We are a great society for competition – and America is not unique in this. What America thinks is competitive in her “Super Bowl,” pales in comparison to the frenzy engendered elsewhere by the “World Cup.” Several years ago I was in London when England was playing Ecuador in the World Cup. It was a Sunday afternoon. With my companions we walked across London heading to the museums, assuming that the afternoon of a World Cup match would be a quiet time elsewhere. We were correct. On foreigners (like us) were collecting at the British Museum. But we had an experience as we walked across town that taught me a lesson in world competition. A pleasant Sunday afternoon – it seemed every window in London was open. At one point as we walked along, we heard a cheer go up that had to be the collective voice of all London. “England scored,” one of our group remarked. Indeed it was the case. No touchdown in a Superbowl was ever greeted by such a roar.
Our competitive nature (and this is nothing new or modern) inevitably prepares us for a scenario of “winners and losers.” “To the victor goes the spoils,” the old proverb says. It is as if Darwin himself had hard-wired our brains. We understand the nature of competition – and since the winners write most books and almost all of history – little is made of this aspect of our lives.
The great contradiction comes in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. God has no categories of winners and losers. God has no competition and does not set His creatures in a competition. St. Paul uses the image of competition (“the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”), but he competes only with himself. Should he win – no one else loses. As the Scriptures tell us, “For all the promises of God are ‘Yes’ and in Him ‘Amen’, to the glory of God through us” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
A spirit of competition can easily enter into our activities as a Christian. Church growth can feel like a competition (“my church is the fastest growing…”). The same spirit of competition can erupt between Christians in the midst of serious discussion of doctrinal or other concerns. The result in this latter case can simply be the desire to win and not to serve the gospel. Who wins an argument is not the determination of the truth. It may say nothing more than that one person is more facile in argumentation. There are no prizes in heaven for argumentation.
There is a more important and more fundamental reason why “winners and losers” is not a category within the Kingdom of God. Properly speaking, our lives are united one to another. Christian with Christian, and Christian with all. Each of us is united to all of us. Your loss is my loss and my gain is your gain. This is part of the mystery of our existence as creatures who were made in the image of God.
St. Paul takes this understanding to its most extreme point during a reflection about the salvation of his kindred Jews:
I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen (Romans 9:1-4).
Such is his understanding of union with his people. He does not say that his condemnation would mean their salvation, but he nowhere sees himself as the “winner” and his kindred as “losers”. Such a spirit is not within him.
By the same token, such a spirit should not find a place in any of us. Salvation is never merely individualistic. I have not come to know Christ except through the mediation and kindness of others. Their lives and prayers are mystically united to my own life and prayers (or lack thereof) and I find myself saved only in the context of the Church. As I have stated elsewhere, “The Church is what salvation looks like” (as disturbing as such a statement may be to some).
But the heart that has placed the spirit of competition away from its spiritual concerns is the heart that understands that if one loses, we all lose. If one wins, we all win. Such a heart will pray with compassion for even the greatest of sinners. We should not gladly see the condemnation of anyone.
Such an understanding undergirds our prayer for enemies. I should not wish my enemies to lose – only to lose their sin and to gain Christ. Such a prayer within me is itself to gain Christ – who for the sake of losers such as myself, became man and suffered the loss of all – the He might gain all. To Him be glory.
Very insightful, Father.
Competition is often wrapped up in pride.
“Your loss is my loss and my gain is your gain”
Well, I have failed to grasp this so often in my life that I have, eventually, lost count. Need a reminder now and then I suppose. And, though you said it all Father (as you always do, by the way – it’s comforting actually), might I just add that one of the nicest pieces of advice I ever got in my life was:
“Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you are ahead, sometimes you are behind. The race is long and in the end it’s only with yourself”.
Good thought. In competiion we make ourselves seem better than others.
So are the true winners those who dont mind losing? Losing their pride I mean.
” I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren,”
“Teach people to fear only one thing: to dissolve the faith in sophistries. There is nothing terrible about losing an argument, for not everyone can argue; the terrible thing is to be deprived of the reality of God–for he is the hope of us all.”
