Competition

Competition July 12, 2020

Peggy Marco: Competition / pixabay

Competition can be good for us, but only if we use it to make ourselves better. If we use it to undermine someone else, to dishonor them, to make them ashamed, then we turn away from the good which is possible with competition. Trying to be the best we can be should also serve to make others the best they can be.

Competition is communal in nature. It requires us to consider more than ourselves. When competition is used to make everyone better, its communal nature remains intact. When, however, it is used to prop some people up at the expense of others, then that communal nature is lost. Such competition, promoting a particular good at the expense of the common good, will end up harming everyone, because then competition is no longer about being the best one can be, but only about how to triumph over others. When some see all they have to do is undermine the competition, they will then not strive for their own perfection, and so they will find their own talents, their own abilities, slowly being undermined by sloth.

St. Paul, realizing the good possible with competition, suggests the way which we can best embrace the spirit of competition as Christians:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;  love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord (Rom. 12:9-11 RSV).

We are called to compete with each other in how we love one another, with each of us seeking to “outdo one another” in our acts of love. The greater love we have, the more we will do what we can for the other, lifting them up. Then, they, likewise, should take the good which they have gained and use it to act with even greater love towards us. The more we love someone, the more we will honor them, and the more, likewise, they will reciprocate such love towards us.

Competing with each other in how we will show each other love will not lead us to greater pride, but rather, greater humility, for as we develop such great love for others, we will die to the self even more, losing sight of ourselves as we think of and do what we can for our beloved. Thus, St. John Chrysostom explains, the more gifts we receive from God, the greater love we shall have, and the more we will compete with one another in sharing those gifts. The humility which develops as a result will prevent us from becoming conceited due to the gifts God has given us:

Since then he had sufficiently comforted them, he wishes also to make them vie with each other, and labor more in earnest, by showing that it is themselves that give the grounds for their receiving more or less. For he says indeed that it is given by God (as when he says, “according as God has dealt to every man the measure of faith;” and again, “according to the grace given unto us”), that he may subdue the haughty. But he says also that the beginnings lie with themselves, to rouse the listless. And this he does in the Epistle to the Corinthians also, to produce both these emotions. For when he says, “covet earnestly the gifts,”, he shows that they were themselves the cause of the differences in what was given. But when he says, “Now all these things works one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will”, he is proving that those who have received it ought not to be elated, so using every way open to him to allay their disorder. And this he does here also. And again, to rouse those who have fallen drowsy, he says, “Whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith.” For though it is a grace, yet it is not poured forth at random, but framing its measure according to the recipients, it lets as much flow as it may find the vessel of faith that is brought to be capable of.[1]

Similarly, we can also encourage one another in our zeal for God by competing with each other in finding ways to best express that zeal. This is what Nicholas Cusa suggested should happen when people from diverse beliefs and cultures come into the church: they can and should use their cultural heritage to help compete with each other as they promote greater forms of religious devotion.[2] We should compete, then, to make the other better, not as a way to glorify ourselves. We compete, knowing that such competition, when done in a godly manner, leads to our mutual edification; the key is to compete in a selfless, loving manner, with the desire that those we compete against should be made better by the challenge established in such competition.  And it is in this manner that we can understand what Paul wrote as ways in which such competition could be established:

Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them (Rom 12: 12- 14 RSV).

We are called to encourage each other by promoting mutual hope. We can and should do so as a kind of competition, where we try to outdo each other in helping those in need, so that, through such love and devotion, hope itself increases, not just in us, but in those who need it most.

Of course, there are many other ways which we can compete with each other for our own mutual benefit; the point is to recognize our own spiritual progression should not be had in isolation with others. A block of stone, by itself, will always be a block of stone, and we, by ourselves, will never move outside of ourselves. We become paralyzed and stuck; to overcome such paralysis, we will have to overcome ourselves. We must accept the grace which Christ shares with us through the people he puts in our lives. Jesus, after all, seeks to bring his healing grace to all, to help us all get beyond our spiritual paralysis, similar to the way he helped people move beyond their own physical paralysis:

And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts?  For which is easier, to say, `Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, `Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the paralytic — “Rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home.  When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men (Matt. 9:2-8 RSV).

God, it is said, had given authority to us to bring healing, spiritual and physical healing, to others. That authority is given to us by our connection with Jesus. It is realized by us insofar as we follow after Christ, and do his work. We can and should find many ways to promote the actualization of that authority, but one of the most important, most basic for us is found in godly competition, where we use the grace and love which we have received and use it to help each other lift ourselves beyond ourselves, working, not merely for some particular good, but for the good of all.


[1] Sr. John Chrysostom, “Homilies on Romans” in NPNF1(11): 501 [Homily 21].

[2] See Nicholas of Cusa, De Pace Fidei [c. xix].

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