Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Should Christians Compete to Win?

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As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

-Proverbs 27:17

In an article last year, 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 which are not reconcilable. In the realm of work and economics, this argument extends to market competition. I cannot speak for Jews or Muslims, but for Christians, nothing could be farther from the truth.

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. Any selfishness, which seeks advantage, attention, or glory for oneself contradicts our call to be concerned with the welfare and spiritual advance of others.

The biblical difference between self-interest and selfishness is something that Brooks and even many Christians today do not understand.

Competition, Self-Interest, and Selfishness

Self-interest is good and necessary for our own spiritual growth, and should be a motivation behind our desire to compete.

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.

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.

In work and economics, competition driven by self-interest can actually be competition to provide the best service, as Dr. Anne Bradley explained in a previous post:

In a modern world, we could not live a day without depending on millions of strangers for everything we do throughout our waking hours. This is one way markets bring us together to serve one another. Sometimes that service is one-on-one. More often it is anonymous…markets bring us together for the goal of serving the common good.

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?

Leave your comments here.

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  • Rick Gilbert

    In a culture where “all is fair in love, war and business”, competing and “winning” in a business but doing so in, as Liddell said, “a way that affirms God’s design and desire” is both a great challenge and great testimony.

    • Hugh Whelchel

      Yes, what we need is more strong Christian witnesses in every area.

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