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Competition, Rivalry and Status


Some Biblical and Practical Reflections

Competition is not a good, but an evil.

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 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.

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?

This page questions a deep seated presupposition: that competition is good - whether in individual relations, in business, in international relations, in academia or even in sport. I seek Biblical principles, because they apply not only for the 'spiritual' life but also in practice in 'secular' life - in all such spheres of Creation.

More Early Examples

I do not see God competing with Adam and Eve for glory. Instead, I see God coming down to the Garden of Eden to walk and fellowship with the humans. Was there not love there? Did not God give humans the dignity of shepherding the rest of Creation, rather than treating humans as mere slaves or robots?

Might we see the seeds of the competitive attitude when the serpent tempted Eve with being "like God"? (Even though she was already like God: Genesis 1:27-28].) If Satan is a fallen angel, was it because he saw God as a rival, in competition with him?

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.

What About Us, Today?

What about us, here and now? Competition, though it seems good can often be harmful. Though it would seem to be "harmless fun", its long-term effects are definitely harmful.

If you see yourself in competition with others, you will tend never to relax and observe, will tend not to learn and absorb new ideas. Are you now always defensive, resisting rather than welcoming new ideas? Are you not always looking for opportunities to attack others, stopping rather than encouraging their help and collaboration? That is not the route to wisdom.

Competition is the sister of power. According to Mary Beard, in her recent hook (4 October 2021), our idea of power developed from Rome and its Caesars. They were competitive, and an attitude of competition surrounded them, so that only one died naturally in his bed. Competitiveness, especially in the guise of fear of enemies, drove many to heinous acts of cruelty and injustice.

Competition reigns in business. Those at the top of businesses might enjoy it and find it fun - even their sport. And they, of course, are the ones who are very influential in setting the agenda for, and opinions of, society. They say, for example, that competition encourages innovation - and imply that without competition, no innovation would occur. (They often refer to the evolutionist paradigm in which it is competition between species that stimulated change.) But I wonder whether what they claim and assume is actually true.

Some Examples of Competition

As I write, the energy industry in the UK is failing, with many energy companies closing down leaving millions of people facing uncertainty of energy. One third of people are with the smaller companies, which are forecast to close down. This situation was brought about by the government, media and industry over-encouraging competition only a few years ago, inciting people to switch suppliers, and companies to set up too easily. The government, industry and media all seemed to idolise competition in a market as the solution to high prices - and indeed to most problems. It is not. It might drive prices down, but it also drives wages down, and the people end up no better off in being able to afford things. In addition, and in the process, the attitude of competition, and its associated stern logic, replaces attitudes of generosity, helpfulness and self-giving love among us and this change of attitude harms rather than benefits society. This and other effects are what some economists call "externalities" - harmful impacts that they cannot explain and usually do not want to. In the longer term, competition in business is not a solution but a problem.

The Facebook Like button, followed by showing how many likes you have, compared with others, is almost pure competition. Apparently an innocent measure of preferences, it has led many young people into depression and even suicide when they find they have fewer likes than somebody else. Because the apparently innocent device became something on which we base our self-esteem, and then our esteem among others, and esteem is one of the deepest motivators of what we do and think.

As I write, Frances Haugen, once a manager within the Facebook company, is giving testimony to United States Congress that "The thing I saw at Facebook, over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money." Self-interest and competitive attitude go together, each reinforcing and increasing the other.

It is not surprising. Mark Zuckerberg's precursor to Facebook was itself pure competitive mischief - a student prank. While at university, he somehow managed to get photographs of all the girl students. He wrote a programme called FaceMatch that would put up pairs of girls at random and ask which was deemed prettier. (Hence the name Facebook.) Male students loved this, and the program soon build up statistics on the 'likes' of the girls. Great for those with most likes; but some of those with few went into depression. It was 'only' a prank, but not a harmless one. It was based on competition, and it was mischief.

No wonder! - when we begin to understand competition.

Why Is This? Understanding Competition

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.'"

I see this as applying at several levels. The Hellish competitive attitude leads to many evils, by causal links that are usually hidden and long-term.

First, the individual. Seeing ourselves in competition with others - whether siblings or those outside the family - can lead to many evils, and stifles the life of both parties. We see the example in Saul, and in the case of Abel, it ended his life. Can we not see many similar examples today? [Note: Individual competition]

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. The Facebook company sees itself as in competition with others. That is why it bought up those it considered rivals (WhatsApp, Instagram), and that is why it, according to Frances Haugen, puts its own interests before that of users, especially younger users. Such evil also comes when other organisations see themselves in competition with others, and even when families do (the extreme example of which may be the Mafia).

