Here is the promised second segment of “What Worked and What Didn’t.” I will basically be picking up where Susan left off in Part 1. When we came to the Lord Jesus thirty-five years ago, we joined a church, put our children in a Christian school, and began to change our lives as much and as quickly as we could learn how. At that time homeschooling was an infant movement of which we, as yet, knew nothing. We were beginning to grow in Christ, but as young Christians and young parents, we had not thought everything through for ourselves, nor had we learned to test all things for ourselves against the Word of God. We were really trying to read and study the Word enough that we might be able to skillfully use it as the lamp that God intended to light our way. Thus, “competition” sort of blindsided us. We grew up with competition, so it was a completely normal facet of our lives and environment, and that did not appreciably change when we became Christians. We believe that we, like many others, were wrong.
At school competition abounded. There was a sport for every season, and our boys participated each season. I dutifully taught them to be achievers, and how to play skillfully and successfully. There were also academic meets, spelling bees, Bible contests, and more. Our children also learned to do quite well in these activities. But were they really doing well? I mean according to God? You see, our children had learned to work, achieve, and endure, but they had become proud; they were really learning more to have the hearts of achievers and winners instead of learning to have the hearts of redeemed sinners who are becoming devoted servants of their Saviour. They were not the only ones. Being competitive was nearly a matter of survival in an environment that was teaching many wrong attitudes right along with—or in spite of—all the good things expected from the methods being used. As the children grew older, we looked around the young people, including our own, and the dawn began to break that something was amiss.
What was it? Weren’t we doing everything that we should? What were we missing? As the children grew even older, nearing adulthood, some of these wrong attitudes became more ingrained. It seemed they could not see them at all. I began to realize why. I began to see that I had many of these traits, and did not see them either! I had grown up in an environment that demanded not only competition, but victory also. I considered the ability to compete in whatever environment one encounters a necessary means of survival, and had learned to master it. I had considered it my duty to teach this “necessity” to my children. Don’t get me wrong. The idea was not to just go out and “beat” people, or to always excel. I applauded a grade of “C” as well as an “A” as long as it represented honest effort. The idea (the survival mechanism) was just to be able, when challenged, stand the test, whatever it may be, and very often carry off the victory. I had made it my business to learn how, and to teach it. Sadly, though I wanted to be a pleasing servant to my Saviour, I was missing the mark, and even more sadly, I could see that I was rather proud of it. And in an environment that provided continual opportunity, I realized that I was often falling into my established patterns—patterns that do not become a servant.
Unfortunately, we cannot undo what wrongs we have done. However, we can repent and make what amends God outlines in His Word, and we can pray to Him Who can give grace to overcome the effects of our errors in our own lives and the lives of others. This we did. We went to each of our children and confessed our errors in judgement and example. We shared with them what the Lord had been teaching us. We asked their forgiveness for teaching them bad habits and attitudes. We knew that we could not undo the damage. Only they could do so with God’s help. We told them exactly that. We told them that we hoped and prayed they would be able to learn different attitudes and patterns of actions. We knew that it could only now be between them and the Lord.
They listened; they understood. It takes time to change the nature one has developed; it is a lot of work. It certainly was for me. Over the years, we have talked about the subject a few times, and we know that with prayer and effort, God has worked in all of our lives. Praise God for His unceasing love and His great ability to undo the blemishes in our characters, and our parenting mistakes.
So, why did we feel competition was such a big contributor to the problems in a Christian’s spirit? I have made a few updates to, and included, an old article that I wrote about some of the discoveries that surprised and changed me. Others may not all feel the same about these ideas, especially if new to them, but I think it is a good place to start thinking and praying about competition’s place in God’s family. As I said, they did begin to stir me. That is what these thoughts are intended to be—merely a place to start. As each of us shines God’s lamp on our environment, He will supply the rest. I hope you will give it some thought and prayer. It may become a journey for you also.
Competition — Is It Biblical?
Competition according to Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary is—the act of competing; struggle or rivalry for supremacy. By this definition there must be winners and losers. Winners and losers are comparative terms. Someone must be beaten for one to be the winner. How does this relate to “Comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise,” — II Corinthians 10:12 or “In honour preferring one another,” —Romans 12:10.
