Competition & Christ: Compatible?
Shawn McEvoyShawn McEvoy is the Director of Editorial for Salem Web Network.
- 2008 Aug 13
“For me sport was a religion... with religious sentiment.”
--Pierre de Coubertin, French educator, primarily responsible for the revival of the Olympic Games in 1894.
Whenever a group of highly-competitive Christian sport fans get together to talk about, well, highly-competitive Christian sport fans, the banter is likely to be revealing, even thought-provoking.
It all started when I, in my work capacity, came across a very good article on Christianity Today by Collin Hansen titled, “You Trying to Say Jesus Christ Can’t Hit a Curveball?” In it, Hansen, a Christian and Kansas City Royals fan, notes how gleefully many fans (and even managers) turn their ire and blame upon Christian athletes they perceive as soft. Finding it interesting, I passed the link on to my group of 12 Christian friends from my fantasy baseball league. I didn’t anticipate the comments that followed, which appear below, seeking to answer the question of how important sports and competition have become to us – and whether they run counter to the life Jesus called us to.
The quotations that appear between the various takes are not necessarily from Christian sources, and that’s by design. They also weren’t part of the original conversation. I include them only as a way to continue the thought process regarding how the world views competition/sport, how we should view it, and whether those views have become too similar or not.
The discussion was started by an unlikely source, a guy those of us who know him wouldn’t have expected the following words from…
The article Shawn linked to leads me to an interesting question that I have been asking myself lately, and haven't come to any kind of real conclusion. I thought I might ask it to anyone on this board who might want to share their thoughts. Especially since just about everyone playing in this league is competitive in some way.
Should we as Christians even be competitive? I know from scripture we read Paul saying run the race to win, but he is obviously talking about going all out to live the Christian life. But most everywhere else I see where God says do your best, but doesn't really talk about measuring yourself against others.
I do see where competition leads to negative things such as loss of perspective (I think I'm guilty of this more than anyone), jealousy and bitterness, and a focus on putting yourself first.
On the other hand, I haven't really been able to find a lot of positives (outside of a worldly perspective) in competing.
Over and over again I see where Christ tells us to put ourselves second to others, to live a humble life, and to strive to serve.
So in my heart I have always wondered if because in our fallen humanity we naturally compete for everything (attention, women, awards, benefits, etc.) that we have spiritualized competition. We believe not only is it okay, but we start our children out early competing, telling ourselves we are teaching them to be good sports. But what if we didn't train them to compete in the first place?
Just wondering what you guys think.
--Russell Baker, American journalist and columnist
We do tend to spiritualize anything we really want to do. It's almost comical how God ends up liking most of the things you do, hating the people you do and being the pitch-man for all your causes.
However, maturity begins to look different - kinda like Daniel’s post above. "Hey, I'm not sure that I am looking like Jesus here..."
“The medals don't mean anything and the glory doesn't last. It's all about your happiness. The rewards are going to come, but my happiness is just loving the sport and having fun performing.”
--Jackie Joyner-Kersee, American athlete
This is why God sent me to a church and town that doesn't even have church-league softball, so I have no outlet to compete with people. That way, I can't blow my image with people by "losing it" on a field of play.
As for raising your kids up, is this Daniel's "out" in case his sons turn out to not be athletic? And, does this mean I shouldn’t pray to have a left-handed son who possesses a 95 mph fastball and great slow curve so that I can have one of the aforementioned article’s Christian athletes in the Jones fold?
“I hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense.”
I'm thinking Dan came back from [his church-planting trip to] Phoenix and saw his two sons playing with dolls and having a tea party while watching soap operas, and he realized that his kids weren't going to make it to the majors. So now he is trying to get the rest of us to buy into this Christians don't compete stuff. I don't buy it. My kids will beat up your kids, and make millions of dollars due to their looks and athletic ability. Case closed. That is just life :-).
Okay, seriously, good question. Hadn't thought about that before. Can't we just stick to surface stuff and not wander off into preacher land?
“Sports is the toy department of human life.”
Interesting conversation from you there Dan - especially in light of our prior conversation regarding Terrell Owens and whether we care about ethics versus production on the field in who we cheer for. This is a very similar situation where competition is great... but competition done badly is the whole problem in my mind.
I think just like with scripture, you have to look at context and culture of the day. Sports as we know them today weren't around as much back then. There are, however, plenty of proverbs about pride, which tends to lend itself to this discussion.
