‘The trouble with the rat race is that even when you win you’re still a rat.’ (Lily Tomlin)
Is competition God-given, and therefore fundamentally good? Or is it a result of the fall and therefore fundamentally bad. Or is it somewhere in-between? To what extent are you motivated by your competitive instincts in your workplace?
Like ambition, competitiveness can be a very positive Christian quality when it channels the drive to fulfil our God-given potential to be creative, to serve, to step out in faith. It can also be very bad when it leads to self-obsession, self-aggrandisement and self-promotion.
I have never heard a sermon or talk in a Christian context about competition. Maybe I have missed out somewhere. Maybe competition is not something Christians think they need to talk about, or want to talk about, in a church setting. I suspect it’s the latter.
Competition is very closely linked with personal ambition to succeed. It is unusual to find an ambitious or successful person who does not have a strongly developed competitive instinct. Where does the competitive instinct come from and what role if any does it have in Christian character and behaviour?
Evolutionists might say it comes from the primeval swamp where we had to compete to survive. It’s part of our DNA; an inbuilt response. ‘If you threaten my turf, my position, my possessions or my self-respect, then I will strive to get an advantage over you’.
To state the obvious, every person alive is seemingly already a winner in the competition of life… the sperm that led to your conception was just one of the millions who made it to fertilise the female egg! Do we therefore congratulate ourselves on our first success in serious competition? Or should we rather bow in worship before our creator who planned it so? (Psalm 139).
Competition in the game of life
Competition starts from an early age. Children learn to compete: in family games, for attention; in the playground, for friends; in school, for the approval of their teachers and parents. In teen years, the game changes as young people compete for the acceptance of their peers: in exams; in sport; for a job or a place at college.
Most of us have to compete to get a job. We prepare our best CV, press the send button and wait. The job market can be brutally competitive and we quickly learn to understand the rules. We may apply for a job where there are over 100 applicants. In that competition, there is one winner and 99 who ‘lose’.
Parents can be very competitive. Typically they want their child to have the best roles in the school play, or the best position in the team. We all have different degrees of competitiveness in our character and different ways of expressing it. Some people just can’t help being competitive in everything. Our family gets very competitive when we gather at Christmas and start on our favourite card games. I had a friend who could not stand to get beaten in a game with his young children!
You can’t succeed in business without being competitive. Your product or service has to be higher quality and/or lower cost than the next guy’s. Everything has to be geared to that. Businesses that cease to be competitive quickly cease to exist! I spent my life working in the infrastructure business. Companies compete to carry out work. They put in long hours preparing the bid documents. Maybe five or ten firms or consortia bid… only one wins. Most companies will need to win at least one in five to stay in business.
A biblical perspective
‘An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest’ (Luke 9.46).
Like all human characteristics, our competitive instincts get spoiled by sin. Jesus got really angry with his 12 disciples when they lapsed into squabbling about which of them was the greatest.
Paul got equally angry with the Corinthian church because they were boasting to one another about the status of their respective leaders: ‘I follow Paul … I follow Apollos… I follow Cephas’ (1 Corinthians 1.12). They were seeking reflected glory, success by association. They had lost sight of the centrality and authority of Jesus as the leader of the church. Unfortunately we still see this today, when churches start to feel a smug pride because their church has got a more famous preacher or worship leader, or has a longer history, a bigger congregation or a better building than the one down the road!
Competition intrudes everywhere into Christian organisations, into churches, and even into mission organisations who compete for funds. In some countries it is not uncommon to find several Christian churches fishing in the same pond, competing for converts! It’s not a good look.
Competition drives hard work, innovation and commitment. For example the race between the superpowers in the 1950s and 60s to put a man into space and to land on the moon drove innovations in technology which have had much wider and long-lasting benefits.
Competition brings out human courage and endurance; think of the ‘race’ to reach the South Pole in the early 20th century and the race to be the first to climb Everest.
Competition develops character. For every winner there are many ‘losers’ who have to learn to cope with setbacks and failure and develop the qualities of resilience and persistence in the process. For anyone involved in the business of professional competitive sport, winning and losing is simply part of the business.
Competition can lead to arrogance, abuse of power, corruption, or cutting corners to beat the other guys. It can seduce us into denigrating the opposition and comparing ourselves with others. Even the Apostle Paul recognised this temptation: ‘We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise’ (2 Corinthians 10.6).
As one leading Christian business woman said to me recently, ‘When I start to compare myself with other people, I don’t feel good and that’s one of the results of sin’.
C.S. Lewis exposed the dark side of competition in a penetrating address called the ‘Inner Ring’. He characterised the inbuilt fear in many of us of losing out, of being excluded, whether from the ‘in crowd’, ‘the cool people’, ‘the decision makers’, the ‘recognised ones,’ the ‘honoured ones’ or the ‘accepted’. It’s a fear which can drive the worst kind of competitive behaviour. It’s there in the school yard, the sports team and the office; it’s in business, in college and in politics. Lewis summed it up in these words: ‘I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods, is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside’.
Striving to be included and accepted means we take our eyes off our goal to serve the Lord. One Christian business leader shared with me how she had gone through a period in her career of striving professionally for this acceptance which gave her no satisfaction. She said: ‘I did not like the person that I was becoming.’
It is usually impossible to unravel the complex weave of mixed motives that characterise human behaviour. Most of us just want to win! If you don’t have a strong competitive instinct, then you may have skimmed through these thoughts as of little relevance or interest to you. But don’t dismiss too readily those who have strong competitive instincts as ‘non-Christian’. Rather pray that God will use their instincts for good purposes. If you have a strong competitive instinct, ask God to channel that in the right direction, so that you always seek to do the best you can to honour God, for the good of others and not just for yourself.
Graham Hooper is an independent consultant and author of Undivided – closing the faith life gap, IVP 2013. He contributes regularly to the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, to Malyon Work and the Melbourne City Bible Forum.