Competition as Cooperation Sometimes Requires Self-Sacrifice

Article / Produced by TOW Project
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So far, we have been describing cooperation and competition in God’s original design – what they would look like if we still rightly reflected the image of the triune God who is love. It is essential to get our bearings from God himself and from his original design of our nature if we are to build our views in light of a sound standard.

To many people, however, any discussion about God’s design for a perfect world feels abstract and disconnected from real life. Whatever we may speculate about competition in an unfallen world, the world is in fact fallen. That is our reality now, and we often feel the brokenness of the present more intensely than we do our connection to our original nature – or the glorious future God has for us in Christ.

In the present evil age, economic competition is never perfectly ethical in practice, and is often practiced in unethical ways. As participants in competitive economic markets, our daily responsibility is to ensure that we engage in competition ethically and encourage ethical competition in others, motivated by love for all human beings.

The burden of ethics can be a heavy one. We may strive to compete ethically, but our competitors may not. Even if our competitors do not get the better of us by cheating in ways we refuse to do, loving our competitors – practicing competition as cooperation – is hard to do. It involves exerting ourselves and putting our interests at risk well above and beyond the minimum of expected behavior that is conventionally set for economic competitors. We may pay a high price for our decision to engage in competition ethically. Or we may find that unethical competition by others exploits us even to the point of preventing us from supporting ourselves and those who depend on us.

That is why the Cross matters so much to how we compete. The Cross is the only way back to the holy love of God in the Trinity. The image of that holy love is being restored in Christ, who died so God could reclaim us, and we are to imitate Christ as a mode of unity with him, so that the image of God can be restored in us as well. We must take up our cross and die daily to follow Christ (Matthew 16:24-28).

Death to self, on the model of the Cross, is central to Christian ethics. John Calvin called this kind of self-denial “the sum of the Christian life.”[1] To engage in economic competition with the goal of benefiting customers and the public, and even our competitors themselves, involves us in an economic way of life centered on Christ-like self-denial.

This death to self is, of course, directly against the wishes of our fallen nature. We have no power in ourselves to conform ourselves to the cross of Christ. We live in the power of the Holy Spirit that makes us able to live as Christ bids.

This begins with a reformation of our own sinfulness. Evil is not just “out there” among our economic competitors, it is “in here,” in our hearts. Because of the fall, we ourselves have come to hate our competitors and want to justify advancing ourselves at their expense. As we seek to serve others self-sacrificially, as Christ did, we experience perennial tension over understanding ourselves as agents of God’s holy love, bringing that holy love into the world through our love of others, and being sinners forgiven by grace, humbly remembering that it is really God who wins all the important victories over evil, not us.

That said, evil is certainly also “out there,” and the New Testament emphasizes the power of evil in the world. With regard to economic competition, the fall imposes great restrictions on the depth and scale of social cooperation we can expect from the world. When we hold up the standard of competition as cooperation in loving and creative ways, including by our willingness to sacrifice our own advantage for its sake, we issue a challenge to worldly economic ideologies. Competition as cooperation provides a realistic way for pluralistic societies to orient individual and corporate economic activity toward the common good and other ethically sound ends. This will challenge both those who idolize market competition and those who deny that it is possible to engage in competition ethically.

We have emphasized that the Cross restores the image of God and the original design of our nature. However, the Cross points us forward as well as backward. It goes beyond merely restoring creation, because it emphasizes death to self as a way of life. The Cross, and the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit conforming us to it, makes it possible for us to engage in self-sacrificial acts and to live today in a way that actively anticipates the future consummation of God’s kingdom. We may choose, for example, to help a co-worker succeed in a project that benefits our customers, even though we know doing so may lead to the co-worker being promoted ahead of us to a new position. We may choose to oppose, or even to reveal to the outside world, actions of our organization that exploit others, even though we know we may lose our job as a result. We may choose to campaign for regulations necessary to restrain unfair competition, even though spending the time to do so brings nothing of direct value to us.

The Cross applies not only to our individual actions, but to the actions of peoples and nations. Revelation 21-22 shows God’s people coming into the New Jerusalem as “the nations,” not merely as a large aggregation of otherwise unconnected and undifferentiated individuals. Cultural structures, which had participated and in some cases even originated in the fall (Genesis 10-11) are redeemed, not just private individuals. “The nations,” as nations, gather to walk in God’s light (Revelation 21:24), reverently bring their glory and honor before him as their gift and service to him (Revelation 21:26) and receive the healing power of the tree of life (Revelation 22:2). Even the nations’ distinct political offices (Revelation 21:24) and diverse languages (Revelation 13:7) remain. And “they will be his peoples [laoi is plural] and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). What had been the unique designation of Israel (Genesis 17:7-8, Jeremiah 32:38, Ezekiel 37:27) now applies to every nation.

Pentecost points our present-day lives forward toward this future reality in which cultural structures will be redeemed. Jesus sends his people in the power of the Spirit to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-19). To this end, at Pentecost he pours out the Spirit on his people to give people in diverse nations the power to follow him and conform their lives to the Cross, not erasing their cultural diversity but using their diverse cultures as vehicles of discipleship (Acts 2:5-13). Pentecost establishes that discipleship occurs in the midst of fallen cultural structures, using those structures as vehicles through which we can practice the transformation of the gospel by the Spirit.

Dallas Willard, who wrote extensively on why the church must approach cultural structures in this way, distilled the idea into this powerful sentence: “Discipleship is not for the church; the church is for discipleship, and discipleship is for the world.”[2]

None of this implies that the church should develop a cultural agenda separate from discipleship to Christ. Discipleship to Christ is the only goal, and any cultural agenda that is autonomous from discipleship is an idol. Moreover, humility about our own position as finite creatures – and sinful ones at that – is always needed. The church’s role is not to promulgate what it considers to be a set of godly socio-economic dictates that must be obeyed by all humanity, but to equip the people of God to learn how to work and compete in ways that serve their neighbors.

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