Some within the church have wondered whether it is sinful or not to have a competitive attitude, and the answer ultimately depends on what and where such a mindset is directed (and how it is employed). It also depends on what we mean by the word “competitive.” There are times when competing against others is necessary to obtain the prize and achieve the goal one is after (such as sports and what have you). In such instances, the players or athletes do their best to win by doing whatever it takes to overcome and beat their opponent(s). A quick search of obvious biblical parallels and examples reveals the famous verses in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (regarding the ancient games of Rome and Greece before, during, and after Paul’s time). But that is not how it is to be between fellow brothers and sisters in Christ when running the spiritual race God has called us to.
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul only used the secular analogy of a physical race as a somewhat related parallel to express a spiritual point. We believers should not be competing against one another (out of pride, selfishness, and self-glory) but helping each other to achieve the most and highest eternal rewards possible. This is very different than in a literal race where those involved aren’t trying to help each other. That type of secular competition (what you find in sports) is more about self (not that there is anything sinful about that, of course) when compared to the spiritual race all Christians are running. Ministry is all about humbling oneself to serve others. As Matthew 20:25-28 so eloquently puts it, 25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. 26 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. 27 And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
We can contrast the above passage with Philippians 1:15-17 which says, “15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. This type of attitude (that of envy and rivalry) is exactly the kind of mindset believers must never have. Not only is it wrong and sinful, but all so-called “good works” done through impure motives will not receive any reward at the judgment seat (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). And as our passage also clarifies, envy (a synonym for jealousy) is often a driving force behind the negative side of the competitive attitude.
First, it is not wrong to challenge oneself in a highly motivated sense in which the individual (whether in the spiritual or everyday secular life) seeks to better themselves in every way. Wanting to do better, whether in our spiritual growth and ministries, jobs, and what have you, is not only a good thing but is highly commendable. We should give everything our very best, doing it all for the glory of God through our thoughts, words, and actions (1 Corinthians 10:31). But if, in the process, our motives are impure and we carry an agenda that is solely based on doing better than those around us (when competing against others is inappropriate), then that is wrong and will bring great consequences in the end. Again, sports and games are an exception because greater success comes to those with a more competitive attitude (they will do whatever it takes to beat their opponent(s).) So yes, having rivals in some areas is not sinful. But that is not the case in the spiritual realm or many secular areas of life, such as our jobs.
For example, although it is true that we seek to do better at work to bring God more glory and benefit the company we are working for (and perhaps to get promoted and get a raise), we should not have a competitive attitude toward our fellow employees as if we are trying to outdo them. So again, it depends on what one is dealing with. The answer is not some black-and-white issue where “you can never compete against others by trying to beat or outdo them in something.” Games and athletics are just that-friendly competitions. And we cannot forget that it is also true that all athletes compete not just against others but themselves as well. Yet, the belief is that the most challenging opponent to beat is oneself.
Regarding the spiritual realm again, it is also true that we believers are engaged in spiritual combat every single day. Ephesians 6:12 says that we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. 2 Timothy 2:4 rightly compares the believer’s spiritual warfare to a soldier in active combat. Although it is true that all unbelievers stand as enemies of God (Matthew 12:30), we are to love them regardless of their spiritual status. We aim to be a light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16), intending to bring as many people to the truth as possible and help them grow therein. Ephesians 6:12 confirms that we don’t strive against men but against Satan and all his followers who seek to lead us astray. So no, we are not competing against unbelievers. And seeing as how secular warfare can be seen as a “non-friendly” competition, so spiritual warfare can be viewed in this light as well, only in the sense that our efforts and service for Christ run against the goals and agendas of Satan and his minions. So there are some major differences between what we view as typical competition and the type of “striving” we are involved in as believers.
It is important to consider that every positive spiritual step forward is only possible because of the grace of God to empower it since sanctification is God’s work that we only participate in through faith. Our weapon is faith, but Christ does the “running” or “heavy lifting” for us. Without Him, we can do nothing (John 15:1-5). Our goals and purposes oppose the desires and will of the flesh and the Devil (Galatians 5:17-25). He is our enemy, and we are opposed to him just as he is opposed to us. But God is the One who fights for us because the battle will always be the Lord’s (1 Samuel 17:47).
A major contrast between the literal runner in Paul’s analogy and that of a spiritual soldier is that while one accomplishes his goal through his own skill, athleticism, strength, and power (although you could say that is all empowered by Christ as well because He created the human body by giving us all our skills and abilities), the other accomplishes his goals through the power of the Spirit (Philippians 4:13). Paul’s good example, although similar in many ways to the life all believers are called to, differentiates from the spiritual realm in that the prize for one is physical and temporary, while the other is eternal. Likewise, the means for attaining both rewards differ in that one is fleshly while the other is spiritual.
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
However, none of the above should be taken to mean that living the Christian life is easy or entirely effortless. Every good thing we do is accomplished through God’s strength so that He always gets all the glory. But it isn’t as if there isn’t some responsibility on our part to use our free will. There are things we have to do to help our faith grow, such as engaging our minds to study and properly understand God’s Word to apply it through faith. Seeking out the truth tends to require hard studying (mental effort) and the motivation needed to accomplish that task.
Additionally, the Christian life is generally not easy to live because the demanding circumstances needed for us to sacrifice everything necessary for Christ will often be hard to endure. The good question is, how easy does it become to obey Christ in our everyday lives and through various tests, trials, and tribulations? As we grow spiritually, overcoming our daily struggles (everyday temptations and what have you) becomes easier because they become all but second nature as we better learn to apply the truth in our lives. Things that used to cause us to stumble don’t bother us like they once did. And the types of circumstances we have become acquainted with dealing with eventually become much easier to bear over time. In other words, obedience to Christ is something that becomes easier for us. Regarding tests, they will continue to grow in proportion to our faith (how much it grows). For we need to remember that God would never allow us to be tested or tempted more than we can handle (1 Corinthians 10:13).
So is there effort involved in the Christian life? In one sense, yes. In another, no. Is living the Christian life easy? In one sense, yes; in another, no. But for the sake of our topic, we will try not to delve into that too much. One example we will give is Acts 5:40-41 where the apostles are flogged because of their testimony for Jesus. It certainly wasn’t easy for them to endure the physical pain involved with their punishment for their righteous conduct. But, seeing as how they went away rejoicing after the event, it did not seem very difficult for the apostles to choose obedience to Christ. Instead of denying their true Master, they willingly suffered for Him as He did for them. And this they did eagerly without hesitation because their faith was ready and strong enough to endure this big test of their faith. The more you come to love someone (God, in this case), the easier it becomes to sacrifice for them.
Likewise, there is the apostle Paul as another example. 2 Corinthians 11:27-30 says, “27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness." Although it is true that many of us will not have to endure many of the same things Paul did (the persecuted church provides the best parallel), we all will have our own fair share of trying difficulties, tests, and circumstances to deal with. And to add to our point that the Christian life is often difficult, we have other examples, such as Luke 14:28 (count the cost) and Matthew 16:24 (whoever wants me must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me).
We need to make one final comment before we end this topic. Our goal on this earth is not to please ourselves but Jesus Christ because this life is all about Him. There is nothing wrong with being successful in the secular realm, just as long as that is not our reason for living. We are alive to glorify God as much as we can, not to “outdo” others to their harm. Our lives are to be lived for Christ and His church in that we see it as more important to orientate ourselves to Him and everyone else (especially our brothers and sisters in Christ) in a godly and loving way. To do otherwise is to “break the rules” of the race we are all running.
3 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. 4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. 5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.