What is competition? We talk about healthy competition, ensuring competition, and being a competitive person, all of which have positive connotations. Americans, in general, see it as a good thing, or, if not good, at least natural . . . like a self-regulating free-market or an undisturbed ecosystem in balance. For this reason it’s not surprising that in defining the word competition, the Webster dictionary uses both business and organic competition as its secondary examples. The primary definition however is rivalry. And to be a rival is defined as: a) one of two or more striving to reach or obtain something that only one can possess, and; b) one striving for advantage.
What strikes me as odd is the fact that the Latin root for the term “compete” means to come together and agree, to seek together. This seems the exact opposite of our modern definition. I realize that language is constantly changing and is driven by the force and direction of cultural winds. Yet, our combative understanding of competition is an unbiblical concept that has no place in the shaping of a Christian ethos for business, sport, politics or creational care. If Christians seek competition in any of these spheres, it should be competition in the Latin root sense . . . a seeking together.
Let me explain using an example of sport. I love what are referred to as competitive sports. Football, basketball, baseball, softball, hockey, racquetball, and volleyball have all occupied my play at some point in my life. I understand what it is like to compete. However, as a Christian I have frequently struggled with how to compete. Nowhere in scripture is there any suggestion that striving for advantage over another is justifiable. Scripturally, I have to conclude that a transformed Christian will never play to win. But before you think I am discouraging you from ever again hitting a soaring homerun, or driving with all your strength and speed to the hoop, let me clarify. Not “playing to win” does not mean a Christian athlete won’t play hard. In fact, I believe Christian athletes have the opportunity to provide the best competition in sport, competition in the sense of seeking together.
Sport is primarily an exercise in the aesthetic dimension of created reality. Within the context of mutually agreed upon boundaries and rules, persons engage their bodies in a tapestry of motion that is made beautiful by skill, nuance, creativity, and the unexpected, a beauty apparent to fans and players alike. At this level, the role of the player is to enhance the aesthetic quality of the game, to offer the opposition the best possible opportunity for creative and skillful play. Playing passively or without effort violates the aesthetic possibilities of the game and leads not to beauty but to predictability.
How does this perspective on competition change the look of competitive sports? Picture yourself in a softball game. There are two outs in the ninth inning. Your team is behind by seven. The bases are empty. You swing hard but late, sending the ball with a slow sputtering roll to the golden glove second baseman. Statistically speaking, you don’t have a chance–you’re out. Even if you did make it to first on some error there’s little chance of winning the game. Knowing this, you’re tempted to slowly walk out of the batter’s box and sulk back to the dugout and hope for better luck next week. But you resist temptation. You dig your cleats into the base path and in a haze of baseline chalk you send your aged body hurling toward first base, resolved to give the second baseman an adequate canvas to display his athletic creativity. The unexpected happens. Mr. Golden Glove slips, the ball glances off his shoulder and into the air. As he falls, he flails desperately at the ball with the back side of his mitt. Two steps from first, out of the corner of your eye, you see a ball knuckling toward a first baseman overextending his body like some Olympic gymnast. It’s all a split-second blur, the leap, the shout, the stretch, the pop of ball-in-glove and the tap of toe-meets-base. You’re out. Was it worth the effort? Absolutely. You’re caught up in the ecstasy of playing a part in an intricate sculpture of corporate motion. And you delight in the extemporaneous skill of the second baseman, as though you had done it yourself. And actually you did. There are no winners and losers, just fellow artists.
Christians ought to reject the contemporary definition of dog-eat-dog competition and replace it with a fully engaged “seeking together” the will of the Lord for play. Only then can sweat, strain, practice, and dedication come together in a harmonious song of praise to the creator, heard by umpires, players and fans alike. Who knows, maybe even God likes a ballgame like that.