Should a Christian be competitive?
Should a Christian be competitive?

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Jonny Reid: Great. Welcome back to the Christians in Sport podcast. A podcast where we want to wrestle with questions about what it looks like to love sport. We love sport, we love playing sport, we love being involved in the world of sport. But what does that look like as a Christian? Is it any different to life as those who don't believe? So Christians in Sport Podcast, that's what we're doing.

This is a question we get regularly. We get it asked in different ways. Competition, can I be competitive and a Christian? Is competition wrong? What about wanting to win? Is wanting to win, wanting to beat somebody else, is there an issue around that? What about whether you become a Christian? Do you lose your competitive edge? Does this just make you soft? There can be a temptation to withdraw from people, they don't want to play sport because they just see it brings out, what they would say is the worst in them maybe. Graham Daniels is with me. What's at the heart of this issue of competition?

Graham Daniels: Well, you're going to have to probe me a bit on this, really I reckon, because the first thing that comes to mind when you introduce a conversation like that is really basic stuff. When you're a competitive kid, let's call it sporty then because of competitive. When you're a sporty kid and there's no one to play with, I don't know, and you get your tennis racket out and you bash the ball against the wall or your soccer ball in my case as a kid. You can do that for a while, for the boring summer holidays. You know what? You don't want to be doing it all day. You waited for somebody to show up so you could go down the tennis court and have a proper game. And so, if competition means stretching yourself against somebody, you can't do sport on your own all the time.

And equally, we all know the exhilarating feeling of winning comfortably, being so far ahead with a few minutes to go, you're done. What a great feeling. I've only once in my life played in a team in a league where you went all the time as a kid, and you won by seven goals and soccer or something. Absolutely boring. Team is rubbish, morale is low and flip it. And I've been in a few of these, but I'm joking. I mean extremes. You know where you're losing in football terms, 8-0 every week.

Graham Daniels: And so on the most elementary level, it's a human level. Playing on your own, de-motivating. Winning all the time, de-motivating. Losing all the time, de-motivating. There's something about competing, competition, doing it with others to bring the best out of you, to challenge you or else it's not sport.

Jonny Reid: Yes, and to find a positive then, we looked up what's not competition, what's not good about it? When something lacks competition, deathly dull. Spin it the other way then, you said, "Well it's not." What is it?

Graham Daniels: Yeah. So good. So, I think what it is, let's do some word definition, etymology. Let's do the word, competition is from two Latin words, come, with or together, petere, to strive. To strive together, striving together. It's not good or bad, that. It's striving together, pushing each other to get better. So, I guess back to the point there, if you're winning seven or losing seven all the time in soccer, when it's 3-2, 4-2, 2-1, one all, now it gets more out of you. You're being pushed by somebody and you're pushing your opponent. There's a sort of evenness about this, which is slightly more challenging in life. So, it literally means to strive together.

Another word, we use this contest, con test. Now interestingly, the word originates in Greece. Before the New Testament period, the Olympics were invented in Greece and started in Greece. The actual word used in Greek, that's translated contest or fight sometimes, in vernacular is agon, agony. So the word for contest, sometimes metaphorically battle or fight using the new Testament, is agon. So the original meaning of agon is challenge, stretch, striving, competing. Now it's a rich word. It's not a good or bad word, it's just rich. It's stretching you to your utmost. It's a challenge. It's a neutral word.

Jonny Reid: And we see it, and this we made a justification for it and sometimes we do. We say Paul talk about it. "I fought the good fight, I've finished the race, I've kept the faith." That fight or agon, same word?

Graham Daniels: Correct.

Jonny Reid: But we don't want to say it's a biblical concept necessarily, or do we?

Graham Daniels: Well, I think that's a good point. Look, we know what it is. It's a concept used in the Greek language, for the Greek Olympics, for the competition or contest. Paul happily, gladly more than once, uses the metaphor of sport and the Olympics and he gladly says, even in the last letter that we know he wrote 2 Timothy chapter 2, 2 Timothy chapter 4, you just quoted, "I have fought the good fight. I finished the race. I've kept the faith, good fight." As you said, is agon.

So, if the last chapter, the last letter that we know he potentially ever wrote before he was executed, he's using the metaphor, the picture of contest, compete to finish the Christian life. So clearly, it's not a bad concept or he's not using it in that way.

Jonny Reid: Right. So, the question we keep getting asked is often phrased in the negative. It seems to be that maybe somebody said to somebody, now you're a Christian, what are you doing playing that sport? It brings out the worst in you or competition, beating somebody else, making somebody else feel bad about themselves after you've lost, that's not good. Competition is bad. You seem to be saying here, there seems to be some sort of... Is it a neutral-ness about the concept? It's not neither good nor bad, competition, or that fight, that agon, that strive.