I think to teach competition builds character, endurance, sportsmanship, camaraderie, and community. Not to mention the chance to have access to folks who are far from Jesus as we join other parents in the bleachers and booster clubs. We get to use those opportunities to enjoy sport and be “Jesus with skin on” to our neighbors...
I do think to say, “I'm here to win and not make friends” - as has been said by someone in this league (probably in jest) - is the wrong approach and I definitely wouldn't want to teach my kid that type of attitude.
“It is better to go skiing and think of God, than go to church and think of sport.”
Good Competition: Watch Chariots of Fire. Great movie, and this very subject is a big part of the story.
Bad Competition: The Missouri youth pastor who gave one of his youth a swift kick in the crotch because he got pegged in the face playing dodge ball (Isn't that the whole point of the game?!).
Since right now my son seems to be left-hand dominant I am all for competition. If he turns out to be soft then I think competition is evil.
Of course, if we take a poll and decide competition is not a good thing then we have to stop the fantasy baseball season now. You can mail the trophy to my home address, thanks.
“Sports do not build character. They reveal it.”
--John Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach
Jay Sampson (again)
Clearly my team is the Christian team and wants no part of the competition. They apparently prefer to serve others and die to themselves that others might live.
Blasted Christian fantasy players.
“Despite the amazing diversity we're blessed with in this country, schools are still in large part segregated because of economic disparity. Sports are one of the few areas where kids are really given the opportunity to interact with those of different races and religions.”
First, who logged in as Daniel? And what did you do with him?
Anyway, I've mulled those same thoughts many times. I also like Mike's counter-point from Chariots of Fire. But this whole idea of what's important, required, and suggested of us from Christ, Paul, and elsewhere in the Bible honestly has little to do with sports -- or at least, competitive sports as anything more than a job to those who earn a living by it, or anything more than a mere entertainment, exercise, or opportunity for fellowship for those who would watch it or participate in it. But it's not just sports.
Jangling around in my mind of late - especially around this past Easter - is the idea that those apostles and disciples were so convinced the Lord had risen, so enlivened by that fact and the things they suddenly "got" about what He'd been teaching and what they knew from the Old Testament prophecies, that all they could do was drop everything and tell people the amazing, unbelievable, life-giving news. Mortgages didn't matter, neither mowing the lawn, nor the fact my Dodgers still can't come up with timely hits. It was only about their lives being gloriously turned upside-down and telling people about that triumph of God's love and design. Wasn't about taking a political stand, caring how much they had to pay in taxes, or even condemning fellow sinners for their struggles.
What am I doing here? I'm certain there's honor - both worldly and Kingdom-ly, in the kind of father I am to my kids, in the kind of work I do, etc. But I profess to believe the same things that those who cared not for their own safety at the birth of Christianity believed. What do I give for that? Nothing. Nay, in fact, I pray that any inconveniences would stay away, and I hope each day that it will be easy enough that I might stay awake to watch Baseball Tonight, and consider that a good day (at least on days Barry Zito didn't pitch I do).
How did this happen? And are these the same things I want
No answers yet. Still just thoughts... And I'm glad Daniel brought it up.
“Our philosophy proceeds from the belief that sport is an inalienable part of the educational process and a factor for promoting peace, friendship, cooperation and understanding among peoples.”
--Juan Antonio Samaranch
This is a subject that has come up in our church. We have started an Upward basketball league, and there have been two different schools of thought. The first theory is the league’s purpose is to teach the kids, give them self-esteem, and expose them to the love of Christ and that’s it. If some rules are not enforced, that’s ok, because we don't want to make anyone mad. The second theory is this is a basketball league; that - even though we do not keep win/loss standings – it should be about winning games, along with the esteem/teaching/salvation aspect of the ministry.
I believe that in this situation, we need to put on the very best basketball league that we can to give us every opportunity to share the real love of Christ as many times as possible. A poorly run league (ignoring rules/changing competitive balance) does not build up anyone or encourage people to bring their children back to play in the league next year.
I know I might not have a popular opinion, but I believe that we should be teaching kids - and living it out ourselves - to compete to the very best of their ability, that winning or losing will come as a result of personal effort. I am as competitive as the next person, but if the other person/team is better than I am, then good for them. If I am better than them then good for me. I will teach my children to be the best they can be, but if being the best comes at the expense of others or by cheating, then that is not cool. Jesus never pulled punches, but He also never flaunted His superiority either.
