Editors' Note: TBT (Throwback Thursday) with Every Square Inch: Reading the Classics is a new weekly column that publishes some of the best writings on vocation from the past. Our hope is to introduce you to thoughtful literature that you may not have discovered yet and, as always, to encourage you to know and love Christ more in all spheres of your life.
As with other aspects of business, so it is with competition: the evils and distortions that have sometimes accompanied competition have led people to conclude that competition is evil in itself. But this is not true.
We can think of some good examples of competition in other areas of life. To take one example, most people think competition in sports is a good thing, whether in children’s soccer leagues or Little League baseball or in professional sports. Although we can all think of bad examples of overly competitive coaches, for the most part we think competition in sports is a good system, and we think it fair that the best teams receive some prize or award at the end. (See 1 Corinthians 9:25-26 and 2 Timothy 2:5 for some metaphors of athletic competition that Paul uses in a positive way.)
Similarly, in our school system, assigning grades is a competitive activity in which the best math students and the best English students and the best art and music students receive higher marks. The grading system provides guidance to help students find something they can do well. When I fly in an airplane, I am glad that it has been designed by someone who got straight A's in mathematics and engineering. The grading system is “competitive,” and it guides society in assigning jobs to those who are best suited to those jobs.
Opportunity to Test Our Abilities
In the business world, competition does that as well. We hired a careless painter once for our house, and he lasted only a day. But then we found a good painter, and we were willing to pay more for his high-quality work. The bad painter needed to find another occupation, and we were helping him do that by asking him not to come back the next day. The world is so diverse, and the economic system has so many needs, that I am sure there is some area in which he can fulfill a need and do well. But it wasn’t painting.
We must recognize, of course, that in every society there will be some people who because of physical or mental disability are unable to find productive work without help from others, either from charitable organizations or from government agencies. Surely we should support such efforts to provide a “safety net” for those unable to care for themselves. But in American society at least (with which I am most familiar), and in many other countries as well, there is productive work available for the vast majority of the population, and competition is the mechanism that helps workers find the jobs for which their interests and abilities best suit them.
So a competitive system is one in which we test our abilities and find if we can do something better than others, and so be paid for it. The system works well when we reward better work and greater quantity of work with greater reward.
In fact, if you have ever shopped around for the lowest price on a shirt or a computer or a car, your actions show that you approve of competition in the economy, because you are making competition work. You are buying from the person who can produce and distribute a computer cheaper than someone else, and you are encouraging that more efficient manufacturer to stay in business, and you are discouraging the less efficient, more expensive computer manufacturers from staying in business. This happens every day, and we take it for granted. But if we are going to be good stewards of our possessions we need to have competition in the marketplace.
Means for Product Improvement
Another benefit of competition is that people keep getting better at making things, and as a result the (inflation-adjusted) prices of consumer goods keep falling over the course of decades. This means that over time an economically competitive society will enjoy an increasingly higher standard of living.
The audio player I bought last week cost me $89, but a year ago it would have cost me $120. Similarly, computers keep getting better and prices keep falling, so more and more people can afford a computer, and everyone who buys one has more money left over than he or she would have had a year ago. The first pocket calculators cost around $100, but today I can buy one at the checkout counter at the drug store for $1. These are examples of how competition brings economic benefit to the society as a whole.
Striving for Excellence
There is still another benefit to competition. God has created us with a desire to do well, and to improve what we are able to do. Competition spurs us on to do better, because we see others doing better and we decide we can do that too. An executive from a company that made mail-sorting machines once told me that his engineers thought they had made the fastest, quietest mail sorting machine possible—until he took them to watch a machine manufactured by a German company that was even faster and quieter. Then the engineers went back to work, determined to do even better. I think that God has made us with such a desire to strive for excellence in our work so that we would imitate his excellence more fully.
A kind of competition to try to do as well as or better than someone else seems to be what Solomon had in mind when he wrote, “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor” (Eccles. 4:4). The term translated “envy” (in most translations) or “rivalry” (NASB) is the Hebrew word qin’åh, which can have either negative or positive moral connotations, depending on the context (much like our terms “jealousy” and “zeal”). Here it seems to have the sense “competitive spirit.” The verse does not say this is good or bad, only that it happens. (A different word, chåmad, is used in Exodus 20:17 when God says, “You shall not covet.”) People see what someone else has, and they decide to work harder themselves, or to gain better skills. In this way, competition spurs people on to better work, and they themselves prosper, and society prospers.
There is in fact a sort of mild “competition” implied in the testing of men before they become deacons: “And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless” (1 Tim. 3:10). If they do well in the time of testing (“if they prove themselves blameless”), then they can become deacons. If not, then they should find some other area of service within the church.
Competition seems to be the system God intended when he gave people greater talents in one area and gave other people greater talents in another area, and when he established a world where justice and fairness would require giving greater reward for better work.
Competition brings many opportunities to glorify God, as we try to use our talents to their full potential and thus manifest the God-like abilities that he has granted to us, with thankfulness in our hearts to him. Competition enables each person to find a role in which he or she can make a positive contribution to society and thus a role in which people can work in a way that serves others by doing good for them. Competition is thus a sort of societal functioning of God’s attributes of wisdom and kindness, and it is a way society helps people discover God’s will for their lives. Competition also enables us individually to demonstrate fairness and kindness toward others, even those with whom we compete.
Temptations to Sin
On the other hand, competition brings many temptations to sin. There is a difference between trying to do a job better than others, on the one hand, and trying to harm others and prevent them from earning a living on the other hand. There is nothing wrong with trying to run a better car repair shop than the one down the street, but there is a lot wrong with lying about the other mechanic, or stealing his tools, or in my heart seeking to do him harm.
Competition also brings temptations to pride, and to excessive work that allows no rest or time with family or with God. There is also the temptation to so distort life values that we become unable even to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
But the distortions of something good must not cause us to think that the thing itself is evil. These temptations to sin should not obscure the fact that competition in itself, within appropriate limits (some of which should be established by government), is good and pleasing to God, and provides many opportunities to glorify him.
This excerpt is adapted from Business for the Glory of God. Copyright © 2003. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.crossway.org.