Graham Daniels: I'm definitely saying that. So you're right, and those of course maybe listening now wanted to push me further. I'm certainly saying the concept is a neutral one. If anything, it's erring on the positive. This is about stretching, challenging, probing, pushing in sport towards excellence, towards improvement, towards better. That's how the concept works. It's a sporting, secular concept. Look, as we edge our way towards this, you just said something that, it brings the worst out of me. I've spent many years working with elite athletes and indeed with the university athletes and young athletes, and for those who are old enough, which is increasingly fewer, I remind them of a famous old film called Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Jonny Reid: It's only the mid nineties, it's not too old.

Graham Daniels: Okay Johnny, well you're all right on it.

Jonny Reid: We can get away with it, I'm okay.

Graham Daniels: But I'll switch it for people to know it and I say, "You know what sports like? It's actually like four funerals and a wedding." Because the truth is, in sport, most of your sporting life, when you're actually playing it, you're disappointed. You don't play as well as you should and the team won. Or you play okay and you feel decent about that, but the team lost. You're on a bad run, you're injured, you're not playing. Actually for every one wedding, is probably four funerals in this one. But the weird thing is, when the wedding comes, it's worth every funeral in sport, right?

So before we get into the challenge of, should you play if it makes you angry and so on, before we get there, let's be real about this. In a fractured world, with fractured human beings, the competition, the agon, will often bring the worst out of us and much of the time it does. But we all know the sheer unadulterated joy of when it brings the best out of us. When we love our teammates, when we've played a really tight game. Forgive the football part of me, but you've lost 4-3, or won 4-3, the final whistle blows, you're exhilarated or down, but there's not despair because you played so well and lost or you're massively humble. You played so well, so today and you nicked it and you're humbled by it. There's something so wedding-ish about those moments, that I think it can enhance the human experience and I think God put that capacity for relationships with other people, to stretch the talents he gave us to the utmost. And I think that can be a very positive.

Jonny Reid: Yes. So let's go there, because I think the first 10 minutes of this conversation, in some sense, you could have heard in any podcast about sports, couldn't you?

Graham Daniels: Yes, definitely.

Jonny Reid: We can listen to any of the top podcasts, they'd have this conversation. You can imagine Matthew Syed having this conversation about sports and about children, great conversation, but we're the Christians in Sport podcast. We get sport is great even though it is four funerals and a wedding. If you're listening to this, you probably get that, you feel that you're, your mind's gone there. You're imagining yourself last Saturday night, having lost the game but still felt I did okay or the other way around. So, help us pin this down into the gospel principles behind it, or why we're saying this is not only neutral, but we think competition is great for Christians to be stuck in with.

Graham Daniels: It's never quite a binary. I think the risk we face when trying to analyze something about Christian experience is, acting as if normal experience is almost completely unrelated to being a Christian. What God clearly does, He makes men and women, He says, in His own image and His likeness, male and female, He creates us. And the Genesis narrative is clear, that two of the things He does with us is that, He gives us gifts or talents to cultivate the earth and keep it and He makes us relational, it's not good to be alone.

So, what we have to unpack here is that for every human being on the planet who's involved in sport, who is stretched in the agon, of the heat of competition, it can create a wonderful exhilaration, a wedding feeling of taking your talent and competing with others in relationships, or with your teammates, and thinking, "That was a good hour and a half, that was." Or, "That was painful, but I go again next week, that was good for me." And at the end of one's career, one always thinks, "Oh boy, I love my sport so much."

It's not as if that's one half of life and then there's the Christian thing. But when you meet Christ, I think that common grace, as we might call it in Christian theology, becomes a special grace. It becomes something more special.

Jonny Reid: What's the implication, what's the difference, yeah. Great. I get you're saying, well, all humans made in God's image, not just those who follow Christ, all humans made in God's image, which means they've been given certain talents, in relationship in which to live in this world. That's true, whether you're a Christian listening to podcast or you're not yet a Christian listening to podcast, but what's in the implication for a Christian, when it comes to this topic of competition particularly?

Graham Daniels: Christ coming to live in you and learning to integrate your life with Christ at the center, is what being a Christian is about. Now, if we chunk this right down, Jonny, there are very few places where we tend to be in our lives, i.e. most of us are in family relationships, child of parents, brother or sister, partner, husband, wife, so on. Most of us have home relationships. Pretty much all of us have work relationships, which takes up a big chunk of our lives. Then we'll have hobbies, friends, neighbors, hobbies, and a church life if you're a Christian. So actually, really there's only four or five big chunks of your life, if you like, if you chop up a week, where you spend time. Now, the question is then, how or where is Jesus, by His spirit living in you, going to change you more and more into His likeness, in the way you use your talents and your relationships? Because, that's where you spend your life. It's either, out in that relationships, family or talent and relationships, work, hobby, life.