I guess this might not be exactly what we are discussing, but it is in the neighborhood.
“Sports play a societal role in engendering jingoist and chauvinist attitudes. They're designed to organize a community to be committed to their gladiators.”
--Noam Chomsky, American linguist
Jay Sampson (again)
Jesus has interesting perspective on winning/losing. This is one of the reasons that the concept of Jesus is so hard. Jesus doesn't really have to compete. When losing is winning and winning is winning because You are the Author of the outcome and the steps in between, you probably don't get so engrossed/obsessed with the process (that is, competition).
Maybe those of us who follow Jesus are to walk in the same way, knowing that the Father is the Author of our days. We don’t need to worry… but why do we worry? Because we don't trust that God really will do or provide what He said. Or worse, we're not real jazzed with the whole last-shall-be-first thing because we want our stuff now, not later.
That said, as we've mentioned, Paul talks about running the race (of faith) in such a way as not to have passed on the message and never taken part in it. To that end, he says he disciplines himself like an athlete, not running nowhere and not punching the air. He encourages folks to live their life unto God like that - with a goal of righteousness, being temperate and mindful of the things which would distract or bind them once again to the law of death. So, competition can be healthy ("outdo one another in love"), but unhealthy competition is less about winning and losing than it is about being exalted, haughty, and prideful.
Or something like that. Therefore, maybe my message to my kids isn't "be better than everyone else and God will love you" (ouch, how western-religious is that?), but rather: use everything that God has given you to its utmost measure because you can. Enjoy what He has given you the ability to do and in that glorify the One who gave that to you. At the same time, be humble enough to recognize that it is a gift.
I love it when guys thump their chest about what a great athlete they are - as if they had anything to do with being 6'8"... sure, they may have honed it, but listen, Peter Brady never grew an inch by hanging from that stupid swing-set...
I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man's failures.
--Earl Warren, American Republican politician and judge
Daniel Scott (again)
That's some good stuff. I understand the thought of doing everything to the best of your ability, and in doing so if you enjoy some form of entertainment you will probably be faced with competition.
I guess the real struggle is balancing how to compete when the whole idea of competition seems, to me, today, anti-Christ. Competition even in its purest form is trying to best the other person, trying to exploit his weaknesses for your gain. It’s trying to gain the upper hand (of course within the rules), and doing so even when you realize that doing such will probably knock the other guy down not build him up.
Yes, there is the argument that if I beat that person he will be pushed to try harder, but then doesn’t that person’s focus become beating you or the next person? The whole idea of competition is to find out where you stand next to the other person or team, how you “measure up.”
In all of that Jesus seems to say the exact opposite. He’s already told you how you measure up in God’s eyes. And the only thing that matters is how we allow God to constantly morph and mold us into looking as Christ-like as possible. Well Christ seems to be all about service and putting people first. I know this sounds cheesy [Editor’s note: Yes, extremely], but if Jesus was in a basketball game and the score was tied and the guy he was guarding had the ball, would Jesus swat his shot, or have compassion on him, perhaps realizing if the player got swatted his team would be mad and he would feel terrible?
I guess one problem is that we don’t necessarily see sports in the Bible. We don’t see all the tribes of
In a perfect world maybe we could compete without the issue of measuring ourselves, but I have never been able to do that, and wouldn’t even know how to go about teaching it. Heck, even in the church, what seems to be the first question by which one minister sizes up another? “So how many you runnin’ in worship?”
We have too much down-time and even the busiest person in the world is competing in their job and life. I mean, we can say it matters about what your intentions are in competing, or your perspective or whatever, but in the end I still have that open question: would Jesus send it to the seats, let him score, or none of the above? In a purely eternal perspective - which the Lord calls us to live in - does it matter?
I love sport because I love life, and sport is one of the basic joys of life.
--Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Russian poet
Okay, so we didn’t really decide anything, pretty much coming full-circle, and some of us we were just plain silly, which is a good thing when you’re getting close to otherwise taking yourselves too seriously. But every once in a while an examination like this of the things you love and value and the reasons you love and value them is healthy.
If you’ve got a take on this subject, I’d love to hear from you, too.
For each individual, sport is a possible source for inner improvement.
--Pierre de Coubertin (again)