If we are to be Keepers of the Faith, and if we belong to Jesus Christ we are, and we truly desire to follow biblical principles, we must examine competition, as every other issue in life, in the light of God’s Word. We must throw out what other people do, what they think, their thoughts about what God might or might not like, and anything else, no matter how prevalent, that is not fully supported in the Word that God has given us. Some say competition is as American as apple pie; that we must all learn to be competitive for we live in a competitive society; that we need to teach our children to be winners. Competition may well be as American as apple pie, but where does America lie on our Saviour’s scale of godliness? And where does this particular issue lie on that scale? When we stand before Him, God will not ask if we followed America; He will not ask us if it was a great country; He will ask us if we walked in His will and lived in His Word.
In the struggle for supremacy, winners go to the top; losers sink to the bottom. “Losers” is a concept that we do not find in Jesus’ teachings. Actually, so is the concept of “winners.” Only two passages in the New Testament mention winning. They both use the term to describe the same thing. The first is 1 Peter 3:1. However, the second actually makes direct reference to the essence of competition as the antithesis of what God’s winning is all about. Philippians 3:8 says, “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ . . .” Paul says that he has gladly suffered the loss of all those things which might be won in this world through means such as competition, and counts them as excrement. How close is our thinking to God’s thinking?
Is competition just not God’s best, or is it downright harmful? When all is said and done, what is a loser? It is not a good thing—not in a godly sense, nor even in a worldly sense. To this concept, the first au contraire we hear (it may even come from our own lips) is likely to be the example of sports. In sports we excuse this with the explanation that the competitors are just training, and that losers should learn to be good losers. If competition is a struggle for supremacy (that has been established for us), then why should we be happy to fail in the struggle—the goal—the assignment that we accepted or were given?
Without even thinking, we can bombard our children with competition beginning at a time when they are quite small with peewee sports, group games, Bible memory competitions, and spelling bees. The cream rises to the top; the rest are expected to be amiable “losers.” Amiable or not—who is glad for the losers?—or even cares about them? There is some level of degradation attached in everyone’s eyes. And the winners—are they not proud? Is piety born of victory in struggling for the mastery? The vanquished struggle with the temptation of emotions they know are wrong (anger, shame, etc), and they struggle with knowing they are failing in that emotional struggle also. Is it necessary to place them thus in the way of temptation? “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” —Ephesians 6:4.
The victors face different temptations; they are proud of their successes. The problem is that Jesus counts it all loss and sin (shall we say, as Paul does, excrement?), and they do not even realize it. And do we steer them clear of these distractions? Who warns them of the spiritual dangers? Where is God glorified in the things of dung? Do winners feel better about themselves than losers? Some might—but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. You see, losing may be only as far away as the next competition. Such a position is seldom a comforting experience. Does competition really seem to be the way to rear children in “the nurture and admonition of the Lord”? A child’s self-worth should be dependent upon whom he is in Christ, not his competitive status. The only true “feeling good” comes as we “ . . . press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” —Philippians 3:14. We cannot get that from competition, and we cannot learn it from competition.
Is it not interesting that in recent years we have witnessed the adoption of the term “loser” as yet another negative stereotype with which the proud label others in our society? Isn’t this because we have become so “American” that we somehow feel some sort of residual competition? It seems people must find what they are good at, and find someone less fortunate with which to compare themselves favorably. America is so swamped with this idea that most of us can barely have thoughts outside of it. Sports, grades, position, wealth, intelligence, physical ability, speaking ability, owning the biggest, having the nicest, being the prettiest—even professional sports, which have no relation to real life—are they not at their very best, simply a distraction from real things?—yet the country is absorbed in rooting for one team over another. Shall we teach our children that God is pleased to have sports receive a special place in our lives?
Have you also noticed what a popular pastime criticisms or “cut-downs” have become among youngsters nowadays? They all feel the need to be at the top or to gain approval. They often are so desperate that they think that “cutting down” another increases their own stature. Are they not simply coping with the competitive culture in which they live? We want winners, right?—but is God interested in winners? We may think that teaching our children not to participate in such activities will at least be a solution to this particular problem, but the problem is part of a larger issue—struggle for mastery cannot occur without permeating one’s being. God has answers, but we must apply them.
