A Different Competition

Competition makes almost anything interesting.

Case #1: Last month, I came downstairs to tell my son it was bedtime. He said, “Wait, Daddy! I have to find out who wins. He was riveted by a show about decorating cakes.

Case #2: At our boys’ birthday party this weekend, the kids played “Will it float?” with an old fish tank full of water and a grab bag of items. Each correct guess brought with it fist pumping, and occasionally some taunting. Wrong guesses produced tears at times.

Case #3: Even though i woke up at 5:00 Sunday morning and had to work 13 hours, I still stayed up late to watch the Westminster dog show.

As I write these examples, it’s clear to me that none of them sounds particularly worth the effort of changing the channel. And none of them would be, were not something on the line, whether money or bragging rights or a trophy. But when any endeavor becomes a competition, I’ll almost always pay attention to it.

Which is why I was awake at 5:00 in the morning in the first place. I’d spend a good chunk of the week thinking about competition in light of a Bible passage, 1: Corinthians 9:24-27. It goes like this:

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! 25 All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. 26 So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. 27 I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.

There is is. Competition. Faith is about winning!

But that bothers me–particularly with the current market-share mindset of American churches. We need something to measure ourselves against, so we compare ourselves to one another and try to build a better church. Better than what? Than the competition, of course. Our goal is to attract and cultivate adherents who will serve our organization. If we do that, we win.

Surely that’s not what the kingdom of God is all about, right? But if not that, then what?

That’s the question that kept me up in the we hours of the morning. My suspicions tell me that the prize Paul talks about is not personal conquest or even organizational success. I have a hunch that it has more to do with self-sacrifice and a relentless pursuit for a fairer and more love-filled world.

The problem is that the most formidable opponents in such a race are internal–things like selfishness and the need for acquisition that we have to overcome in ourselves before we can even define the prize, much less claim it. That’s a more difficult race, to be sure, and also a more costly one.

But, as with so many things, the value of the prize is directly proportional to the difficulty of the challenge. Perhaps the kingdom of God is worth the struggle to overcome our own self-interests for the sake of others. For the sake of our own souls.

It’s an exciting prospect, to think that the establishment of God’s dreams on earth is attainable, and in fact is already happening. Maybe even worth losing some sleep over.

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