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. Nations expend - and waste - massive resources of both human capital and money on trying to beat other nations. This might be in military prowess, sporting prowess, economic prowess, academic prowess (- but sadly seldom prowess in self-giving generosity!) Much of this effort results indirectly in destroying nature (biodiversity loss) and indirectly damaging the climate.

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]

Is there not Some Good in Competition?

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.

It has also been pointed out that Paul seems to use athletic competition to emphasise "the importance of spiritual discipline in one's life" [I Corinthians 12] (from What does the Bible say about competition?). However, I would note that what Paul is emphasising is not competition as such but discipline. Others also emphasise discipline without resorting to comparisons with competition, not least the Mosaic law.

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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?

Conclusion

Think about all this. Then be challenged to allow the Holy Spirit to change your noos [Romans 12:2, Ephesians 4:23], your mindset, the way you see things, away from competitiveness. And boldly step out in faith with the new heart. We are trying to rethink economics with the help of such a Christian perspective, as well as trying to live individually in its light.

Suggestion for a research project that needs doing by some Business School: How much money (trillions of dollars equivalent globally?) has been devoted to encouraging competitiveness, and setting up structures to do this? And, if that money and human effort and creativity had instead be devoted to merely encouraging excellence directly, would more excellence likely have been achieved? 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.


See Also

Notes and References

Note 1. Status. But, some might ask, did not God see the idols of the nations in competitive terms, as rivals? Was not God concerned about status in relation to them? Did God not, several times, say "for the sake of My Name"? When Yahweh God said "You shall have no other gods before Me!" was this not a competitive statement? We - Christians, Muslims and possibly Jews - tend to read it that way - but are we correct? Might it not be that we have been infected, very deeply, by the attitude of status-seeking? It's hard to eradicate. But maybe there's another interpretation of God's seeming rivalry with the idols. It is that Truth, Reality and Shalom all require recognising that all idols are false, and will always entrap us, enslave us, and let us down. They will always give the opposite of what they promise - slavery while promising freedom, deep frustration while promising superficial pleasure, and failure while promising success. Only Yahweh God - the Creator and Designer of all, and the One Who knows how all works well, and Who loves the Creation and wants all to work well - only Yahweh God is True, Real and the source of Shalom. And Yahweh God, in love for all Creation, desires this for all. Might that be the reason why God always warned against committing ourselves to idols?

Note: Individual Competition. I intend to build up examples here. The rich compete for prestigious London properties, which drives up house prices in London to the point where ordinary people can no longer afford to live there.

Note 2. Three dimensions of Salvation. 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

On Webpage What does the Bible say about competition? (Link) This page argues that competition is Good - though at the end it qualifies this with a paragraph warning that our attitude should be to glorify God rather than win ourselves. Sadly, however, that attitude does not pervade the message of the whole page; it seems a mere bolt-on.

After a brief paragraph about bits of competition in the "spritiual" life (of which more below), it argues for competition in business and in school. It disparages those Christians who dislike competition for making people feel bad (note: that is not my main thing against competition! read the whole page!). Then it cites Paul using athletic competition to encourage disciplined lives. Then he turns to war, as the most severe kind of competition, and spends two whole paragraphs seeming to say that war is good - in the spiritual realm and by implication (though not wording) also in the earthly realm.

Its bits about competition in the "spiritual" life are four, and are clearly, succinctly and helpfully given: "Competition is important for the believer if he is to have spiritual victory and faithfully follow Jesus Christ. Jesus competed against Satan in the wilderness, and He defeated Satan with the Word of God (Matthew 4:1 - 11). As believers, we fight for the souls of lost people by sharing the gospel with them, and we must compete with alternate worldviews to defeat false truth claims." However, in all four, I do not find competition to be the necessary, nor even an important, ingredient.

All in all, I get the feeling that the writer (unnamed!) seems to be wedded to competition and uses the page to load up Bible verses and secular arguments in favour of it, rather than really looking at what the Bible says. I find it disappointingly shallow, rather than deep, defending its own preconceptions rather than looking at the heart. I might be unfair, especially because s/he obviously is aware of the importance of attitude. But the "keep competing" message comes across much more strongly than "watch your attitude", which could get lost.


Comments by Others

From Tim Brown, 1st October 2021

"Hi Andrew,

"I like the bit in the competition link, " In business - and especially among universities! - no more being enslaved by league tables!". Very true.

"I think the interesting one about this article is that it asserts competition as an evil, yet inherently we have always more than one business selling the same product (maybe in different forms) and in a sense there is always a "win some, lose some" for any business but maybe some businesses have too much more than some and more like monopoly that is unhealthy. It may be that it's more a case of 'competition is evil, variety is wholesome' in that there is a variety of Universities existing in different forms, locations and different purposes that meet the demand of a population with the variety it requires. This may form some kind of good article counter to the unhealthy nature of league tables. Thanks,

"Tim."

