When the saints compete
“Slow down! This is not a race, just a run in the park.” I had to keep on reminding myself, as I ran in my first Ormskirk 5k park run last Saturday using the excellent brand-new fitness trail at Edge Hill. It is not a race. No need to compete. Just runners running together. Enjoy yourself. But there was no way I could be beaten by Rachel, now some 25m ahead of me. I caught her on second lap. Only to find myself taken on the line by bridesmaid Christine who had been tracking me for the final few hundred metres. For I race instinctively, even in my dotage. We are competitive beings.
Here I quote Arsene Wenger, particularly after last Sunday: “I think we live in a competitive world, and I love competition.” Incidentally, Everton 3 Arsenal 0. I write this during the first week of operation of TNT delivering letters to L39. It seems strange having two posties – one with the familiar red and the other in an unfamiliar orange. The reason for this duplication is the supposed power of competition to deliver efficiencies. And competition can deliver, even where you wouldn’t expect it. Reading Philip Norman’s excellent biography of John Lennon, it seems that the flowering of Lennon’s creativity came as a result of trying to write better songs than Paul and produce better music than the Beach Boys. But what about competition in the life of faith? Surely it is co-operation which counts. Certainly there is some evidence in the Gospels that some people perceived a rivalry between Jesus and John the Baptist, something which John strenuously disowned. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30). And the apostle Paul refers to those evangelists who would outperform him, even taking advantage of his regular imprisonments. He writes, somewhat cryptically, to the Philippians. “The others, now that I’m out of the picture, are merely greedy, hoping to get something out of it for themselves. Their motives are bad. They see me as their competition, and so the worse it goes for me, the better—they think—for them.” (Philippians 1:17 The Message) So competition in the spiritual life is wrong? Right? Well, not necessarily. Witness Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. In this the apostle encourages his readers to give generously to the poor Christians in the Jerusalem mother church. Give cash, that is. He explains that their fellow disciples in the north of Greece, in Macedonia, have been incredibly generous. “In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” (8:2). He continues: “But since you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you – see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” (8:7) They can - so why not you? Paul is clearly appealing to a certain competitiveness. In the following chapter he portrays a scenario in which these Corinthian super-saints are outperformed by their less affluent fellow disciples from the North. “For if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we – not to say anything about you – would be ashamed of having been so confident.” (9:4). So competition between churches can be healthy in such contexts. And we perform better for the sake of the Kingdom Last month I was talking to a leader of one of the big city centre churches in Liverpool. (He may be reading this blog). They thrive and innovate as they carefully watch each other, rapidly responding to any changes one church may make. When one church launches a new ministry, they all do. They spur each other on to do better. Otherwise, they get left behind. That has to be a good thing as more lives are transformed by the Gospel. A certain rivalry can deliver. It goes without saying, however, that such competition has clear limits. We always honour the King; his values are paramount. Some elements of competition, such as discrediting your opponent, are simply just wrong. Moreover, to grow at the expense of another church is not Kingdom growth. And competition between Christians? Of course, as we read in Romans 12:10: Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour.” That’s a race worth winning.