At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Can You Be Compassionate and Competitive?

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During last week’s panel on our newly launched book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, at the American Enterprise Institute, we discussed free enterprise as a way to eliminate poverty.

But are we contradicting ourselves? After all, a free enterprise system involves competition within the marketplace. Are competition and compassion compatible? Is there tension between competition in the marketplace and our biblical call to love others and help the poor?

Competition Need Not Be Sinful

Competition gets a bad rap from the church. I have heard preachers call it 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 – roughly five million dollars – 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 an 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.

Running the Race

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 one of my favorite movies, the 1981 Academy Award-winning Chariots of Fire. Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian, is preparing to run in the 1924 Olympics.

Liddell’s athletic success has made him a celebrity. 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.

Three Final Points

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.

Competition helps us become who God created us to be. Ultimately, it is our faithfulness that pleases God and honors him. 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.

It’s not a zero-sum game in which some people win and some people lose. If we strive to do our work well and to win with a mind to serve Christ in what we do, we do better work and create better things. That means everyone—including the poor—wins in the long term.

But what about the short term? How do we help people who do not have the resources to be competitive in the immediate future?

Our call to help the poor can and should involve helping them to identify and leverage their unique gifts so that they can become part of the competitive marketplace and enjoy the benefits of competition as well.

Our challenge in life is to do everything as unto the Lord. Our goal in competing is to practice the highest stewardship of the talents and capabilities God gave each of us.

Is competition harmful or can it be a useful way to help others? 

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