Recently a friend recommended a book to me, David Prince’s In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship. If you know me at all, you can understand the book’s appeal. However, I mention the book to you in this post, not because of its general merits, but because of its merit in the “Outward” portion of our teaching series. One idea from the book captured my attention as I thought about CPC’s outward focus and efforts – in our evangelism and outreach, are we competing for souls?
Sadly, there is a faulty idea prevalent in some Christian circles that competition is somehow wrong because competition “isn’t nice.” To put it another way, some view competition as un-Christian because it brings out the worst in people. To a certain degree, I understand this perspective. Competition, whether in athletics, business, or any other endeavor, can (and often does) get quite messy and nasty. Those who seek to win at all costs will cheat, lie, manipulate, lose their tempers, treat others cruelly harshly, and sin in countless other ways. Those who covet the trophies of victory will engage in a scorched earth policy, dropping verbal and physical napalm upon all who stand between them and their desired prize. Without question, such things frequently occur during competition.
Nevertheless, to the critics of competition I would say, “Competition does not cause sin; it reveals sin.” The problem is not competition (external action); the problem is a sinful heart (interior corruption). Competition and adversity are deeply related because all competitors have adversaries (sometimes friendly, sometimes not). As the old cultural proverb goes, “Adversity does not build character; it reveals it.” Thus, adversity/competition does not change someone into something new. It simply shows who a person already is. I would argue this is a net positive, truly a gracious act of God. As you and I engage in competition, whatever form it might take, God is using those external circumstances to show us our internal condition.
Another net positive resulting from competition is the goal of improving. No matter the game or task, someone else will always be better, in one way or another. If I apply this to myself, I realize there will always be a better pastor, preacher, teacher, father, husband, writer, speaker, coach, leader…you get the point! Acknowledging my “shortcomings” in those areas does not diminish the value of what I can contribute in the present, but it does remind me that I need to improve in the future. More than anything else, such need for improvement reminds me that I am not God; neither are those against whom I compete. The high and lofty standard for which I should be reaching is not a human standard, but a divine calling. I cannot be God but I should “compete” with other believers to become more and more like him (as we imitate his character and reflect his glory).
The last net positive of competition I will mention (though there are many more) is mutual benefit. Think about economics. Which type of economy produces better products with higher quality in greater quantity at lower prices with more innovation – communism/socialism or the free market? History has shown it is the free market, but why? A free-market economy encourages competition, whereas socialism stifles and/or eliminates competition. From a biblical standpoint, a free-market economy “trusts” God’s sovereignty to be greater than the sum of man’s sinfulness (even amidst sometimes cutthroat, ugly competition), whereas a socialist economy strives to establish paradise on earth through men’s efforts (the very inclination of sinful human hearts).
The thrill of competing against others, rightly understood, is not a sinful desire to compare oneself to others. It is, in fact, a righteous desire to know oneself. As Christians, it should be a barometer for gauging how much we truly believe the truth, “My identity is found in Christ.”
When we compete for God’s glory, what are we doing? We are competing for God’s glory!!! Just let that sink in for a moment… Competing to know, to love, to serve, and to proclaim the only true God, the God of our salvation… an environment in which everything we do and everyone against whom we compete is a catalyst for cultivating Christlikeness… I do not know about you, but to me, that sounds like paradise.
Now, what does all of this have to do with “The Church: Outward”? Well, just consider the language of Scripture:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. ~ 1 Peter 5:8-9 (my emphasis)
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. ~ 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
How many others passages in Scripture are replete with the language of competition, warfare, striving, fighting, opposing? Are we not ourselves always engaged in spiritual warfare? Are we not caught in the middle of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, the forces of light vs. the forces of darkness, the kingdom of God vs. the kingdoms of men and Satan? Whether we want to compete or not, we are engaged in a cosmic, spiritual competition.
So I ask you, when others look at your life, do they see someone competing for God’s glory in all circumstances, or do they see someone who would rather cling to the false peace of passivity? When others look at CPC, do they see a group of people striving with each other for greater Christlikeness, or do they see another dying social club still running through the same old motions? In our evangelism and outreach, do we compete consistently, graciously, and truthfully when telling others about Christ’s victory, or do we forfeit the good news of that victory by waving the white flag of surrender at the first sign of opposition? Do we wholly trust Christ alone as the one who has already won the victory and God alone as the one who wins souls to himself, or do we try to compete with Christ’s victory by listing how many people “I have won to Christ”?
Brothers and Sisters, every one of us competes for souls every day. At the very least, we compete for the salvation of our own souls when fight against our sinful flesh, the world, and Satan. None of us can win the victory because the gospel tells us Christ has already won the victory. We simply continue competing with all our being because we know that those who compete by faith in Christ have already won. For faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the sincere conviction of things not yet seen.
I will end with a quote that I first read in David Prince’s In the Arena, a quote that should resonate with all of us who strive daily toward the victory celebration at Christ’s return:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”~ Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic”