Christians and Competition
By Nathan Nelson
Last month it would have been hard to miss that the Olympics were on. All over the news were stories of courage, of heartbreak, of scandal, of sportsmanship. It’s all pretty standard by now, something we’re used to seeing every few years. While the networks bemoan that viewership is down, very few people didn’t find at least some time to watch gymnastics, or diving, or the equestrian events, or swimming.
As a country—even as a world, perhaps—we honor the perseverance, sacrifice, and skill of these athletes. We cry and cheer as they overcome injury, trial, pressure and disaster to eventually succeed. Or we sigh with disappointment as they come up just short, though we honor them no less for the effort they made.
In the Adventist world I grew up in I was strongly discouraged from seriously pursuing such competition. Frequently that discouragement was framed in the context of Sabbath-keeping. At some point, I would be asked to compromise my Adventist values for the sake of my sport, and then I would be able to progress no further in my career—at least not if I wanted to stay true to my Adventist values.
As I got older I noticed that this anti-competition sentiment, while not universal, ran deeper than I had understood at first. I was surprised to learn that Ellen White herself discouraged competitive sports strongly, and not simply for the logistical complications. There are many rather forceful, and in my opinion, quite horrifying quotes of hers about the evils of competition. Perhaps the most telling is this quote from Fundamentals of Christian Education (pp 228,229)
“Diligent study is essential, and diligent hard work. Play is not essential. The influence has been growing among students in their devotion to amusements, to a fascinating, bewitching power, to the counteracting of the influence of the truth upon the human mind and character. A well-balanced mind is not usually obtained in the devotion of the physical powers to amusements . . . What force of powers is put into your games of football and your other inventions after the way of the Gentiles—exercises which bless no one! . . . I cannot find an instance in the life of Christ where He devoted time to play and amusement. He was the great Educator for the present and the future life. I have not been able to find one instance where He educated His disciples to engage in amusement of football or pugilistic games, to obtain physical exercise, or in theatrical performances; and yet Christ was our pattern in all things. Christ, the world’s Redeemer, gave to every man his work and bids them “occupy till I come.”
To those aspiring young athletes, this quote seems rather damning. But Mrs White has some very good points, not only in this passage, but in many others, none of which are to be brushed off lightly. I can’t argue with the statement that “a well-balanced mind is not usually obtained in the devotion of the physical powers to amusements.” Indeed, we see a larger number of stories about athletes getting into trouble than we see about them showing good character. And, with the exposure professional sports gets in our media, I can’t fully disagree with the assertion that competitive sports are certainly a “bewitching power” in our children. The power of sports, competition, and the desire to win can indeed be an imposing negative influence.
On the other hand, perhaps Mrs. White’s words require some additional thought before we simply run with them. While she appears to be correct that Christ doesn’t appear to have (at least not on the record) encouraged his disciples to “engage in amusement of . . . games . . . or in theatrical performances”, I’m not sure that the absence of such encouragement should imply an implicit condemnation of competition or amusement in general. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 9: 24-27, Paul very closely equates the discipline of engaging in physical sports with characteristics highly desirable in those of outstanding Christian character.
“Do you not know that in a race, all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore, I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize”
No, this is not, perhaps, the direct endorsement of competition it seems on the surface. It is after all, a metaphor for the discipline we are expected to show in our pursuit of Christlike character. But certainly Paul draws parallels between the discipline of training for fierce competition, and the same discipline required of dedicated servants of Christ. There appears to be some gray area here that we should be aware of. Perhaps in drawing this parallel, Paul may be hinting that the arena of competition and sports is not simply a waste of time and energy?
I believe there is a gray area, and if you study Mrs. White thoroughly and honestly, so did she. I could pull up a number of other statements of hers that serve to temper the first one I quoted at the top, but I suspect that would only create disagreement and angst. Instead, I’m going to pull out one of my favorite quotes from Mrs. White, which I believe trumps nearly all others. From Selected Messages, Book 3, p 217.
“God wants us all to have common sense, and he wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things.”
In other words, rather than relying on the mandates and declarations of even those respected individuals acknowledged as authorities in our church, we are to consider what we know of Christ’s character and come to our own decisions.
In the spirit of using reason and common sense, here are some points to ponder as you consider not only your own involvement in sports, but that of the people around you:
- Is the pursuit of your given sport or competitive activity contributing to building a Christlike character in you or others around you? This question may not have an easy answer. We’ve heard stories of kids off the streets taking up boxing, and despite the inherent brutality, channeling their anger and aggression into something positive, disciplined and character-building. Which situation is better? Refraining from such activity and remaining undisciplined in a terrible environment, or diving into a brutal, sometimes horrifying sport, but learning control, discipline and humility along the way? Are all those benefits negated if they learn that discipline imperfectly, if they still find themselves prone to anger, but simply end up being more effective at inflicting their violence on others?
