Reframing Competition…

Posted by on Dec 12, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

In a 2017 address to Baptist Care Australia, Competing with Purpose, Traverse director David Benson encouraged listeners to consider what it might mean to reframe our understanding of competition, so that instead of seeing it as a means to beat and defeat our competitors, it is transformed into a mechanism to ensure that we are both stronger and better as a result of the encounter. His work has set me thinking about the role of competition in the Christian faith, and as part of our journey of discipleship.

There are many portraits in scripture which encourage us to be the best that we can possibly be. The images are sometimes athletic, and we are urged to run our race to win (see e.g. 1 Cor 9:24-27; Phil 2:16; 2 Tim 4:7). Paul understands that winning requires discipline, and encourages us to deny ourselves many things so as to be the best possible version of our self that we can be. Winning is not for the faint hearted, and we should rightly admire those who finish first – for most often it is a result of hard work and a willingness to challenge our excuses. When my excuse voice whines, “I’m too tired, it’s too hard, I can’t do it!” my challenge voice replies, “Nonsense, you can do it – keep going and the breakthrough point will come.” It’s up to me to decide which voice I listen to.

While Paul exults the victorious athlete, he is conscious that some races are more important than others. He notes that bodily discipline has some value, but that spiritual discipline is of eternal value (1 Tim 4:8). If you are running the race that has your name on it – the one you sense God has opened up for you – run it with all your heart.

Even as I write this, I am conscious of the Gore Vidal quote, “It is not enough merely to win; others must lose.” Some would read that and enquire incredulously “so why is that a problem?” The answer has to be, “It depends on what losing means to the other person, and what winning means to the victor.” If we play games where winner takes all, losing can be devastating. I can win in a way that so demoralises my opponent that they never try again. In the worst of possible worlds I might even find myself in the position of the gladiators of old, where one would live, and the other die – and winning was literally a matter of life or death.

Reading that you have to ask, “Can you ever be a winner if you have something approaching a conscience?” The answer is “yes”, but it requires us to move beyond the binary of being a winner or a loser. And so to our question, “Is it possible to compete in such a way that all are stronger as a result?”

The word competition comes from the Latin competito which means striving. Striving – what springs to mind when you hear the word? What strikes me is that while it is possible to strive against, it is also possible to strive together.

When I strive against you, you are the enemy – and I need to beat you. The more I can take from you, the better, for who seeks to bless the enemy? Well, actually Christians are called to bless everyone, even the enemy, so clearly a model other than striving against is called for.

Which leads to the second option. Perhaps in our competing, we can strive together – helping each other to be the best that we can be. Even as I slip ahead of you, I can do it in such a way that you recognise that you can rise a little higher… and so, in a while, you slip ahead of me. But if you can do it, so can I, and as I watch you, I realise that you have got on top of a skill I haven’t yet, so I learn from what I observe, and work yet harder (and more skillfully) to be the best that I can be. It is a hope filled exercise, or, as the writer of Proverbs sees it, it is the way that iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17). I don’t want you to be weak – for if you are weak you no longer strengthen me or challenge me to be all that I am created to be. Your strength is my strength, and my strength, yours.

Inherent in this thinking is the recognition that competition in and of itself is neutral. It can be a force for good, for ill, or for many things in between.

Why might competition be dangerous?

It is often because of the motivation behind my competing. Rather than finding my security from God’s unconditional love for me, I might operate under conditions of worth. I try to beat you not because you are any special threat to me, but because my being “better” than you reassures me that I am worthy. It is a model without grace, and one which will see me lurch from one adrenalin rush to the next, as I try to reassure myself that I am worthy. Feeding that insecurity is hazardous, because I become someone who needs to win – for if I don’t, who am I? My self image can be so insecure that nothing but repeated victories are enough to make me feel good about myself. Because of this I need to interrogate myself when I compete. Why am I competing? Do I have a hidden agenda and what is it? Ironically, an agenda that is most hidden to us, is often most obvious to others.

When I move from striving against to striving together, a number of significant changes take place. Perhaps the first is that I realise that while your competing against me helps me set a pace I might otherwise have backed away from, I’m really competing against myself. There are so many possible versions of me – why should I (or God) settle for a lesser one?

In Competing with Purpose David Benson cites Greg Linville’s book Christmanship: A Theology of Competition and Sport. Linville suggests 6 key benefits that flow from competition:

1)      Creativity – as we think how to achieve the goal of our sport, and the different ways in which it can be achieved, and the nimbleness required to respond to rapidly changing circumstances. If we don’t play the game, we might never face the stretch.

2)      Accountability – for while some try to break the rules, in the end we are called to play according to them, and are disqualified if we don’t. In team games, I must give account to my team members, and won’t be allowed to excuse inadequate preparation, or a destructive attitude.

3)      Performance – which is tangibly observed each time the game gets underway.

4)      Sacrifice – progress is often not possible without sacrifice, and the needs of the team trump my own.

5)      Character and collaboration – for a game has many stages, and some are discouraging but don’t prevent victory if the team can work together resiliently, persistently bringing the best out of each player.

6)      Celebration – is self explanatory, though it should be noted that at times we celebrate a match, which though lost, was nevertheless exhilarating, exciting and enjoyable.

One of my favourite competitions in the Bible is the wrestling match between Jacob and God recorded in Genesis 32. It’s a strange competition. An anxious Jacob gets invited to wrestle with a suddenly present stranger in the wilderness. It seems bizarre – but as we read the passage we realise that much is at stake. It looks as though Jacob will win – but then his fellow wrestler plays dirty and knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint. Almost defeated, Jacob clings to the stranger and insists that unless he blesses him, Jacob will not let him go. The stranger agrees, and blesses him with a new name. No longer will he be Jacob (which means, the schemer) but Israel (which means, one who strives with God and prevails).

Does Jacob (Israel) leave victorious or defeated?

It is hard to say. What we can say is that he has a new name – a name he sometimes lives up to, and sometimes does not (curiously, we still usually think of him by his old name, Jacob, and not his new name, Israel). He also has a new limp. The competition has transformed him. He moves a little less quickly and a little less confidently. This is a limp that is a gift, not a curse. A new realisation has dawned upon him – whilst he initially thought the one he wrestled with was merely a man, it was actually God. Clearly that took the struggle to a whole new level of meaning and significance.

There is so much to learn from that ancient encounter. It is the reminder that that with which we wrestle, is actually wrestling with us… potentially giving us a better name. And rather than God being absent from the struggle, God is sometimes its author – indeed, we might be wrestling with God – who simply wants to bless us with a new name.

Competition – perhaps it is a word that makes you freeze, as you default to a “I’ll probably lose” mindset. You might even have adopted the Vince Lombardi mantra: “Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.” I think Lombardi meant that to inspire – but it is deeply discouraging for many…

However, competition can leave you quietly hopeful, with the gentle assurance that, win or lose, you will be the better for taking part. Which of the two it is depends in large measure on the way in which we strive together. Why not always compete to bring the best out of the other, for as you do, your own best self will come to the fore.

As always, nice chatting…

One Comment

  1. As always, a well-argued case. I have taught in business courses for many years that competition in business is about being the best one can be, not ‘beating’ others in the same business. Competitors in the market are best thought of as ‘brothers’ or ‘neighbours’ not as ‘enemies’. I was brought up in the bush and I’m conscious of how often farmers banded together to help out one another.In a sense, they were competitors, but there were also in community.


  1. Reframing Change: 8 Guiding Principles - Brian Harris - […] I posted on reframing competition. I’d now like to look at reframing change, and the way we approach it.…

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