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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Redeeming Competition

Last weekend we had our annual Trivia Night. There were thirteen teams (and a no show) comprised mainly of members and their friends/families. Right before hand I got a text from a friend who had been pondering the question, how does God redeem our competition. The point was, not just friendly competition, playing cards or Monopoly, but the cut throat, win and humiliate your opponent type of competition which we so easily slide into. Like my "Can a Christian...?" series some time ago, I think this one can be posed along those lines. Can a Christian be competitive?

First of all, based on my experience that night, it is not an irrelevant question. I experienced tension because I wanted to win. It was palpable. In reality, I believe that the biggest winner is the church for having fun together and the people who will benefit from the outreach contribution. Over $2000 will go to help those in need. Yet, I also know, I wanted to win. Perhaps too much?

Being competitive is, in some ways, an inborn trait. I remember reading about Cal Ripken years ago. They said that even in silly things like tossing socks in a garbage can he had a drive to beat every one. His success as a ball player reflects that drive. Someone who gets the most out of their God-given talent is often praised. In reality, some of that is God-given drive. The 'need' to outwork others is also something that we can have no power over.

At root, the question is "what is the proper level of competition?" St. Paul says, "outdo one another in showing kindness." In theory, we should look like that old tv commercial about the two (Holiday Inn?) employees who bounce back and forth making each other breakfast, vacuuming each other's carpet, and other assorted acts of hospitality. Such competition is possible (think of gift-giving). Yet, we also know (grace discussions center on this) that sometimes our outward acts of kindness can be self serving. And being competitive in any venue can disintegrate into merely lifting myself up for ego (even, and especially, if it is uplifitng through humiliation and service). One thinks of CS Lewis' Screwtape, who advised that getting the new Christian to go to church so that he thought he was superior could be supplemented by having him pray in the back of the church so he could be impressed by his own humility.

I think God redeems competition by reforming it into the orignal intent. Art is art, not art competition. Play is play, not bending the rules to win. Building is building, not building competition, etc. etc. Doing it all for the glory of God (thanks and praise) is the purpose, not beating someone else (and having won wanting to win by more!). Crushing those who get in our way is not godly. The humility and gentleness of Jesus reflects a balanced spirit in such things. Would Jesus compete with others? Yes, but not to win, rather to express truth, be faithful, show love, etc.

Winning is about success and success is also driven by feelings of inadequacy. This is based on a distorted understanding of value... While it is easy to malign the movement to "give everyone a trophy" and "remove competition and increase cooperation" there is also some truth there. And the competitive need to win makes it hard for us (even those advocating cooperation) to see how we allow conversation to break down into either/or. [A mystery here:] God competes with satan for human souls. Clearly some competition is here to stay. We live in a fallen world. Kingdom values do not easily translate into life on the planet we inhabit. Perhaps that is why The Cross is Jesus command. If we lose our competitive edge we flounder and get passed by. Practical Christians readily disengage from Jesus when their self interest is at stake. Reason dictates that we be successful we argue. Convincing ourselves that the culture has it right when it comes to things like "Me vs. World."

Sometimes competition pushes us to greater acts of discipline. Competiton reminds us things do not always go our way. But seeing the track and field, biking and baseball scandals with performance enhancing drugs it is obvious that competition  has a dark side. It is a big side and very dark. Any discussion of competition must include that evil makes itself known even in games.

In closing, I think of how easily a parent learns to "lose" games with a young child. The desire to beat a three year old in chutes and ladders is not there for me. And we also know how even very young kids can end up becoming consumed with winning, tantrums and crying accompanying anything not going their way. It is not an appealing trait. It is not what God followers want to look like (even if we do!). How will God redeem that? The way He redeems all of our mis-steps, our wrong emphasis and confusing the real purpose: in the cross. Die to self means the only competition is against satan and his desire to malform our original intent. It is, in the end, the competition with flesh, world and devil for our very life and self. Anything that distorts that needs redeeming. Winning is not bad. Thinking that being a winner is what matters, however, can become very bad indeed. Just look at the loser life of so many winners...

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