Cain saw himself in competition with Abel, and did not like it when Yahweh God accepted Abel's offering but not Cain's. (It seems that Abel gave of his best while Cain just probably didn't.) God gave the challenge to Cain to do better next time, but Cain chose to see himself in competition with Abel, and deliberately got rid of him by killing him.
Might we even see the seeds of the competitive attitude in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent tempted Eve with being "like God"? If Satan is a fallen angel, was it because he saw God as a rival, in competition with him?
Competition is so much part of our Western culture - whether it is for glory in sport, or business competition, or competition between nations and great powers - that we take it for granted. But was competition really what God intended for the Creation?
Did God compete with Humanity for glory? Did God not come down to the Garden of Eden to walk and fellowship with the humans? Was there not love? Did not God give humans the dignity of shepherding the rest of Creation, rather than treating humans as mere slaves or robots?
Abraham was a friend of God and understood something of God's ways and attitudes. So, when there was resource-conflict between his shepherds and those of Lot, and decided they must separate, did Abraham competitively try to get the better land for himself? Did he not rather give Lot the choice and accept it? And then, did not God honour his lack of competitiveness with a blessing?
When Israel became a kingdom, Saul treated David as a competitor, but did David treat Saul as one? Did David not rather accept Saul as Yahweh's anointed king and treat him always with honour? Even when Absalom rose up against David, did not David treat Absalom with love rather than competition?
God, Abraham and David - and we could add Moses, Samuel, and many of the prophets - all eschewed competition, rivalry and status-seeking [Note 1]. They all wanted blessing for others rather than themselves. And God blessed them for that.
When Jesus the Messiah came, did he treat others as competitors or rivals? Did he not seek the blessing of others rather than himself? He healed. He taught - and spoke against competitiveness and the demanding of status. He served. He chided his followers when they were arguing about who among them was the greatest, and told them it is the servant who is greatest, the last will be first. Even when going to his execution, Jesus spoke kindly to the women who were weeping for him, and to one of the thieves being executed with him. And, we now understand, his death was a willing sacrifice for all of us.
C.S. Lewis put it very well, into the words of the demon, Screwtape [p.92, The Screwtape Letters]:
"The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and especially that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. 'To be' means 'to be in competition.'"
First, the individual. We should not see ourselves in competition with others for status, love or wealth. Our real life will be in the New Earth, and this life here and now is only a training ground for that. It is where we learn to face up to Reality - that we together with all others, are intended to be God's representatives to the Rest of Creation, and not living for ourselves. We are invited and urged to learn the reality of our own deep sinfulness and need for a Saviour (Jesus, who died to our salvation possible, in all three of its dimensions [Note 2]) Let us no longer see ourselves in competition with each other, let us not see others as rivals, let us not seek status, but "take the lowest place" and "serve" as Jesus did. After all, we are in this together, not separately. And nevermind how many 'likes' we get. Will you impress God even with a billion likes? The real status is the one we receive at the end, when the Living God says, "Well done ..." Are we headed for that?
Second, the family, group or business. We should see ourselves, no longer in competition with each other, but collaborating with all others for bringing more and more real good into the world. No more family honour and rivalry (and in the Middle East, no more shaming or honour killings [Note 3]). In business - and especially among universities! - no more being enslaved by league tables! In the light of Eternity, it matters not a whit who was Number 1 or Number 2 in 1995 or 2025! [Note 4]
Third, on the international level of nations. Do not let fruitless competition shape our policy-making at the national level. The Living God calls all peoples to devise policies that "tend and care for" the rest of Creation. This is why, for example, we set up the website Climate Change and Global Economy. When a nation's people, from bottom to top, follow God's ways, and especially when they welcome the Gospel of Christ, then that nation succeeds for a time. Over decades, the 'seed' of the Gospel germinates, grows, flowers and brings fruit, and that nation seems to gain status in the world - but the status is not there for its own glory but because through it God can bless the rest of the world. [Note 5 But when it becomes proud, and sees its status and prosperity as something to protect and fight for, then God abandons it, to let all know that we are not there for ourselves, but to represent God to the Rest. [Note 6]
But does not competition in sport and in business help to stimulate excellence? By God's mercy, it can do so. But why should excellence be stimulated only by self-centred competition?
