At Work

Is Competition Out of Bounds for Christians?

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Watching the Olympics and viewing all the athletes and their amazing feats spurred on by top-notch competition reminds me of 1 Corinthians 9:24, one of my favorite verses in Scripture:

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. 

The Apostle Paul paints a powerful picture in his first letter to the church in Corinth. He challenges his readers to do more than merely run the race – he exhorts them to run to win.

For Paul, these were more than words. He lived them out. In II Timothy 4:7 he writes,

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Having finished his race, Paul joyfully anticipated receiving his victory crown from Christ.

Yet I’ve heard countless sermons calling competition sinful. It certainly can be, if we compete for the wrong reasons.

However, if, in the parable of the talents, the one servant was given five talents along with an expectation to double that amount, he had to seriously compete in the marketplace. He had to go win some deals!

Competition need not be sinful. Colossians 3:23-24 tells us,

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive and inheritance from the Lord as a reward.  It is the Lord Christ that you are serving.

From God’s perspective, why we do something is just as important as what we do.

When we run the race, we run with other people. When we run with the best, we become better ourselves. Proverbs 27:17 tells us,

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.

We can sharpen each other through competition. Our goal in competing is two-fold:

  • To use the talents God has given us to the best of our abilities, to be the best we can be.
  • To win – if  you’re an athlete, you play to win; if you run a business, you compete in hopes of prospering yourself and others.

This is the story told in the parable of the talents. The point is not for the servants to make the most money, but to maximize the return on the investment the master had made in each of them.

There is a poignant scene in Chariots of Fire, one of my favorite movies. Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian, is preparing to run in the 1924 Olympics. Liddell’s athletic success has made him a celebrity.

His sister believes that Eric’s popularity has caused him to forget his promise to return to China as a missionary. Liddell assures her that he will return to China, but first he must run in the Olympic Games.

He believes that God made him for a purpose, but God also made him fast. When he runs, Liddell says, he feels God’s pleasure. He goes on to say,

To give that up would be to hold Him in contempt. To win is to honor Him…

We should compete and try to win not for our own selfish purposes, but to honor him. What matters is our attitude, the motivation that resides in our hearts.

Alex Chediak, in an essay on Christians and Competition, suggests three reasons why competition is useful in helping us maximize our return to the Master:

  • Competition encourages excellence.
  • Competition directs us into certain areas of work or passion.
  • Competition enhances the performance of all participants, not just the winners.

Your opponent is not your adversary, nor is he really the one you are competing against. Competition helps us become who God created us to be. Ultimately, it is our faithfulness that pleases God and honors him.

We should wisely steward our God-given talents for His glory and the good of others. Chediak writes,

A competitive marketplace, under God’s sovereignty, drives us toward greater effectiveness in loving our neighbors by providing better goods and services with which to bless them. And when we love our neighbors in the name of Christ, we love God. Winning and losing become occasions for sanctifying and strengthening us, making us both more conscious of our sinfulness, and more effective in the deployment of our talents in all of our vocational callings.

Our challenge in life is to do everything as unto the Lord. He does not measure us by how well we stack up against the competition. Our value does not come from whom we outperform. Our goal in competing is to practice the highest stewardship of the talents and capabilities God gave each of us.

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