Some competitions are highly formalized and structured, such as organized sport. But some are more informal and subtle. For example, we might pass someone on the street and compare ourselves to them in weight, height, appearance, or socioeconomic status.
Competition is always a comparison, designed for the purpose of stratification or creating a rank order. Most competitive environments require significant energy from participants, derived from the insatiable drive to win and triumph over others. This pursuit of winning is the fundamental competitive ethic.
Competition between two or more people or groups implies a type of social relationship. The typical competitive relationship is often characterized by a highly egocentric perspective, which creates relational tendencies characterized by antagonism, animosity, aggression, and pride. This is problematic for the Christian who desires to live by the biblical mandates of love, humility, and compassion.
Competition in the Bible
For example, John 15:12–13 tells believers, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And Philippians 2:3–4 instructs us to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” These verses highlight the apparent conflict between the fundamental nature of Christian relationships and compet-itive relationships.
However, it’s important to acknowledge that competition was around in biblical times.
Scripture does not forbid all competitive relationships. In some places, the Bible appears to provide tacit approval, particularly in Paul’s letters where he often uses sporting analogies that involve highly competitive environments.
For example, 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
Competition is not, therefore, without its virtues. Paul’s words suggest that competition can provide a process that promotes discipline, self-sacrifice, and a steadfastness required for the Christian walk.
However, when we try to establish our superiority over other participants, (which inherently encourages actions to secure victory through the most expedient methods available), the competitive ethic collides head-on with the Christian ethic of servanthood. The very nature of the competitive ethic appears to be the antithesis of the Christian ethic of justice, compassion, and humility.
Even so, some Christians believe we’re created to compete. In Fredrick Reich’s article entitled “Competition and Creation,” Reich refers to the “Dominion Mandate” to be fruitful and multiply, to rule over and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28, NIV). The “ruling and subduing” portion of this command suggests some kind of conquering, and if this is true, it seems that competition is inevitable.
Competition can also be identified in the theology of the kingdom of God, where God is using us to compete against the forces of evil to bring about the future victory and fulfillment of his kingdom. However, some Christians would argue that competition is the result of the fall in the garden of Eden and part of our unremitting sinful flesh.
Pros and cons
I believe that competition is neither inherently good nor evil, but is a relational tool with corresponding strengths and weaknesses. Competition can produce positive outcomes such as discipline, self-sacrifice, and concentrated effort, which are important values for Christian maturity. Even loving relationships can contain elements of competition when they’re relegated to portions of the friendship, but not all pervasive.
In other words, there are times we compete within loving, supportive relationships. For example, best friends who regularly play tennis against each other can suspend their compassion or care for each other and compete with an egocentric approach without violating the friendship. Because this is mutually understood as part of the process of competition, other parts of the relationship demonstrate that it’s not a permanent or a predominant position.
On the other hand, competition may produce many harmful effects when misapplied or allowed to run unchecked in the Christian life. We don’t have to look further than the arena of sport to see the many pitfalls that are associated with a hyper-competitive environment.
Researchers have studied the impact of this hypercompetitive environment on moral reasoning. Moral reasoning is the cognitive decision-making process we use to make moral choices.
Higher-order moral reasoning is exemplified by including others in our considerations, while lower-order moral reasoning is when we primarily focus on our own interests. Researchers, such as Stoll and Beller, have clearly demonstrated that involvement in sport lowers one’s moral reasoning, an effect seen in both Christian and non-Christian sporting environments.
Based on this research, we can see the importance of limiting competitive relationships and encouraging the majority of our relationships to reflect the Christian ethic of love and
However, it appears that North American culture has supplanted nurturing relationships with primarily competitive relationships and attitudes. This has occurred much to our own detriment, as Henri Nouwen observes in Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life:
This all-pervasive competition, which reaches into the smallest corners of our relationships prevents us from entering into full solidarity with each other, and stands in the way of our being compassionate. We prefer to keep compassion on the periphery of our competitive lives. Being compassionate would require giving up dividing lines and relinquishing differences and distinctions. And that would mean losing our identities! This makes it clear why the call to be compassionate is so frightening and evokes such deep resistance. This fear, which is very real and influences much of our behavior, betrays our deepest illusions: that we can forge our own identities; that we are the collective impressions of our surroundings; that we are the trophies and distinctions we have won. This, indeed, is our greatest illusion. It makes us into competitive people who compulsively cling to our differences and defend them at all cost, even to the point of violence.
While unfettered competition can have damaging effects, it’s important to remember that competition within boundaries can have a very positive impact. Not unlike a river that provides life-giving sustenance and transportation to those who utilize it, the river can have devastating consequences when it spills over its intended banks.
Competition has the potential to be highly effective, yet can be dangerous when allowed to spill over into all areas of the Christian life. Informal or unregulated competition often produces an antagonistic and prideful personality that ultimately results in alienation.
To minimize these harmful impacts and to maximize the positive impacts, we must create a few boundaries.
First, a specific objective or goal must motivate the competition. Competition can be effective at enhancing competencies, products, procedures, or thinking. To achieve this, all participants should know what that goal is, and what the purpose of the competition is. Often, we find ourselves in comparative and competitive relationships without any specific purpose other than self-differentiation and adulation.
Second, these boundaries should contain a specific beginning and ending, marking the time in which we set aside our cooperative, compassionate relationships and switch to a competitive challenging relationship. All participants should be aware of the start and finish, reminding us that this isn’t normative behaviour for Christian relationships. As well, it helps control the impulse to make competition ubiquitous.
Third, participants should engage in the rules of competition while keeping in mind the larger perspective. Bud Williams, in his paper “Competing Correctly,” suggests that we should compete with the spirit of the rules in mind – with integrity, seeking fairness and justice, showing care for fellow participants, with a focus on competing with an opponent rather than against an opponent.
The goals of the competition should not override the biblical mandate stated in Matthew 22, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… and love your neighbor as yourself.” Competition can fit inside this mandate only when it’s subservient to it.
Whether we compete for marks or jobs or just for fun, we need to manage the powerful motivations that competition can produce. Competition can be beneficial. However, it needs to be balanced with loving and compassionate relationships for a healthy Christian life.