AB Response: "Interesting point you make. About monopoly and variety. Must think about that. I suppose (thinking out loud) we might ask "What is so bad about monopoly?" Why is it bad? Is it an inherent evil, or is it evil only in certain contexts? Is it evil in itself or is it the results of it that are evil?

"When I think "Monopoly - boo!" it is because I see (a) lack of choice, (b) imposition by a powerful faceless burorat, (c) or by a selfish organisation (like Facebook!) (d) something arbitrary about that power. It arouses my hatred and maybe even jealousy. Which are themselves wrong."

From Andy Sawyer, 13th October 2021

"a lot of sense in this too I thought. One question though:

"Would (Godless) people give their best to their milk round/brain surgery/painting and decorating if they weren't competing with other milk-men, surgeons, and decorators? I don't think they would. Doesn't make competition right, but it might be necessary in a Godless world?"

AB Response: Usually probably not - maybe partly because affluent western society has presupposed competition as its dynamic. However, sometimes the answer is Yes. I witnessed that during the first pandemic lockdown. Love is indeed an excellent motivator, and so is belief. See suggestion about other motivations above.

Response by Maurice Manktelow to Article and Tim Brown, 1st Novembe r2021

"Dear Andrew and Tim,

"I am responding to your recent emails.

"Is a monopoly inherently bad / is competition evil?

"In commenting on the second point - the question is where does competition come from? It is not how the three persons in the God-head work - rather the opposite is true. So, in that sense, competition cannot be seen as something which is 'godly'.

"Competition is very much a western concept - and one built into the belief in the virtue of a free market.

"Many years ago Pam & I 'adopted' a Christian Egyptian MBA student whilst he was in Bradford. (His cultural background was that he wanted to be part of a family and not a single man, although he was approx. 30 years old). He once said "you westerners are a pain. You get an assignment and then go off and research it individually. You are too competitive. You won't share. Those of us who are not Westerners a) meet to discuss the assignment b) each go away and research an agreed aspect of the assignment c) subsequently meet to pool and discuss our findings and only then d) write our individual work. So why is competition a western concept no found in the same way in other cultures?

"As a case in point the Egyptian student mentioned a married couple on the course who made certain that they were not in the same seminar group. They worked on the assignment together and submitted the same piece of work with the exception of the name on the cover page to their respective seminar tutor. One got marked with a 'C' grade and the other an 'A' grade!! They relied on the competitive nature of the western lecturers (but obviously could not complain about the inconsistent marking!).

"Is monopoly bad?

"Tim's view is, and I quote, "that it is "unhealthy". We currently have a monopolistic ambulance service. Would Tim like to see the ambulance chasing activities as in the USA where the first question they ask is "Who is paying for this?"

"Well, I suppose that since we live in a broken world there is no perfect system. Monopolistic communism in Russian had/has its problems. Democracies have problems - they are just different. Each also had its advantages.

"45 years ago Pam & I drove to Romania. Once we got behind the 'iron curtain' we found that, for example, a jar of jam cost much the same as in England. However the quality was in an entirely different league - it was full of fruit. There was no choice of brand - only flavour. Analysing the constituent economic parts of the jar there were no marketing associated costs - so those aspects of the jar contents were dedicated to the actual jam - whereas when we got back into the west we found that the actual jam was watered down to allow for the marketing costs. Even the best quality was not as good as in the communistic block countries.

"It really is not the case of either one way or another is not which is best. in practice each have their own merits and problems in a world where wheat and chaff grow alongside one another.

"Hope these musings help

"Maurice


Acknowledgements

Very many thanks to Andrew Hartley for incisively critical comments on the first version of this page, which stimulated me to think what I really meant, and also drew my attention to the GotQuestions page, which also forced me to set things out more clearly.


This page, "http://abxn.org/competition.html" is part of Andrew Basden's abxn.org pages - pages that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext, in the style of classic HTML.

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Copyright (c) Andrew Basden at all dates below. But you may use this material for almost any non-antagonistic purpose (including commercial) subject to certain easy conditions.

Created: 31 August 2021. Last updated: 17 September 2021 Eric Liddle. 18 September 2021 Emma Raducanu. 1 October 2021 Facebook. 4 October 2021 edited the ===; headings; never-learn; rearranged content; problems of competition; note on page of Christian idea of competition. 6 October 2021 amended intro, introduced Frances Haugen, in Understanding, I added negatives as well as positives, and added to GotQuestions; rich in London. 16 October 2021 Andy Sawyer comment. 7 November 2021 Comments from Tim Brown and Maurice Manktelow.