- Is the pursuit of a particular discipline beneficial, despite sacrifices made in its pursuit, or is it detrimental? I speak of all disciplines here, from sports, to theater, to music, to work. I’m reminded of the story of a man who set the record for the most marathons in a year, having completed 370 of them in 365 days. His pursuit began after being chastised by his girlfriend for being too lazy even to play with his son. it very quickly became a maniacal obsession that, in my own personal judgment, went too far in the opposite extreme, exacting a staggering financial and emotional toll on his family. At what point did his determination to change become simply a different obsession with the exact same lack of discipline? What is that line where the cost of your pursuit outweighs the benefit?
- In any given situation, is it more appropriate to sacrifice your ambition to succeed, or to compromise your ideals? This is by far one of the most difficult questions we face as Christians, and more specifically as Adventists, but one of the ones we are most reluctant to address. In particular, the topic of competing on the Sabbath comes up frequently in children’s sports leagues. In every situation—for Mrs. White reminds us that “circumstances alter conditions”—have we truly taken the time to ask ourselves, which is the more valuable lesson for my child to learn here? Is it that there is a time to sacrifice our ambition for a greater cause than a simple victory? Or is it that our commitments occasionally demand some uncomfortable compromise if we intend to keep them? I know of Adventist parents and their children who have decided both ways. And indeed there are times when commitment to our ideals will be rewarded with kindness, understanding and fairness, and other times when it will be rewarded with mockery, betrayal, and by being taken advantage of. When is that commitment appropriate, and when is it appropriate to “bend the rules” a bit?
- Am I going to be able to give myself and/or my child the opportunity to learn how to lose graciously? This above all other lessons is perhaps the most valuable to be gained from competition. In a world of 7 billion people, no matter what you or your child try to do, somebody in this world will do better than you do. Can you strike the right balance between the drive to excel, the desire to improve oneself and be better, and the understanding that you will inevitably reach a limit to that ability to improve? In a world that measures itself by standings not only in sports but at work, in politics, in piety, even in parenting, (yes, parents can be competitive with each other) do you and your children possess the ability to know when you cannot win, to know when you should not compete, and be at peace with that knowledge? Balancing this acceptance with a continuing drive toward self-improvement is non-trivial, and frequently overlooked.
- Are the risks worth the benefit? Freak accidents can occur in any sport. Runners keel over of heart attacks, football players break backs, boxers have died in the ring. Even in less physical sports, you will make enemies of your competitors sometimes, no matter how hard you try to show good sportsmanship. When is the cost of a broken limb, a permanently damaged knee, thoroughly destroyed self-esteem, or being surrounded by enemies—when is the chance of even one of these prices being exacted a poor trade for the benefits of competition? When is that risk worth taking?
- And finally, are you truly learning discipline and sportsmanship (i.e. loving and humble character balanced with drive and uncompromising pursuit of a goal) or are you competing just for the rush of winning? Are you even capable of demonstrating Christlike character to your children and/or competitors and teammates? Or do you need to find another medium in which to grow and learn these lessons, one that may be less stressful or destructive than competition?
These questions—all of these questions—deserve deep, unwavering honesty and self-examination as you ponder them. If you have an easy answer, I submit that you likely need to re-examine that answer with a more critical eye. And even if you have come to a thoughtful, meaningful decision, you will need to be at peace with the fact that other equally devoted and sincere Christians around you—even other Adventists—may come to a different decision than you have. Further, those decisions may not be the right ones, and that’s okay.
A huge part of competition is looking at failure, examining it, learning from it and improving upon one’s best effort during the next attempt. And this learning process isn’t limited simply to sports, or computer games, or even music competitions. This process is part of what life is about. We make mistakes, we act imperfectly, we fail to foresee the consequences of our actions perfectly. Do we learn from those mistakes, examine ourselves with honesty and compassion, turn to those who can coach us through our own blind spots, and do a better job next time? Or do we look for others to blame for our failure, cover up our own inadequacies with lies or deception, then refuse to try again for fear of further failure?
What better way to improve at this very Christian process of growth than by practicing it? Why rule out competition as a means of learning this process of building Christlike character, especially when it has been such an effective tool for that kind of growth for so many people?
You never know, you might even have a little fun along the way!
Nathan studied English and theater at Walla Walla University where he met his wife of 15 years who gave him two wonderful children. He makes a living programming computers for Nike, the sports shoe manufacturer. He grew up as an Adventist but is not sure how to classify himself these days, perhaps “a non-member, semi-reformed, not-quite-backslider.”