Sunday, April 18, 2010


I have been reading a book entitled Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life coauthored by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison. I'm reading it slowly, taking time to ponder what these authors have to say regarding this important topic. Early in the book they make the statement: "Our primary frame of reference remains competition." They say this is the case even when we choose to act compassionately. They write in the context of American culture, but I think the basic themes they address can be applied in other cultures as well.

I don't think of myself as highly competitive (though I do hate to lose!), but as I reflected on this statement I realized how much I do view the world through a competitive lens. Competition does, in fact, permeate our lives. We compete for status, for money, for acclaim and honor. We compete for the affection and attention of our spouses and friends. Even in ministry we often compete for resources, approval and acclaim. We want our efforts and accomplishments to be recognized. We want to be thought well of and considered successful. We often compete unconsciously, but the spirit of competition subtly affects us even when we are not aware of it.

Why do we compete? We compete because we feel the need to prove our worth and establish our identity over and against others. In other words, we compete because we are insecure. If we can demonstrate in some way that we are better than someone else, we can feel a sense of satisfaction and self-worth. How can we break free from this? In order to break free of a competitive spirit we must be secure in our identity in Christ. As long as we are insecure in this we will try to establish our identity in something or someone else. Often that means demonstrating our worth--proving our value--in competition with others. The arena of competition will differ, but the basic struggle to establish my identity in superiority to others remains. But when we are secure in who we are in Christ--secure in our core identity--we no longer need to prove ourselves in competition. Our worth is already solidly established and confirmed entirely apart from anything we do or accomplish. What freedom we can find in this truth, if we will only fully recognize and embrace it!

We also compete because we worry about the future. We operate from a worldview that sees life as a competition to get as much for ourselves as we can before someone else takes it. The pie is limited, so we'd better beat the others and grab as much as we can for ourselves and our children. If we don't, it will go to someone else and we might be left with nothing, or less than we desire. The poor in the world, in this perspective, are those who have failed to compete successfully and while we may pity them, we certainly don't question the underlying ethic of competition that leaves them poor and destitute. But this motivation for competition also belies a lack of recognition of the true nature of God. If we trust fully in the faithfulness, the trustworthiness and goodness of God, we don't have to compete to provide for our needs. We have a God who has promised to supply what we need. We have a God who is capable and willing to do so because he is fundamentally good and loving. I would emphasize that this does not amount to a call to passivity, as if we don't need to do anything except wait for God's blessings to fall into our hands. We should do the best we can with the abilities God has given us. But we can do so without worrying for the future because we know our future is secure in him.

I share these reflections not as someone who has mastered these lessons. In fact I feel I've only begun to learn and apply them. I think there is a place for competition in the world, though I'm still pondering what that place is. For example, I think sports competitions can be fun and enjoyable, as long as we don't base identity and worth on them. But living within a framework of competition denies fundamental truths about who God is and who we are. I want to be set free to live in those truths, no longer bound by the need to prove myself in the arena of competition.

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