The Christian’s Competitive Instinct

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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The word for competition in the New Testament is the Greek word athleo, from which we have the English word athletic.

St. Paul teaches competition as part of discipleship in Philippians when he describes the Christians at Philippi as those who stand side by side sharing the contest for the good news and against fear. “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God's doing” (Philippians 1:27-28). He describes three people at Phillipi as his co-contestants for the gospel: “Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3).

In both texts, Paul uses the word athleo. He competes as one of a team of runners united against hardships, dangers, fears, and time—not against people or one another. This is the best way to compete, because it focuses not on my superiority or inadequacy alongside fellow athletes but our work together in a grand race to God’s glory—like a corps of alpine climbers, a rope team enables each individual climber to reach the summit. Together they compete against the mountain.

Compete is a strong and challenging word, too, in that it calls for each competitor to stay in condition, to constantly train, to fix on the rules of the event, to work hard, and to watch out for those alongside in the race.

Near the end of his life journey, St. Paul expressed himself in these same athletic terms, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (II Timothy 4:7).

Is the competitive instinct good or bad? It can be toxic as a means to score my worth alongside of other people’s. But when it challenges us to faithful hard work for the joy of advancing a good team for a good reason, it is altogether healthy.

I’m glad the New Testament writer to Hebrews put it that way. “Run the race that is before you looking to Jesus who has gone on ahead and listen to the great cloud of fellow competitors who are cheering you on” (Hebrews 12:1).