I love to win. I am aggressively competitive when placed in almost any sport (athletic or not), game (group or individual), or competition (from pie-eating to obstacle course). I grew up on American Gladiators and Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. Who is the most athletic, the luckiest, the smartest intellect? We live in a culture of compete or perish. The goal is to succeed and not just more than the other guy, but make sure he doesn’t succeed at all because it might challenge your successes. But in a not-so-surprising news flash: this is a terrible way to live.
And yet we bring it into ministry, we bring it into work, and we even allow competition to flourish at home. We want to have more people at our church than the other churches, we want to be recognized above everyone else at work and we want more attention, recognition, “deserved” down-time and gratitude at home for all the things that we do. But this is not of God — it’s pride. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis has said it excellently:
Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.
We see a vivid picture of this in the person of John the Baptist. In John 3:22-30 we hear of an early story from the ministry of Jesus. Not too long after the encounter with Nicodemus, he returns to the Judean countryside with his disciples and is preaching and baptizing (technically, his disciples were doing the baptizing; John 4:2). But the very interesting thing about it is that John the Baptist happened to be near by, also preaching and baptizing. And some of John’s disciples come to him and say, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan (Jesus), to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him” (John 3:26).
Competition. “You came first, you told people about him. Why would they be going to him, obviously you came first, you deserve the greater attention. Aren’t you mad about this? Shouldn’t you say something? We’ll be forgotten, no one is following us anymore. Before long, they will all be following him instead.” You can hear the panic in their voices. Jesus has moved into town, and he’s stealing the ministry! There’s plenty of water here, we can all do a little baptizing.
This attitude saturates all of us. We hurt for our own recognition, our own attention, our own kingdom. Ever since the first sin of Adam — contriving to take for himself that which was only God’s — we’ve been doing the same thing. We compete with each other, and ultimately, we even try to steal God’s glory. I too am a glory thief. And you are too. It might not be as defined, as pronounced as being super competitive, but there is something in which your recognition is more important to you; your appreciation; your importance. But in John the Baptist we see something spectacular, a glory giver.
John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:27-30, ESV)
John steps out of the game, the competition and declares something completely counter cultural, “there’s got to be less of me, and more of Christ.” John was building a kingdom, it just wasn’t for himself. And it didn’t bring worry and fear and envy to him, it brought joy. In both this account, and also in that of Nicodemus, we see two pictures that stand in stark contrast to that of the Pharisees. While they were in competition, these were in collusion. They worked with, not against Christ. Don’t you want to as well?
The only thing “healthy” about competition is when it draws us together to do more to build up the kingdom of God — but I’m pretty sure the word for that is “cooperation.” In fact, the only time we really see this idea of competing within the church, is in Romans 12:10 where Paul says to “outdo one another in showing honor.”
Do you want a competition in your church, amongst other ministries, or with those that you work or live with? See which of you can show the most honor to the other, who can love most genuinely, who can give most generously and who can serve most humbly. And never be satisfied that you are honoring others better than they honor you — and strive to decrease yourself to let Christ live all the more in you.
How do you contribute to the health of your church? What do you do to show others honor?