Jonny Reid: I presume the question in some ways comes, and it's a question we've had before of, family relationships, great. Can see those, they're pretty clear within The Bible as a good thing. Good thing and a natural thing, in some ways there's no way them, we're going to have those. Work, I talk about work. I think most people would sit up and go, "Yeah, I can get the that work can be a good thing for me, a place I develop, a place I grow, a place I can become more like Christ. I live in that place." Some people listening to this, sport will be their work. There's a nuance there, definitely. A number of people, listeners of the podcast will be that. But for some people where it is, quote unquote a hobby, similar to what it would be for me. Train once or twice a week, play on a Saturday.

I presume the question could quite easily come, you can't get rid of your family relationships, generally. We're called to work and work as a good thing and a necessary thing for the most of us. If your sport makes brings out the worst in you. If a competition of sport... So I just think for me, I don't know how many hours in a week, but one hour Saturday, I'm normally relatively respectful to those in authority over me or those I'm in relationships with, give me a bad umpire at hockey on a Saturday, and I'm fighting every inclination within my heart to not disrespect them, to not snipe about them to my teammates, to not complain about them to their face, stuff which would be frowned upon in any other environment, basically.

I presume the question would come, well just withdraw from that situation then. We're talking about competition, if competition does that to you, as much as it's fun, as much as good, as much as you can get a wedding out of it, every once in a while, if it brings that out of you, then that's dishonoring to the Lord, so just get out of it.

Graham Daniels: Yeah. And hey, you now have to take each case at a time. I'm sure you're not that desperate, or you might get the sack.

Jonny Reid: I hope not.

Graham Daniels: But, I'm never got to say in an interview like this, because there are pastoral issues here, and for some people you really do need to stop playing. So let's be clear about that. If it really is desperate, you actually may need to withdraw. So, I want to say that loud and clear. But the key principle in my mind here, we could take it from lots of places in the New Testament, but Paul in Philippians writes this to a church that he loves and is flourishing and on its way. And he writes in chapter 1 verse 6, "He who began a good work in you, will carry it through to completion and until the day of Christ, until Jesus comes again, or you die."

Jesus begins a work in us when we accept Him as our Lord and Savior. And when we entrust Him as our Lord and Savior with our lives, His spirit comes to live in us. And the promise of the New Testament is, that He's begun the work and He will definitely, not might, He will carry it on to completion, until the day of Christ. Now let's link this to sport, contest, agon, competere. For me, I want to say, I was wired as a kid to run, jump, kick. So much pleasure as achieved in the wedding and the despair of the funeral, and the joy of the wedding, of being a young man who had talents, who'd get loads of relationships through to my late fifties because of God's gift of sport to me. And millions of us believe we were born wired up like this.

When Jesus comes to live in people like this, they have to start to learn to integrate their new birth in Christ and the new presence of the spirit in them, into the world where He has given them gifts to build relationships. So, you can look on it as a negative or an opportunity. If He has begun a work in me, He will carry it onto completion until the day of Christ. He says in chapter 2, this is what Jesus was like. He gives them an example of a servant leader and then he says to them, verse 12 "Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling."

When you walk onto the pitch and you know there's a risk that you're actually going to be living a way that Jesus does not want you to carry on living, because He wants you to be kind and generous and thoughtful and humble and respectful when you don't feel like it. If He has began a good work in you and He is going to carry it onto completion, why not let Him deal with you in the place where you are weak and you can get stronger? And in chapter 2 verse 12 He says, "Graham, Danno, continue to work out your salvation. Get a grip of it, work it out with fear and trembling." You were probably nervous when you think I'm going to be cross with a ref again. And then He says this in verse 13, "You take responsibility for this with knocking knees, fear and trembling." 4 verse 13 chapter 2 Philippians, "It is God who works in you, to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose."

He who began a good work in you will carry it through. He will therefore with fear and trembling, work out your salvation. Where? In the place where you feel you vulnerable. Lord, please help me by working out your salvation that I might do Your will with this umpire. Now what about the contest? The agon, the competere for you, as you pray at church with your home group, as you ask God in prayer before the game and ask friends to pray for you and in the end of a season you say, "Oh Lord, you gave me the gift of play. You give me people to play with and against. You gave me officials to respect. Thank you Lord that you have worked out your salvation in me."

