Competition and the Christian Narrative pt. 1:
“You got served” sounds very different in the church than it does on the basketball court.
To begin, I must first openly admit my own failure in this area of competition. While it may not be in participating or spectating in the realm of sports, I find myself fiercely tribalistic when it comes to religion and politics. I have no illusions that I have somehow elevated myself above the human tendency to rank myself and everyone else by various standards; it’s just that my “teams” don’t generally get cool jerseys to wear. Secondly, this is a thought that I hold loosely. What I mean is that my feelings on competition are something I receive with an open hand, willing to have them taken away and replaced by something more akin to Truth. So this is NOT a make-or-break conversation for me; I have a little more confidence in God’s grace than that. I hope you’ll also extend me that same grace as I wander down this path.
So let me lay some groundwork for my thoughts, and we shall wander into the discussion of competition more specifically in the next post. I hope there is enough here to give you an idea of my recent sojourn, but not so much to drown you out in things that seem to have little bearing on the current dialogue:
The first place we should start in this conversation is at the End. This draws in various traditions of soteriology (how we’re saved/what we’re saved from), teleology and eschatology (what the End will look like and how it comes about). At the heart of these studies, we find two tightly-wound-together questions: “where is this going?” and “what will this look like when God put the world to rights?”. These big-picture questions help us to step back and observe the past, present, and future sweep of God’s One Story as He rescues humanity from itself (borrowing from NT Wright here). As we suss out our understanding of the genetic make-up of heaven as the Kingdom of God, both in the Here and the Not-Yet-Here, we can begin to see how we are to live the Christian faith in a way that simultaneously anticipates and practices now the language of that Reality. The progressive revelations that make up that journey should permeate into every little nook and cranny of our lives.
I have come to the conclusion that the push of the New Covenant that Messiah ushered in for all humanity is:
“It is no longer who you are and what you’ve done, but it is Who I am and What I have done that defines you.”
It is finished. The path has been made straight. Mountains are being humbled, and valleys raised. The ground before the cross is level ground, for it no longer has anything to do with our earthly tribes or our righteous works, but the blood of Messiah justifying our lives. Through Jesus’ life and the subsequent ripples of His death as elaborated by Paul and others, we see the foundations for this New Creation, in a New Humanity, with a New Covenant. Take Matthew 20:1-16 as an example of this Kingdom mentality. The “best” workers are insulted that they receive equal reward with the “least”. They are more talented, more able-bodied, and yet the Landowner deems it appropriate to do away with caste and offer them all the same, to treat them as equals not dependent on their status. In this way, the first are last and the last, first. As my friend Josh teaches, “kingdom” building stands in direct opposition to “empire” building. Essentially, empires find their definition in creating a system that favors those at the top, usually built upon the backs of those in the bottom rungs. Kingdom building, by contrast, sees humble servanthood as the guiding principle for leadership that pushes up from the bottom, ensuring the growth of all toward the Goal. It is the mirror opposite of the worldly standard of hierarchy, and its eschatology speaks of an equalizing of all who are involved under the banner of the One True God. As the old adage goes, the ground before the cross is level ground.
I have come to understand humility as the process by which we become Nothing in order to elevate the Other, whether that be God or our fellow man. To me, there is no better definition for humility than the one Paul offers us in the gift of the Christ Hymn (Philippians 2). As Thomas A Kempis wrote in his tome The Imitation of Christ, “If you wish to learn and appreciate something worth while, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing. Truly to know and despise self is the best and most perfect counsel. To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others ids the best and most perfect wisdom.” But where humility is imbued with power that unifies (for it finds its focus above), false humility is powerless to draw Man into God. Humility allows us to reflect more and more our divine nature, in that “we are like Christ” (1 John), which leads back in to Philippians, “Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be admonished…” The purposes for this incredible act of faith are Reconciliation and Unity. In 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Paul speaks of the New Creation as the impetus for those of us who are In to reconcile (literally, “to be made friends again”) men to God. In Ephesians 2:14-18, he speaks of shalom peace in the context of this reconciliation, first one man to another, then the unified humanity to God. It is our faith in Jesus that begins the process of transference from “the patterns of the world” to “the same mindset as Christ”.
As theologian Paul Tillich defines it, faith is “the state of being ultimately concerned”. To live by faith, then, is in a centered act of personality whereby each part of who I am focuses on that ultimate. Mind, heart, spirit, body: every part of me aligns in pursuing the life of faith. This is particularly interesting when we apply it to our justifications for competition. What does it say about the primary push of our lives? We want to do our best? We want to prove ourselves/God through physical prowess and mental achievement? We bring glory to Him by inadvertently hinting at the fact that there are winners and losers in this life, and it’s far more attractive to be a winner?
Next: Where is our heart when we compete?