And are we, as parents, promoting this continual struggle for mastery? That is a question each of us must decide alone before God. If we are, why are we doing so? Is it because we have not thought about it?—or because this is the way society is?—or both? Are these things that God expects His own to think about and discern? When we think about it, why would society be otherwise? Whose kingdom does the Bible say the earth is? Do we forget, and sometimes think that kingdom only extends to other countries?—or to countries that do not have as many churches? Or is this world a foreign land to every true pilgrim traveling to the celestial city? Should we want to be so much like the world? Should we as Christians encourage our youngsters into all manner of combative (even if not physically combative) contests?
The very nature of competition necessitates comparing who is better, or who wins. Mastery cannot exist until peaceful balance and equilibrium has been upset. Did God create His people to strive to see which one is better than his brother at anything? When a person is a victor in a competition who is receiving the glory?—God or the victor? Who is receiving the praise and adulation of the fans? Does being number one contribute to humility? So then, does competing tend to make us more or less like Jesus? Oh, to put things in proper perspective, does praying beforehand for mastery change the answer to any of these four questions?
And what does the Bible say? II Corinthians 10:12—“For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.”
It goes on to say that we are to emulate Him Who gave His life to redeem us. Philippians 2:5-7— “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.”
If Jesus is to be our example, it seems that we are to make ourselves of no reputation. How do we reconcile that with striving for the mastery over others? Jesus was not competitive. Instead of competing with others, Jesus washed their feet. Instead of beating others, He served them. He is not greatest who wins, but he who serves. That is what the Saviour taught us, and “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” Can competition be stirred together with true servanthood?
Now, in any such discussion of competition, another immediate “on the contrary” that comes up is the fact that our capitalistic society is based on competition. However, is this relevant to our relationship with our Redeemer? Capitalism is a political policy. Political policies are used to rule the kingdom of earth. We are taught to obey our governors, but not to emulate them. Our walk is not affected by capitalism, communism, freedom, or totalitarianism. The apostle Paul says in, 1 Corinthians 7:20-22, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ’s servant.” The Bible commands us in I Corinthians 10:31 “. . . or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”
So what about little childhood competitions? What is the harm in them? Here are a few things to think about. Little things in little lives grow up to be big things in big lives. For every action there is a result, which generally, over time, often attains far greater magnitude than the original action. When that frail, semi-formed life is thrust into a struggle for mastery, we cannot expect that life to come through that struggle (upset or emotional turmoil) unchanged. Feelings and attitudes have been formed, and competition has been installed as a factor in the life. Has it been given its proper place? The Jesuit motto is, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” If the Jesuits know the importance of early training, shouldn’t we as God’s people? As parents, are we not entrusted to train a seven-year-old to live as the Saviour said? We might look at these little competitions as adults and think, “Big deal!” But to miniature lives, miniature situations can be a very big deal.
Childhood is a time of training and preparation, not a time for competition. It is a time for building character. If we wish to help our children build real character, we are going to have to think about what builds true character, and what builds it without harmful side effects. Shall our children learn to achieve in order to fill needs, or in order to win? Shall they learn endurance to be strong in the day of temptation, or in order to gain mastery by outlasting another? Shall they learn diligence as a steward for the Saviour, or in order to be the best? Centuries ago science was infatuated with alchemy. Many men were convinced that a way could be found to transform lead into gold. Obviously none ever succeeded. The term alchemy has now found a modern day definition also. One source defines it as: A process by which paradoxical results are achieved or incompatible elements combined with no obvious rational explanation. Will we be able to give an account of building godly brotherhood between those whom we teach to struggle against each other for mastery?
We want to always choose activities for our children in light of God’s Word. The process is sometimes more difficult and involved than we may have expected. It is so easy to forget to test an activity or principle. If we are faithful, though, to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in all things, He will be faithful to do so. We only need to accept light and search out truth when light comes, even if it startles us. The Bible has the answers and the Holy Spirit knows exactly where they are!