Jonny Reid: And the key thing here is, is that salvation being worked out. Not necessarily, like you've talked about, in a vulnerable place, not in a safe place. I presume we'd be going, and it's why in some ways we exist to Christians in sports, we want to encourage people not to just play in a safe space. Don't just play with Christian mates, play with those who do not necessarily know Christ and become more like Christ in that place, because we're not called to just spend all our time in a bubble, in a safe place, and just in church 24 hours a day. We're called to go out into the world and so it makes logical sense. We see it in Philippians, God will work in us in those places, just like we'd go to a workplace, or go down to the pub with our mates. These are all opportunities for us to be growing, to become more like Christ in those places.

Graham Daniels: Without a doubt, we're almost going out where we came in. Listen, if God wired you up with talent to play and said "There'll be other people who you play on the same team with or compete against. With this talent I've given you, you're made in my image. I've begun a good work. Let me complete it. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, because it is me who is at work in you to will and to act according to my good pleasure." You could say "Very nice Lord, but you know what? I'm going to do the equivalent of hitting a ball against the wall on my own. Thanks very much." I work out my salvation with fear and trembling all the time in a church building.

Jonny Reid: Because I presume, the other question we've had come in a few times has been, well, what happens when sport becomes my idol and the competition, it becomes to my idol too much. And we're not going to touch on all of this today because there's an episode we could do on that definitely.

Graham Daniels: And we will do one.

Jonny Reid: But at the same time, the logical outworking of that would be, well fine, but what if money is your idol? Are you just not going to spend any money ever? Are you just going to throw away your bank cards? But just because something is tricky or a struggle or a temptation, does not necessarily mean we have to withdraw. We might need to, but it doesn't necessarily mean we have to because it can be a place where God can really use, by His spirit, to equips come more like Him and to continue to do that good work in us.

Graham Daniels: You've nailed it down. If you had to withdraw, if it was a matter of routine, that if you know Christ as your Savior and Lord, that you have to withdraw from everywhere where there is a challenge because you know you might well do the wrong thing here, the ungodly thing, you'd probably have to stay in your house all the time and indeed you probably couldn't stay in your house cause you'd do ungodly things there. So, you go and live in the desert, or go live up a tree somewhere and become a monk in Alexandria, in the third century. And in the end you just better get back to glory quick because you're such a sinner.

So clearly you can make it look absurd to withdraw. And I want to keep saying, that if it is such a desperate thing that you know it's so wrong, the way you behave with money, or sex, or power, or sport, that you may need to withdraw for a season or forever for that matter. You'd never encourage alcoholics to go to the pub. So, of course there are boundaries, but I think this is the personal conscience issue. If you know you are wired up to play and if you know that it builds amazing relationships, but you know that with funeral and wedding analogy, that there's pain in sport and frustration.

See Johnny, if you were winning at hockey all the time with ease, you'd never get cross with the umpire. So, it shows that you're in an agon. So you're playing at a level which stretches you, otherwise you'd be relaxed, dead relaxed because it's easy. You're in the intensity of it. And if over the course of your career so far, you have become more patient, more generous in pressure situations, then you can say with confidence, He who began a good work in you is carrying it through and your sanctification, your transformation to be more like Jesus, with Jesus in you, because He's at work in you, is a beautiful thing.

And let's not lose this crucial point before we leave today. We've not talked at all about the consequence of you being changed a fraction at a time on your teammates, on the officials that you meet season after season, on your opponents, when they see this gradual change because you're serious about it. Church, pray for me, mates, pray for me, me, pray for it. Go out there, conscious of it. That's why we say you pray. You play in a way that is changing you with His power, then you can say something about Christ and He's passed on. If you withdraw too quickly, who's going to tell somebody else, in word and deed, about Christ? Nobody, if you're not there. That's why we can't separate them.

Jonny Reid: Great. Well, that's a good way to end it. I think all these podcasts, you sit around and you go, "This conversation could go four or five different ways." And it will, because we're going to keep recording them because we think it's so important, we keep wrestling with these questions of, what does it look like to be a Christian in the world of sport? I think what keeps coming out, as we record these again and again is, the privilege and the joy it is to be wired to play, and that's not against people who wouldn't say that, they'll have their own sphere, their own gift, their own talents, their own places where they can work out their salvation in fear and trembling.

But, I don't know about you, but when I record these, I sit there and go, "I love playing sport. I love the fact that the Lord has given me sport to do that. Which is a real joy." So, thanks for those who've sent in that question as well. Do keep sending in questions because we know these are questions one or two people send in, but actually they're questions which help thousands of people then wrestle with these concepts. And understand more about what it means to be a Christian while in sport and understand more, we pray, of the glorious good news of the gospel.

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