Our family recently moved to a new city, which provided a chance to reflect on what we treasured about our former church. The preaching was robust and solid and the music rich and beautiful, but there was one thing I kept coming back to: the noncompetitive community we shared.
My approach to relationships used to be all about comparisons. Like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9–14, I thanked God I wasn’t like other women. I was more reliable, more knowledgeable, more faithful; better at my job, marriage, grocery shopping, even driving. Relational envy was the air I breathed.
Relational envy was the air I breathed.
But then I joined a church where competition and envy weren’t the norm.
My attempts to relate in those old ways fell flat; these women weren’t having it. “Winning” became less about how I stacked up to others and more about how Jesus stacks up to everyone. Everyone, it seemed, shared even footing before the cross and had nothing to prove.
I was wildly uncomfortable. And it completely changed my life.
Keeping the ‘Co’ in Competition
The original meaning of the word “compete” in Latin was to aim at something together. Today, though, the meaning is almost the opposite: it means “to strive to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others who are trying to do the same.” Both community and competition share the same communal prefix: com. Athletics stress togetherness as teams rally to victory through pooled blood, sweat, and tears. But competition within the church is different: it distracts and destroys.
Competition distracts us from the glorious goal of a unified family laboring to share the gospel in a fractured world.
Competition distracts us from the glorious goal of a unified family laboring to share the gospel in a fractured world. And it destroys opportunities to serve others. If I’m absorbed with competing or comparing, I have little strength left to meaningfully engage with others. A competitive approach to community yields envy, despair, anxious thoughts, and anger because our gaze is fixated inward.
Consider the picture in Isaiah 2:4:
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
When I was at war with God, the trustworthy Judge invaded and redeemed my life. Christian community used to be an opportunity to compare and dominate, but now I’m learning to cultivate and enjoy relationships, laboring together for Christ’s glory.
Here are six ways to combat ungodly competition in your heart and to help others in your church do the same.
1. Forget yourself.
Humble yourself, my friend, and meditate deeply on 1 Corinthians 3:21–4:7. Enter each room with eyes oriented to love, because you have nothing to gain by appearing better than those around you.
2. Fail openly.
Rather than working overtime to reframe or hide personal failure, expose it. Confess your disappointments, mess-ups, and mistakes regularly within your community, letting truth do what it’s meant to do: set you and others free.
3. Celebrate others.
Celebrate every new career, award, baby, spouse, house, or whatever. Annihilate envy with celebration—freely and regularly. After all, Scripture does prescribe one competition: “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10). Your gain doesn’t diminish my hope for answered prayers. Your gain gives glory to my God; your gain becomes my own.
Your gain doesn’t diminish my hope for answered prayers. Your gain gives glory to my God; your gain becomes my own.
4. Focus on questions.
Whether you’re introverted or extroverted, engage with people as image-bearers about whom you have so much to learn. I often draw from David Powlison’s “X-Ray Questions” before fellowshipping in order to be poised to listen and learn.
5. Fear God, not man.
He is big. We are small. Align your thoughts accordingly.
6. Finish most conversations with prayer.
Take yourself to Jesus. Then your heart and mind will be so engaged with the only One able to do anything about anything, you won’t have energy left to envy and compare.
Check Spiritual Competition at the Door
So let’s keep enjoying fantasy-football competitions, canasta tournaments, and March Madness mayhem. But let’s also check spiritual competition at the door. Let’s fight to do everything we can to make much of God and his glory—together.
Seriously, who can compete with that?