I immediately marched off the court.
No handshakes. My team had just lost a game we should’ve won. I wasn’t in the mood.
Disgusted, I silently guzzled water on the sideline. Then an opponent from the winning team — a friend of mine unashamedly known as an immature, foul-mouth womanizer — strolled over and reached out his hand.
“Good game,” he said with a genuine smile.
In that moment, whose God looked better? My God; the God of the professing Christian whose frustration with defeat exceeded his joy in getting to play basketball? Or my unreligious friend’s god, which apparently spurred him on to love and good works?
Competition — from football to Monopoly — commonly gives Christians the opportunity to shine as lights in the world or to make themselves look like hypocrites. In my experience, the latter occurs often.
Why? Why do we frequently forget that Jesus died for us when we compete? For forgetfulness is surely our problem, right? How could someone whose soul has been undeservingly saved from eternal damnation and adopted into an everlasting Father-child relationship with a holy, holy, holy God lose one’s marbles over a pickup basketball game?
The heat of the moment makes us forget whose we are. All we see is the W. (Or in the case of men blinded by testosterone, all we see is the respect that we need to take back after getting beat on a play and taunted for it).
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” James 4:1-2 says. “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.”
Our passions are at war within us. Our desire for triumph — and our own glory — exceeds our desire to make God look good. When the only joy we experience in competition comes from victory, it’s because we covet victory.
And this covetousness causes what a pastor of mine calls spiritual amnesia. We momentarily forget that Jesus died for us, which is news that should inform every breath we breathe, every game we play.
When the only joy we experience in competition comes from victory, it’s because we covet victory.Click to tweet
Is it possible to compete intensely without forgetting whose you are?
Of course. But only if you compete for the right reason.
In 1 Corinthians 10:31b, the Apostle Paul writes, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
The context of this verse is not instruction on how to compete rightly in first-century camel racing or fishing derbys. Paul had just finished advising Corinthian Christians about when they should eat meat that’s been sacrificed to idols.
“All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable,” Paul said. “All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor. Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains. If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?
“Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:23-33).
How does Paul make the jump from discussing meat sacrificed to idols to “whatever you do” that quickly? The answer lies in verse 26: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.”
Everything is the Lord’s. Therefore, do everything to the glory of God.
But what does competing to the glory of God look like practically? I think verses 24 and 30, where Paul supports his instruction with reasoning, are telling.
Verse 24: “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.”
How, Sway, is seeking your neighbor’s good possible in competition? Competition involves multiple forces fighting against each other for the same prize. If this sounds like an oxymoron to you, then perhaps you’re defining “good” as “winning.” Let no one seek his own victory, but that of his neighbor.
But what if we approach seeking our neighbor’s good in competition like Paul does in 1 Corinthians 10?
“If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s…” (1 Corinthians 10:27-29).
How are Corinthian Christians encouraged to seek their neighbor’s good in eating meat sacrificed to idols? By considering their conscious. He expounds on this concept in verses 32-33.
“Give no offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (emphasis added).
No respectable competitor would be pleased if their opponent let them win. That’s worse than losing. How then could we seek to imitate Paul as we ball?
We compete passionately, yet under control. We congratulate their success as much as we celebrate our own. We don’t boast or slander. We concede every close call to our opponent, all because we compete with eager expectation and hope that Christ will be honored in our bodies, whether by win or loss.
We compete thankfully.
Verse 30: “If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks” (emphasis added).
Thankfulness glorifies God. In Romans 1, the same unrighteous men who “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” are the same unrighteous men who “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal men and birds and animals and creeping things.”
How often does the unthankful athlete exchange the glory of the immortal God for the temporary high of winning a game?
In an interview before Super Bowl XLIX with The Gospel Coalition, Seattle Seahawks assistant coach Rocky Seto wanted to make it clear that winning the most celebrated sporting event in America pales in comparison to the glory of God.
“Could we emphasize that Jesus is better than anything this world has to offer and that he is the greatest treasure in the entire universe?” Seto said. “Jesus is better than the Super Bowl.”
Seto had already won a Super Bowl with Seattle the year prior, as well as two college football national championships with USC. He had tasted the most satisfying successes that American football has to offer. And before this football season began, Seto left a nearly seven-figure salary to be a pastor.
“I know people think this is crazy,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
May we all be thought of as crazy because of how radically our identity in Christ makes us compete differently than those who have not tasted and seen that Jesus is better than the Super Bowl — or winning anything. If Seto could count the Super Bowl as loss, surely we also could count as loss the lesser competitions in which we undermine our Christian witness. The consequence of not doing so is declaring to a watching world that, “Jesus is not better than winning.”
Which is a lie.
Make disciples on and off the court. It’s a cultural norm in competition to gloat about your good play and trash talk others about their lack thereof. It’s a cultural norm in competition to argue about close calls and lose joylessly. When cultural norms are defied, people take notice.
Disciple your teammates and opponents by displaying the dramatic difference that being in Christ makes in competition. Because, “At the end of the day,” Seto says, “Jesus is the only one who defines you.”