Shirl Hoffman suggests Christians cannot avoid competing when they walk onto the football field or basketball court. But competition occurs not simply in sports. It occurs in all of life. That leaves every one of us—not only our athletes—with the question: How can we compete Christianly? Robert C. Roberts, professor of philosophy and psychology at Wheaton College, offers the following helpful thoughts.

Saint Paul’s fundamental image of the church is not that of a group of individuals in competition with each other—as for instance our schools and businesses and governments tend to be—but of a single body made up of many members, mutually supporting and supplementing one another, helping one another and praying for one another. There may be a hierarchy of command in the church, but we have from Paul the picture of a society in which the ascendancy of one person over another for the sake of excellence or survival is completely ruled out.

Does this mean that Christians must never run marathons to win, or root for their football team, or try to make their own college the best one in the world? Where there is winning there has to be losing. Is it inconsistent with Christian principles to want to win when that means somebody has to lose?

There are two kinds of competition, which we need to keep clearly distinct. Or to put the matter another way, there are two spirits in which competition can be practiced.

Competition in the spirit of tooth and claw is not sport, even if it takes place in the context of “sports”; it is competition for “survival,” in which the stakes are something like “life and death.” Here the competitor is either an enemy or in imminent danger of shading off into one. The competitors in this kind of “game” know that to lose is to be degraded in some essential sense. I am not thinking only of physical competitions, but also of the subtle, destructive, and unacknowledged one-upmanship that colleagues and family members and fellow students and church members play with one another.

People who are competitive in this way exude a seductive and predatory spirit in which all their activities proclaim an invitation that is hard to resist: “I would like to engage you in a struggle for self-esteem. If I win, you are nothing; if you win, I am nothing. Or to put it more modestly, I shall be more because you are less.”

The other kind of competition is in a playful spirit, and, when perfectly invested with the Holy Spirit, has no undertone of threat to anyone’s self-esteem. However hard the competitors play against each other, there is the enormous plasticity of humor in which loss is ultimately inconsequential, and winning equally so, and the real winner is everybody concerned.

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Humor: Key To Competitition

Humor is the key to the spirit of competition I am commending. Most people are not aware how important humor is to Christian spirituality, but Søren Kierkegaard had it right when he called Christianity “the most humorous view of life in world-history.” The Christian is in this world but not of it, his life being hid with Christ in God. His sense of identity and self-worth is not ultimately bound up with successes and achievements and recognition, though he enters with gusto into the activities of this life.

He enters in all right, but with a new objectivity and distance. Christ cuts him loose from the world’s way of reckoning, thus making it possible for him to take a playful attitude toward all contests. The Christian knows that the desire to be admired for being outstanding is really just a tragic perversion of the desire to be loved for being oneself. And so, when the Christian wins the admiration of others, it makes no deep impression on him; and when he loses, it also makes no deep impression. He “laughs off” wins and losses with equal ease.

Healthy competitiveness ultimately perceives the opponent as a fellow, not as an alien, and presupposes something like love. Humor enables this perception by casting the competitor in a human light and putting the priorities in the right order. The ground of our sense of humor is the love of God, which has been lavished on us in Jesus Christ. It liberates us from the spirituality of the jungle by removing from the competitive arena the issue of our survival.

Of course, I am not saying that a Christian sense of humor is easy to achieve; on the contrary, it is exactly as difficult as being a Christian is. Sin and death have a way of clinging to us. This sense of humor is a trait of mature individuals, and like maturity in general, it is found only rarely among Christians. Yet the ideal remains.

Away From Tooth And Claw

What are some ways we can manage competitiveness, so as to foster healthy competition and discourage the spirit of tooth and claw?

Tooth-and-claw competitiveness is a dehumanized way of “focusing” on other people, which typically derives its energy from a desperate concern for self-esteem. So it requires a double-pronged attack: A person needs to find other “terms” in which to focus the world, and needs to be given a different, more adequate locus of self-esteem.

