Today is one of my favorite days on my annual sports calendar. This afternoon, the brackets came out for the national college basketball tournament, known as “The Dance”. As I watched the announcements of which team is “in” and which teams are out of the competition, I couldn’t help but consider the value of competition itself.
The very word “competition” can evoke two extreme reactions. There are those take any challenge to an extreme and those who often want parity in just about everything. Some parents object when all the kids don’t win in a competition of some sort. The fear of “damaging the child’s self esteem” by allowing some to win and some to lose, compels them to want to see a medal hanging around everyone’s neck. And others scream and holler at their nine year old with impossible expectations as if they were an Olympic or professional athlete.
Surely the wise perspective is somewhere in the middle. In point of fact, the scriptures encourage all of us to do our very best, regardless of the setting. Notice the injunction in Colossians 3:23-24, “And whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance.”
“Heartily”…there is a word that captures the concept of competition. And it makes me think of Eric Liddell. A committed Christian who was raised by his missionary parents in China, Eric studied at the University of Edinburgh and played rugby. But his passion was running. His gritty performance in the 200 and 400 meter races at the 1924 Olympics (where he won both a gold and bronze medal) was the subject of the famous movie, “Chariots of Fire”.
At one point in the film, the “Scottish Flyer” remarked, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” We might even call those remarks his personal “mission statement.” Eric understood the importance of competition, but he understood that the effort must be contained within a biblical context.
The movie ends with his winning in Paris, but Eric Liddell’s life went on to be noteworthy in many other ways. He returned to Asia as a missionary. After the Japanese invaded China in 1941, he sent his wife and three daughters home to safety in England but he stayed behind to attend to his ministry. He was captured and interned in a Japanese prison camp where he died of a painful brain tumor. One of his biographers commented that even to the end, “he maintained his faith, courage and kindness towards others…and died just after his 43rd birthday.”
I believe competition can be a good thing. It does need to be balanced against other character traits. It needs to be done in a context of integrity, teamwork and even within a spirit of serving. But it can be helpful to stretch ourselves in a meaningful competition.
And for the record…I will be cheering loudly the next two weeks during the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Go Duke!