To Win the Prize: Why Christians Should Bother to Compete


November 3, 2010

As I was driving home from my morning trip to the track, I began laughing to myself as I realized what had just happened.  The average age of those I encounter at the track is about 60, so typically I have no trouble breezing around the track, allowing no one but the occasional runners to pass me.  This morning, though, a man who looked to be about 70 was keeping a brisk pace.  I sped up to pass him, thinking he probably wouldn’t walk quickly for long, but I was wrong.  He stayed on my tail throughout the remaining mile and a half.  He would have passed me easily at my normal morning pace, but something within me wouldn’t let him pass me; I kicked myself into high gear and finished my walk in record time.  What was wrong with me?  I didn’t know this man; he didn’t know me.  Still I felt the need to beat this 70-year-old man walking around the track.  Did I need to do this to prove my worth?  Did I have to finish first, be the best?  Why?

I admit it – I am a competitive person.  Competition spurs me to continue at times when I probably would have lain down and quit.  Competition makes simple events fun for me; I thrive on competition.  In many different arenas I have performed at a higher level due to the drive of competition.  Is mine a terrible attitude?  Shouldn’t I find satisfaction in trying my best to excel in order to please the Lord?  Is competition a necessary evil that helps us perform at our best in a sinful world, or should we seek to eliminate competition from our lives?

Many pursuits are completely dull and meaningless to me until the point when a competition is introduced.  For years before I married my husband, he would faithfully park himself in front of the television every March in eager anticipation of watching the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.  My entrance into his life distracted him for a season or so, but then he returned to the excitement of following “March Madness.”  I was bored; I couldn’t have cared less about the results of those games.  I loved basketball, but I didn’t have time to follow the teams throughout the year, so I never had any vested interest.  The first year we were married, he made me fill out a set of brackets; we were alone in a new state without many friends, so I submitted, simply picking the names of teams I liked.  That was it; I was hooked.  I found myself staying up late to watch the ends of games, to see how my brackets had fared.  I even turned on the television when he wasn’t there, just to learn the final scores!  What happened?  Did I suddenly feel the need to be better than him?  I’m not sure, but I do know the competition was fun.  Many years and tournaments later, I still enjoy filling and following my brackets – until it becomes statistically impossible for me to beat my husband’s picks.  Then, no matter how many games are left, I once again lose interest.

The culture of sports is definitely a hotbed of intense competition.  Contests are played for a determined amount of time, to determine who will lay claim to which title; for every winner there is a loser.  I grew up in a family that played a lot of sports; I enjoyed them, and I was good enough to have a little success.  Many people have pointed to my love for sports as the reason for my competitiveness, but I beg to differ; the influence of athletics has certainly not been the lone fuel for my drive.  The motivations of competition fill our world; from involvement in economics to the arts, people continually strive for awards and recognitions, try to land the best deal or give the best performance.  Surely competition has existed since sin entered the world.  (Cain was not driven to murder Abel simply because of God’s displeasure; his murderous intentions were sparked by jealousy – by the fact that Abel had “won” God’s favor.)  The question with which we must struggle is this:  Was competition here before sin entered the world, and will it be here after sin departs?  How do we compete in light of this question?

The Desire to be the Best

Competition drives us to be better at what we do.  It made me walk faster around the track.  It drives us to make polished presentations at job interviews; it challenges us to formulate innovative new ideas.  Why, though, does it drive us so intensely?  Are we simply greedy, in search of the recognition and sometimes riches that are the reward of winning a competition?  Do we possess some innate characteristic that produces this desire be the best?

I contend that we desire to be the best because we reflect the image of God.  God is the best; everything that He creates or does is indeed “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  He fiercely competes for our hearts – so fiercely that He was willing to let His very Son die in order to claim us.  He is jealous and saddened when His people do not recognize Him to be the best (Exodus 20:1-5).  This quality of God is reflected in Eve, in the Garden of Eden before sin entered the world.  She felt that there was a way in which she could become better; she desired to become like God, who knew more than she.  Was her desire sinful?  If so, the eating of the fruit was not actually the first sin.  No, I believe that Eve’s actions became sinful when she acted against the clear order of God in order to achieve her desire.  The desire to be the best is not wrong, but many of the actions we take in order to achieve that aspiration are wrong.  We must be careful, then, because our desires – along with everything else in this world – are tainted by sin.  We are finite creatures, and by definition we cannot reach equality with God; nor should we attempt to do so, as did the architects of the Tower of Babel.  However, we can and should strive to imitate God’s “bestness” from within the limitations of our own lives.

Because we are called to reflect the image – faint as it may be – of our Creator, we must realize the value of competition.  It encourages us, as well as those against whom we compete, to improve.  We should be as iron sharpening iron, pushing each other to achieve greater things.  All of our accomplishments – catches in the outfield, music on the stage, or sewing for a county fair – can bring glory to God when done at the best level, because each reflects the creativity and excellence of our Creator.

Competition also gives us purpose.  Just as completing NCAA tournament brackets gave me a reason to watch the basketball games, our existence on earth is likewise given purpose in the activity of competing for the hearts and lives of men and women.  The apostle Paul calls us to compete in this way when he writes, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize?  Run in a way that you may obtain the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24).  His words describe a heavenly prize, and clearly our success in achieving that goal will be marked by our ability to compete.  Often we Christians rest contentedly in our lifestyles, believing our actions testify to the fact that we are God’s people.  Are we, though, passionately competing for the Lord’s name to be glorified on earth?  This aim is an imperishable prize, one that we cannot even comprehend – a splendor so much greater than the momentary glory we can obtain here on earth!  Are we competing for that prize with zeal and passion, as intensely as we do when the rewards seem more tangible?