Can there not be other motivations? For example, what about doing things for the glory of God whom you love? (Or to please anyone you love?) Eric Liddell, as portrayed for example in the classic film Chariots of Fire entered the 1924 Olympics in the 100 metres race, but could not take part because the 100m heats were taking place on a Sunday, and he wanted to honour God by keeping his Sabbath. Instead, he entered for the 400m race, a distance for which he had not practised. So, he decided, he would give his all to the first 100m, according to his training, and leave the rest to God. Surprisingly, after running the first 100m as a sprint, he actually speeded up, and he won in a world-record time of 47.35 seconds. That, we may reasonably think, was God's doing!
Another motivation is just skill itself. While I have been writing this, Emma Raducanu has won the US Open Tennis Championship, the first qualifier to do so, and the first British woman to do so since Virginia Wade nearly 50 yaers ago. She did so without losing a single set! How? Because she focused on the play itself, and not on the fact that it was a competition - yes even in the final. She was the epitome of excellence, in both serving and returning, in accuracy of shot, and being all over the pitch fast.
So, why should not excellence and innovation be stimulated by fun, devotion, worship or even just the thrill of good work? God has designed those joys into the very fabric of the way Creation works; why not avail ourselves of them, rather than resort to competition? We can "run the race" being motivated by these, and by love, not just for "a wreath that fades." Or do we love our pride so much that we will not change our minds?
Suggestion for a research project that needs doing by some Business School: How much money has been devoted to the Project Competitiveness globally (how many trillions of dollars?), and if that money had instead be devoted to merely encouraging excellence directly, would more excellence likely have been achieved? And measure, while you are at it, the harm that this competitive ethos has left in its train, in stress, broken lives, exhausted people, broken families, forlorn unloved children, and so on.
Note 2. Salvation has three dimensions, not just one: 1. acceptance by God through the atoning death of Jesus Christ, 2. experiencing God here and now, in love and power, because the Spirit of God indwells us and grows fruit in us and transforms our very mindsets, 3. serving the Creation as mature 'sons' of God, so that our original mandate and calling to represent God to the Rest of Creation is resolved. See exposition of Romans 8 and Three Dimensions of Salvation.
Note 3. Honour killings in the Middle East. An excerpt from Good News paper, February 2020: "In the honour-shame culture of the Middle East, if a woman is raped it brings shame upon the family and they have a duty to kill her. ... One Yazidi man's three daughters were all taken by ISIS [and used as sex slaves]. If they ever returned, he faced the awful prospect of having to kill them. // But one night he saw Jesus in a dream. He recognised Jesus because Jesus showed the man his nail-pierced hands. Jesus told the man, 'You don't need to kill your daughters or anyone. I paid for everyone, so go get your daughters.'" [The dream happened three times] - one dream for each daughter. In the morning he gathered the (Yazidi) elders and told them what happened. 'Jesus showed up in my tent,' he declared to their astonishment. 'I'm going to get my girls and nobody is going to touch them.' And amazingly, he was able to find his girls in the camp [refugee camp], bring them home safely and persuade the other Yazidi men to take back their daughters without harming them. Six weeks later the camp closed and all 280 girls went back to their families."
Note 4. Pride before a fall? I remember being trained in Vision Statements in the 1990s. An airline's vision was "To be the leading airline of the 21st century." Just a few years later, it went out of business!
Note 5. Nations. God allowed the Assyria to become a powerful nation and take the Northern Israel away. God allowed Babylon to become and empire, and then Persia, to take Judah away and then return. Then Greece and Rome. Then, as in Nebuchadnezzar's dream of a four-empire statue in Daniel 2, the small rock cut out of a mountain not by human hands felled the statue and became a mountain that filled the world for all time. That rock was Christ, and his way of humility, love and service rather than pride, competition and status - and Christ's way is the one that Works, and does so for eternity. The epitome of competition was ancient Greece, and the cruelty inherent in competition was Rome. Christendom sought erroneously to follow those - though despite that, Christ's Gospel filtered through to bless the world. In his 2019 book, Dominion, historian Tom Holland shows how, even with all its faults, it is Christianity that has brought into the world the power of love and mercy rather than of competition and self-centredness. Over the past 2000 years God has allowed various nations and groups to grow in power, so that God's Will and Plan may proceed by means of them, and then taken their power away when they became proud. It happened with Babylon [Habakkuk 1:11; Isaiah 13,14] and has happened to each one ever since.
Note 6. "America First!" A century ago the people of the USA responded to the Gospel of Christ and the USA became a great power. But now is it following the same course as all the others? It is seeking its own greatness, but has turned away from its God-given mandate to serve the Rest of Creation, to serve itself. Might Christ be removing its lampstand from before Him? See
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Created: 31 August 2021. Last updated: 17 September 2021 Eric Liddle. 18 September 2021 Emma Raducanu.