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Let us say you are a grade-school teacher, and in the midst of a spelling bee the spirit of tooth-and-claw begins to raise its ugly head. A couple of the children are inflated over their superior performance, and the ones who do poorly are being made the object of mumbled derision. What can you do to help the children—winners and losers alike—reconceptualize this situation in healthier and more playful and loving terms? How about telling a story at this point, of “When I Lost the Most Important Spelling Bee of My Life”? Your story puts the catastrophe of losing a spelling bee in a comic light. You get the children laughing at your folly, with a couple of effects.

Upon the losers it begins to dawn vividly that doing well in a spelling bee is not a matter of life and death. Perhaps even their losing is something they could laugh at! And the winners may be deflated and humanized by their own laughter at you. The teacher (whom students respect) is like them, those aliens, the nerds and dodos! (Could it be that they’re human after all?) Your humor detaches the competition, to some extent, from the issue of self-respect.

It is important that you accomplish this by making yourself, rather than any of them, the object of laughter. By becoming an object of their common laughter, you make yourself a mediator and reconciler, breaking down the dividing wall of hostility between them.

A second strategy for heading off unspiritual competitiveness is that of providing a deeper basis and locus for self-esteem. One who is able to keep a sense of humor about all his competitions signals that winning is not a survival-issue for him. His soul is anchored elsewhere.

The gospel of God’s love is the great and final foundation of any human being’s self-esteem. To the extent that our sense of worth is composed upon any other base, it is in danger of the quakes and floods of circumstance. The other bases, however, stand in varying degrees of analogy to the love of God. Love from other human beings, when it comes close to being unconditional, is a kind of shadow of the love of God, and seems, furthermore, to be a necessary medium through which that love is learned. Innocent creative acts, like carving something beautiful out of wood or singing a song well, are also a natural source of self-respect. On the other end of the spectrum, self-esteem erected upon the foundation of fancy cars and habitations, power over others, lists of accomplishments, a world boxing championship, and the like, is so remote from what true human nature demands as to be downright inhuman.

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The Competitor As Child

What can we do to instill in our children a sense of worth that will minimize the seductiveness of tooth-and-claw competition? We can try to enable them to have some experiences that are as closely analogous as possible to experience of the grace of God.

When Jimmy comes home and announces that he is the champion speller in the class, this should be acknowledged matter-of-factly (and certainly not with disapproval), but with no dramatic show of affection. The lavishing of affection and attention on him should be reserved for times when no winning or losing is at issue or in sight. Jimmy should grow up with the implicit sense that you have time for him, that he is important to you. When you hug him (and this should be pretty often), the act should be as unconnected as possible with his good looks, his intelligence, his athletic abilities, and so forth. In general, give the child a strong sense of being loved and approved, but tie this as little as you can to his sense of being a “winner.”

Jimmy may be a champion speller, but when it comes to gym, he consistently places last. Being often humiliated, he “hates” gym. His tendency is to find his sense of worth in connection with the more intellectual activities and simply avoid the athletic whenever he can. If you are a person who places a very high value on athletic prowess, you may have a hard time not feeling disappointed in your boy. In fact, you may even nag him and try to push him—even shame him—into greater accomplishments. If you do these things you are training him for the spirituality of tooth and claw.

No doubt, he will not make his claws out of athletics, but he will look for some way in which to “establish” himself, since he will not feel established in “grace.” It seems to me that the correct strategy is to give Jimmy the sense that you empathize with his humiliations, that you, at any rate, are “with” him in his failures. Thus you reflect, in a dim and distant way, the everlasting arms of the Father of mercies, “who comforts us in all our affliction.”

ROBERT C. ROBERTSRobert C. Roberts is professor of philosophy and psychological studies at Wheaton (Ill.) College. His latest book is The Strength of a Christian (Westminster, 1984). He is currently at work on a text about the philosophy of virtue.

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