You’re playing your best friend in a lively game of tennis. It’s a tough match; you’ve split the first two sets. You desperately want to win the third set. Is that wrong?

Your high school football team’s opponent boasts the top receiver in the county, and you’re assigned to cover him. He’s been beating you all night. You decide you’re going to try to injure him and put him out of the game. After all, he’s keeping your team from winning, and you want to help your team. Is that wrong?

Your high school basketball team is playing the best team in the league. The teams battle through two overtimes, but the other team pulls it out on a last-second basket. After the game, you’re depressed. Is that wrong?

Competition brings up many questions, and they aren’t easy to answer. Is it wrong to enjoy winning? Is the “killer instinct” unchristian? Should Christians be able to shrug off losing as “God’s will”?

Every athlete who’s been serious about his or her faith has struggled with these questions. Let’s look at competitiveness – the desire to win – and see how it meshes with Christianity.

COMPETITIVENESS: Right or Wrong?

At the outset, it’s important to state one point: The desire to win is not itself evil; neither is any other desire to succeed. Whether in school, sports, your faith or your future career, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do well.

Christian teenagers can have a hard time accepting this. After all, aren’t we supposed to give up everything for Christ? If we want something, doesn’t that automatically mean it’s bad? But the Bible doesn’t teach that simply wanting something is wrong.

On the other hand, success isn’t automatically right, either. I hate to contradict the great coach Vince Lombardi, but winning isn’t everything, and it isn’t the only thing, either. When winning becomes a god, sports are harmful. So let’s take a balanced look at competitiveness – the good and the bad. That way you can compete, enjoy it, and grow from it.

COMPETITIVENESS: Good

Why are competitiveness and sports good? Here are three important lessons they teach:

1. The reward of working hard toward a goal.

If you’ve ever been part of a team that won a championship, or won one on your own, you know, what I mean.

This also applies to faith. Paul, in 1 Cor. 9:24, compared the Christian life to a race: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.  The greatest example is Jesus. Clichés such as “paying the price” don’t come near describing the effort He gave so we could have eternal life. Think about that the next time you’re ready to give up during a tough workout.

2. The importance of teamwork.

Every team needs a variety of talents. A basketball team of all centers wouldn’t get the ball up the court. In sports, each team member matters. Read 1 Cor. 12:12-26. What applies to sports applies to church too.

You can even learn teamwork from individual sports. Can you explain how each part of your body contributes to the tennis serve? Or, the golf swing? I can’t. All I know is that when all parts work together correctly the ball goes in the right direction.

3. How to bounce back from adversity.

I led a Bible study for the members of a high school football team in Redlands, California. I hated to see them lose, because I knew how hard they’d worked and how important winning was to them. So every season, after the first loss, we’d study Phil. 3:13-14: “But one thing I do. Forgetting what is behind and pressing on…”

Coaches are fond of the quote, “Losing is worse than death, because you have to live with losing.” But the opposite is true: Losing is better, because you can’t bounce back from death! Dealing with sports-related disappointments now will help you later in life. You’ll suffer failures. But if you learn now how Christ can help you overcome adversity, it’ll make future bumps smoother.

COMPETITIVENESS: Bad

Granted, there’s a negative side to the competitiveness picture. Your responsibility is to see these dangers and deal with them. Here are a few:

1. Hating your opponent.

One misconception in sports is that you have to hate your opponent or else you can’t win. But this isn’t true. Your main competition isn’t your opponent; it’s you. As a writer commented in Current Health magazine:  “The challenge isn’t to be the best. It’s to do your best.”

Think about it:  Would God want you to participate in sports if you’d have to hate people?

Next time you’re in an athletic contest, don’t look at your opponent as someone who’s keeping you from reaching a goal or trying to take something you want (victory). Look at him or her as someone who’s giving you the opportunity to do your best, and as someone you can help do the same.

2. Associating personal worth with winning and losing.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling bad about losing. But it’s easy to take that too far and tie your self-image to the scoreboard. After all, there’s so much pressure from coaches, schoolmates, and even parents – that when you lose it’s easy to feel worthless. But don’t.

If winning is so important, you can always find people to beat. You could find plenty of beginners to drag onto the tennis court and whip. But that’s not the reason to compete. As James Michener wrote in his book Sports in America, “Losing 6-3, 6-2 to a fine player is more rewarding than beating some beginner 6-0, 6-0.”

3. Losing perspective.

Too often, winning becomes the god. As Leo Durocher, a Hall of Fame baseball manager, put it, “If it’s under W for win, nobody asks you how.” But we know better. We know that God is just as concerned with our character as with how we do things. How important is winning to some athletes? Bob Goldman, in his book Death in the Locker Room, wrote: “I asked 198 top world-class athletes … ‘If I had a magic drug that was so fantastic that if you took it once you would win every competition you would enter … (but) it would kill you five years after you took it, would you still take the drug?’ Fifty-two percent said yes.” That’s a good example of a warped perspective:  Winning overrides all other goals.

The Athlete’s Response

On the one hand, you’re not commanded to hang up your uniform and enjoy less “worldly” pursuits.

But on the other hand, be aware. Are you unable to compete without hating your opponent? Is your self-image tied to the outcome, so much that losing destroys you? Do sports come between you and God? You see, Christianity and sports can mix, but Christianity comes first. If you find you simply can’t compete and reflect Christian character, it might be time to take a little time off and get that together.

But such instances are rare. Chances are, you can enjoy sports and please God at the same time. Just “go out there and give it all you’ve got” in both areas, and you’ll come out a winner.

by John Carvalho

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