Healthy Competition

How do we maintain a wholesome view of competition when the concept is being grossly distorted all around us?  The task is hard, terribly hard.  Our desire to be the best can tempt us to covet; we crave a measure of talent equal to that of the next person, or we yearn to lay claim to the reward earned by another.  We wish for something that is not ours; thus our competitiveness is fueled not by a desire to maximize our abilities, but rather a longing for fame and honor.  Just as our motives in worship are never completely pure, neither will our competitive impulses, while we are on earth, be one hundred percent right.  However, we are still called to worship – and to compete – to the best of our ability. 

I’ve heard many people comment that certain coaches and players are “too competitive,” usually in a manner that implies that competitiveness is a bad thing.  For example, when all players on a team don’t get to play in a game, the coach is often criticized for taking winning too seriously.  This insistence that all players on a team should get equal playing time, regardless of their different levels of ability, is a call for the removal of competition.  Though competition has been grossly distorted by sin, at its root it is a tool that pushes teams and individuals to be better.  Speaking from a player’s perspective, I wouldn’t want a teammate or a coach who wasn’t competitive.

I’ve played team sports on both sides of the bench; by that I mean I’ve been a starter and a “bench warmer.”  During the years when I sat the bench, I remember my dad asking me, “How are you contributing to the team?  How are you making this team better?”  I was obviously not going to make the team better, at that point in time, by playing on the court in a game; yet my father still urged me to help them compete, and to compete myself.  If not for his challenge, I might have grown frustrated and mad because I wanted to play and saw no purpose in sitting on the bench.  Instead I focused on being an encourager before, after, and during games; I focused on being a light for Christ on a team where some players did not know Him as their King.  I loved that season.  I felt like I was contributing the best of myself, and I took pride in that, because that was where God had placed me.  As I look back on that experience now, over ten years later, I only have one regret.  At the same time that I felt I was helping the team, I was also hurting it.  I became content in allowing my encouragement and my witness to be my only roles, in being the one who didn’t play in the game.  As a result, I didn’t work as hard or pay attention quite as closely as others.  Therefore, I was weaker player; and because the team had to practice against me, I provided little help in strengthening the team.  I would not be an experienced player who could fill the void as other players began to graduate, because I had become satisfied to sit on the bench.  Why?  I made that choice because doing so, while contenting myself with other roles, was easier.  Instead of pouring my heart into improving my basketball skills and still coming up short, I opted not to desire – not to risk and be hurt.

Much of the struggle with competition is rooted in this fear of being hurt.  It hurts to lose.  We make excuses for our failings, because then we don’t feel so bad.  Often we want to shield kids from competing; sometimes we even decide to play games without keeping score.  Though that isn’t a wrong thing to do, we need to be careful that we aren’t doing it because we want to keep kids from losing.  When we compete and do not win, we often will ache because we’ve fallen short of our goal.  However, that shouldn’t lead us to believe there is something bad about the fact that someone has to lose.  Losing is not wrong; losers are not bad.  Paul Westphal, as coach of the Phoenix Suns, remembered former Boston Celtic star John Havlicek’s approach to competition.  “He said the reason he liked to take the last-second shot is because he had enough confidence to deal with failure.  Failure is part of success.  If you’re afraid to fail, you’re never gonna succeed.”  As Christians we should easily find this confidence in the midst of competition, since we know our value and place in God’s kingdom is not based on anything we do.  Regardless of whether we fail or succeed, our worth rests in the fact the King of the Universe created us and died for our transgressions.  We must not, then, allow a desire not to lose – a fear of failure and hurt – to impede our desire to win.  Developing a healthy view of losing is critical to developing a healthy view of competition.

For What Will You Compete?

We cannot be the best at all things; I don’t believe we will be able to do that in heaven, either.  Therefore, we have to set priorities and decide which things in our lives are worth the energies of our competition.  God created each of us with different abilities, and he placed us in teams and families and churches; so that we, as individuals, might use our gifts to benefit the whole.

Despite the challenges and rewards of my playing career, I didn’t continue to play out my career out on the basketball court.  I had to make a choice about where I would compete, and I chose to spend my time and efforts in trying to “become the best” in other pursuits.  I continue to compete in our annual “March Madness” duel, not because I strongly feel God has given me gifts in that area; nor because He sees value in my being the best at picking which team will win, but simply because it’s fun.  The activity is something my husband and I can do and enjoy together.  I don’t spend hours pouring over stats and following every team, because though I enjoy winning the contest, that prize doesn’t mean as much to me as the other things for which I compete.  I compete for my marriage; I compete for the hearts of my children.  I compete in order to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward.

Likewise, set your priorities and fight for them.  Whether or not you are an athlete, compete to win the imperishable prize, and chose those areas in which you will compete carefully, so that your time will best be spent in glorifying and enjoying our God.

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Kara Hartman is a homeschooling mother of four who has taught and coached in a Christian school setting.

To discuss this article directly with Kara, or to add your own comments to this discussion, please use the comments box below.  We'd appreciate hearing your perspective!

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Republished from Passion in Play (January/February 2004) - Copyright © 2004 NCSAA

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