant king at that – then anyone who would hierarchically be “above” us in the Kingdom of God would be a servant to us. When we embody such an attitude here on earth, in sports, vocation, or any other aspect of life we, by God’s grace, make the Kingdom a reality here and now.


2 thoughts on “Competition in the Christian Narrative

    1. In response to your 3-part response:

      Several points:

      I have NEVER heard anyone seriously say “you got served” on a basketball court. I seriously doubt that you have either!

      Paul’s Biblical cultural context of running the race was that of the Olympic where the goal was simply put to win. Theologically speaking humanity is all on the same team. i.e. we win with Christ, we lose with the Enemy. The eternal prize is what we are seeking to win.

      You say: “ranking humans according to ability is the inherent purpose of the competition” No, competition is for the bettering of the God given gifts that we have been given as individuals for the sake of community.

      You say: “And on a deeper level, God did not give this man the talent to play football.“ – Unless you are God – I do not believe that you cannot authentically make that statement.

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