Competition in the Christian Narrative pt. 2: Winning!

by aslightbreeze

We are raised to be winners.

Everything around us, whether in our educational system, entertainment, corporate structure, even churches, trains us to seek victory in our lives.

On more than one occasion I have been offered Paul’s analogy in Corinthians as the defense of competition:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

I find this interesting for several reasons.  First and foremost, as sport analogies go (he uses as similar sentiment in 2 Timothy), running is pretty weak on the scale of competition.  As a former runner myself, the mindset of the participant is not so much to beat the other runners, but to strive for the best race to be ran.  My friend Chris used the main character from Chariots of Fire in his defense of competition, and it’s a beautiful quote.  But it is not built in to the sport to expressly seek to put oneself over the others in the race.  I wonder if Eric Liddell would feel God’s pleasure any less if there weren’t others running around him; if there was not gunshot at the start, no prescribed path to follow, not even a personal best time to beat.  A similar justification was given by a Christian football player describing his own sport in a recent Parade magazine article: “What it came down to,” he says, “is that this is my gift. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. I was playing the game as hard as I could to honor the Lord. I always said, Lord, every play I’m going to give You everything I have. From the bottom of my feet all the way to the top of my head, every tackle, every block. If the ball was thrown a hundred yards away, I was going to run as hard as I could run to get there. I thought about one thing, and that’s giving God what ­Jesus Christ gave for me on the cross—everything. That’s how I was going to play. And I was at peace with that.”  Now, I am NOT implying that this man has no faith in Christ.  Perish the thought.  This seems like a man of integrity, honesty, and faith.  Yet I find his reasoning for playing questionable.  Does God give us gifts?  Absolutely.  Does that dictate how and why we use them?  Not necessarily.  The Bible is rife with people who were given gifts and [super]natural talents who abuse them or misdirected their purposes.  And on a deeper level, God did not give this man the talent to play football.  He gave him the gift of a healthy, strong body.  How we treat these gifts is determined by our free will and our agreement with God’s will.  It is not written in to the fabric of running to be better than the people around you, often that is something we drag in to the field.  However, in a sport such as football, UFC, poker, etc., ranking humans according to ability is the inherent purpose of the competition.  And I realize the gravity and harshness of that sentiment; it even causes me to pause as I write it.  I find the extreme in this quote from Gore Vidal: “It is not enough to succeed.  Others must fail”.

Secondly, it would be a grave error to think that Paul is implying we compete against one another in our pursuit of “the prize”.  It is poor eisegesis to read this as a justification for competition when Paul is clearly referring not to the personal achievement of running, but the integrity in training and discipline that running a race requires.  Indeed, he speaks in the very next sentence of the futility of others striving for “a crown that will not last” as opposed to the eternal reward.  Indeed, it is folly to describe the Christian life with anything but God at the center of our efforts.  Even as he speaks of this crown, this prize, Paul is not setting that as our telos.  He is actually contrasting the goal of the Christian from the goal of the competitor: personal glory.  When we justify competition as a way to glorify God, what is the unspoken dogma?  That our skills and accomplishments somehow legitimize the saving power of the cross?  That it is our faith in Messiah that makes us run faster, jump higher, hit harder?  Tell that to the vineyard workers in Matthew 20.  Tell it to the orphans and widows.  Tell it to the poor and hungry.  We have done spiritual violence to people in the church by making life about becoming a better, more successful person, with victory defined as my glory as the be-all-end-all.  The gospel lays out quite the opposite, in fact.  It speaks of denying ourselves, putting ourselves below others to see them encounter Father, and partnering with Him to rescue His children from the patterns of the world.

Finally, the surrounding context of Paul’s runner analogy sets it in a different light.  Indeed, the preceding passage speaks of this humble servanthood as typified by Christ that enables us to meet people where they are in order to offer life.  The last example he gives is particularly powerful: “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak (22)”.

This really hits home in the last chapter of the letter to the Galatians, a passionate appeal to Unity and peace among the New Creation people by a man desperately trying to undo the shackles of hierarchy in God’s kingdom.

“My friends, you are spiritual. So if someone is trapped in sin, you should gently lead that person back to the right path. But watch out, and don’t be tempted yourself. You obey the law of Christ when you offer each other a helping hand. If you think you are better than others, when you really aren’t, you are wrong. Do your own work well, and then you will have something to be proud of. But don’t compare yourself with others. We each must carry our own load. Share every good thing you have with anyone who teaches you what God has said. You cannot fool God, so don’t make a fool of yourself! You will harvest what you plant. If you follow your selfish desires, you will harvest destruction, but if you follow the Spirit, you will harvest eternal life. Don’t get tired of helping others. You will berewarded when the time is right, if you don’t give up. We should help people whenever we can, especially if they are followers of the Lord. (Galatians 6:1-10)

Again, reexaming Tillich’s definition of faith as “the state of being ultimately concerned”, what does our participation/enjoyment of competition say about our ultimate?  What are we teaching about the salvation of the cross?  Even still, is there some part of our own motivation that is not pure?

That leads us into yet another discussion: the motivations of the heart.