Public Square & Theology 101

Competition Isn’t Unchristian—But Motive Matters

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After the Super Bowl, sports fans can look forward to tuning into the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea (Feb. 9-25). No doubt there are a number of Christian athletes who will be competing this year, as in years past. The question is, how do these young men and women reconcile the idea of competition with their Christian faith?

In a 2012 article about Christian NBA player Jeremy Lin, New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested that the world of competitive sports and the world of faith—whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim—are two moral universes that are not reconcilable.

This same argument can be extended to the workplace—to market competition. I cannot speak for Jews or Muslims, but for Christians, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The church often gets the idea of competition wrong, and as a result, Christians lack the influence we are called to have. We sometimes think it’s more Christian to avoid competition, but what we’re really doing is burying our God-given talents in the ground.

Paul on Competition

In the opening chapters of the book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul makes two statements that almost look contradictory. In Philippians 2:3 he writes,

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.

In the next chapter, Paul says,

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

In the original Greek, Paul is using the picture of the finish line in an athletic event. Competition is often seen as selfish ambition. How then, can Paul say he presses on “toward the goal to win the prize?”

The juxtaposition of the two passages makes it clear that it is not the effort in competition that is the problem. The problem is our motivation. Is our motive based on legitimate self-interest or is it selfishness? The biblical difference between self-interest and selfishness is something that Brooks and even many Christians today do not understand.

Self-Interest vs. Selfishness

Self-interest is woven into our design and necessary for our own spiritual growth. It also can be a motivation behind our desire to compete.

What’s interesting is that Jesus appeals to self-interest as a motive for self-denial, saying,

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel shall save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:35-36)

As Dr. Art Lindsley writes about this passage,

We are being encouraged to truly “save” our lives and not “lose” our lives or “forfeit” our soul. The appeal is to our own self-interest. Unless we have a sufficient reason to sacrifice something we love, the cost will always be too great.

Being selfish, on the other hand, is not only a sin, it’s also not in our self-interest. Selfishness seeks advantage, attention, or glory for oneself and contradicts our call to be concerned with the welfare and spiritual advance of others.

Competition and Self-Interest

When competition is driven by self-interest, rather than selfishness, it has the effect of bringing out the best of those who compete as well as their fellow competitors: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17). Economist Jeff Tucker explains how this works:

In sports, competition has a goal: to win. Competition has a goal in the market economy, too: service to the consumer through ever increasing degrees of excellence. This excellence can come from providing better and cheaper products or services through providing new innovations that meet people’s needs better than existing products or services. It doesn’t mean “killing” the competition; it means striving to do a better job than anyone else.

In the business arena, competition driven by self-interest operates in a way that benefits the common good. Interestingly, it’s only in a market-based economy that self-interest operates in this way.

Redeeming Competition

In his book, 7 Men and the Secret of their Greatness, Eric Metaxas writes about an event that took place in Eric Liddell’s life shortly before Liddell competed in the 1924 Olympics. As portrayed in the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire, Liddell—the world record holder at the time—refused to run in the 100-meter race because it was held on a Sunday. He instead decided to run in the 400-meter race, which was held later in the week.

On the morning of the 400-meter race, Metaxas wrote,

As he (Liddell) left his hotel that morning, a British masseur pressed a folded piece of paper into his hand. Liddell thanked the man for it and said he would read the message later. In his dressing room at the stadium, Liddell unfolded the note and read the following: “It says in the Old Book, Him that honors me, I will honor, Wishing you the best of success always.”

Liddell believed that to win was to honor God only if he did it in a way that affirmed God’s design and desire. Christians today should realize that we are called to redeem competition, whether on the field or in the workplace.

The late John Wooden once said, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.”

As we compete on the field or in the marketplace, what does it reveal about our character?


Editor’s note: View work and competition through a biblical lens by reading How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work.

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Photo: Pawel Maryanov

  • Russ McCullough, PhD

    Hugh, great insights! The confusion people have on self-interest is a major stumbling block for Christians to better understand how markets are part of God’s design for us to be stewards of the resources He gave us. Our self-interest includes the interests of those close to us –our neighbors. I think Adam Smith made this very clear in both of his seminal books but over time, somehow, “selfishness” seemed to be made a substitute for “self-interest” which indeed would make it hard for Christians to understand how markets can glorify God. The fact that some markets and market behavior do not glorify God does not imply that all markets do not glorify God. Markets are amoral, human action is where morality exists. Thanks! Russ –Gwartney Institute for Freedom, Justice and Human Flourishing.

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