Jul 7, 2007

Competition: Healthy or Unhealthy? Constructive or Destructive?

Competition is a fact of life, and it's everywhere you look: in athletics, business, academics . . . politics. We compete institutionally, interpersonally, and intrapersonally. Competition is innate and as old as human history.

The stories of Cain and Abel, and Joseph, in the Old Testament show powerful competitive forces inside families. In the New Testament, Jesus' parables about human competition teach more important, subtle, startling truths.

Competition can be healthy or unhealthy, evoke our best or worst—it can build or destroy. But God calls us into life and competition, and He wants us to use it to accomplish His purposes.

Healthy Competition

In Jesus' parable in Luke 19:11–27, three men receive money to invest. Two of the men step up to the competition and turn a profit; Jesus affirms their achievements. But a third man passively resists the competition, and Jesus challenges that attitude.

Paul pictures the Christian life—life itself—as a competition for a single prize. We are in a race (1 Cor. 9:24), he says, that requires perseverance (Heb. 12:1). We are called to strain—to compete with attention and energy—for that single goal and its prize.

At its best, competition compels us to do more than we could have otherwise—individually and as the body of Christ. To win the prize, we discipline ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually (1 Cor. 9:25–26); we lock onto the essential: God's heavenly call in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14). As the old hymn invites us: "Give of your best to the master." With healthy, good competition, our "best" may surprise even us.

The early meaning of "to compete," by the way, was "to coincide," "to come together." Healthy competition is also communal—it happens within and through the community of God's people contending together for God's purposes.

Unhealthy Competition

Conversely, the dark side of competition brings out our worst and destroys us. Recall the Olympic figure skater so jealous and hostile toward her competition that her boyfriend battered the other skater's legs and knocked her out of the games. Recall the Cold War superpowers locked in a race to amass the largest nuclear arsenal. The world lingered on the brink of accidental nuclear annihilation many times over, and one of the powers was driven to economic collapse. It bears repeating: Competition can also bring out the worst. It can destroy.

Redemptive Competition

The Old Testament story of Joseph is about a man who handled his brothers' competitive vengeance with grace. Reconciled, they preserved the family and won the larger contest. Joseph's words, "You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:20), continue to point us through the dark of destructive competition to our ultimate objective. Individually and together we strain toward the goal, the finish line, always looking to Jesus. By His grace and with the Holy Spirit's help, we will receive the prize. Our hard-fought races have brought out our best and, yes, even transformed the worst.

Questions for discussion:

  • In your work and in your leisure, where do you experience healthy competition? Unhealthy competition?
  • When have you participated in redemptive competition?
  • Is there a competitive relationship in your life now to which God is calling you to act redemptively?

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