The legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi once said “Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is”. This might be overstated but have you ever had the nagging feeling that wanting to win is inherently ‘un-Christian’.
The train of thought usually goes something like this: Trying to better someone in a competitive situation involves looking to raise yourself up as you push them down; but Christ’s example was one of humbling Himself to exalt others; so isn’t wanting to win the very opposite of this?
When faced with this problem a lot of Christians wonder if they should adopt a kind of “It is not about the winning but the taking part” mentality. Sure, if you take part and you happen to win then that is a bonus - a nice byproduct of taking part, but don’t desire to win - that would be wrong.
So what is the Christian perspective on winning? Is it right to say that it’s not about the winning but the taking part?
I wonder if part of the reason that we tie ourselves in knots with this issue is that we struggle to understand the place of ‘rewards’ in the Christian life. Most Christians squirm when reading passages that say things like:
‘But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you’ Matthew 6:3-4 (ESV).
Surely the idea of rewards is linked to works-based religion and we know that the gospel of Jesus is about God’s free grace don’t we?
Well the more we read the Bible then the more it doesn’t seem that God has such a problem with us being motivated by rewards. Rewards come up nine times in the Sermon on the Mount alone and Paul teaches often on the subject. Consider this verse,
‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.’ 1 Corinthians 9:24 (ESV).
The Bible expects us to be motivated by rewards: We live the Christian life to receive a crown of righteousness, we pray in secret to be rewarded by our Father in heaven, and we fight with sin so that we aren’t disqualified from the Christian life (to mention but a few).
Motivations are an essential part of life because without them we wouldn’t do anything. As the 19th century American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.”
Being motivated by rewards is not in itself wrong. In fact it is an essential part of how we are wired up as human beings. All actions have natural and unnatural rewards. I would like to suggest that what makes a motivation wrong is when it is not the natural motivation for an action. Think of the difference of hearing that a friend of yours has married for love and hearing that a friend of yours has married for money! One fits because it is the natural reward of marriage, the other is a distortion of what marriage is about.
In the same way, winning is the natural reward of competition. When two people, or two teams, compete against each other, both parties go into the competition in the full and accepted knowledge that there will usually be one winner and one loser. In fact, without the incentive of winning, the game ceases to really be a game at all.
Of course winning is not the only reward of sport. There are other rewards that are also significant such as the joy of taking part, the thrill of exercising your skill etc. But winning is the natural reward of competition and it is a great gift of God when we achieve it.
The challenge for the Christian is to not get winning out of focus and let this ‘good’ thing become an ‘ultimate’ thing.
Pete Nicholas, Inspire Church London
Pete was appointed to the Board of Trustees in 2017 and is a rugby player by background who now plays touch rugby. Pete is ordained in the Church of England and Minister in Charge of Inspire Saint James Clerkenwell in London.
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