-St. Gregory of Nazianzus
No we’re not in competition but we are at war. Our enemies are the world, the flesh, and the devil. Competition is a good thing when it is used in childs play as a preperation for this war. Helps us think in those terms, I think. It is, of course, unseemly when adults act like children.
But we should be careful not to confuse the two. Sometimes people who speak against competition are really against war. I think that we should be as engaged as possible in the war. But I wonder if we take the war as seriously as we should. As serious as competition for example.
Sadly, I’ve known priests who will strongly encourage people (particularly converts) to drive long distances to get to said priest(s)’ parish, bypassing other parishes much closer that are English-speaking (this does not refer to those who, due to their local parish not holding English services, drive long distances).
I describe the thinking as “He who dies with the most parishioners wins.”
Thankfully, my current priest doesn’t subscribe to such nonsense.
Of course, the metaphor of warfare is a paradox. On the feast of the Holy Cross we sing about the Cross as the “weapon of peace” a truly paradoxical statement. Thus we win by losing (“he who loses his life for my sake and the gospel shall save it”). So we prepare for war, strangely by learning to lose in the gospel way. Of course, it is not infrequent that in real war we award the medal of honor, the highest medal, to someone who saves the lives of others at the loss of their own.
Of course, I turn this inside out. I worry about how others will be caused to lose, if I lose. What does it do to my spiritual father every time I confess a sin? In fact, some great strength in the battle with some of my sins has come from the thought of the lashing it will give him when I confess them.
What was that about acquiring the holy spirit and thousands being saved? What can one fall into darkness do?
What has been called “butts and bucks.” Our former pastor was fired when the numbers dwindled a bit. After 5 years, his successor recently suffered a serious physical and emotional burnout because the butts and bucks have not increased under his watch. He has been on leave of absence for 7 weeks this Sunday. He will return next week. Bum Phillips said there are two kinds of football coaches, thems that have been fired and thems that is goin be fired. I think this might also apply to pastors. A prayer for ours would be appreciated.
I went to Clemson. I know what enthusiastic cheering sounds like. While roofing my house in the mountains I was listening to a Clemson football game on the radio. They scored and I heard the celebration on the radio. A few seconds later I heard the same jubilation across the mountains. The stadium was 20-25 miles away. My hair stood up.
The disciples had the same “I’m the choicest” argument ongoing. They finally seemed to quench it at the humiliation of abandonment in the garden. All their hubris turned to fear and shame. We know our strengths and pick those to boast over. But our weaknesses are where He is made strong. I sure do buck that one.
When I first read this I thought that it is a bold priest who, living and missionizing in an SEC football town, writes a post against competition the day before the college football season begins. But then I remembered that the Vols are expected to have a bad year this year, and I realized that your flock will most certainly be in need of consolation.
This year’s football season has been greatly anticipated locally. Last year’s losing season hangs over the place unatoned. Of course, if winning ways do not return the frenzy will only grow. It’s America. Gen. George S. Patton said, “America cannot abide a loser.”
I can see nothing metaphorical about the warfare I experience. Let me tell you that it is real. There are real wounds, real casualties. There are deaths. You could not be a priest and not know this. (I thought you were on the front lines.) The only time the “win by losing” analogy holds is in the battle against our flesh. And then it is only because of our confused condition. When I must give up my will for something far better. When I must give up a delusion for reality.
The “weapon of peace” is the result of a great triumph over the devil. That is why we can have peace. Only victory does bring peace. Spiritual passivity is our great enemy. And sometimes I wonder, as Christ said somewhere, “ Will He find faith on earth when he returns.”
Do we Orthodox do Church as an end in its self? Or do we fight, taking every thought captive? ( 2 Corinthians 10:4) Have we lost touch with our mission. “ Go into all the world making…”
We need to stop viewing ourselves as winners or losers.
We are all winners in the eyes of Christ.
Forgive me. I did not mean to imply a disagreement – simply to remark on the paradox often involved in our warfare. I heartily agree that our warfare is quite real and not metaphorical. My experience on the “front lines,” is also that the paradox “He must increase and I must decrease” is often our best “offensive weapon.” Praise and thanksgiving to God for all things at all times is truly a great weapon, and it frees me from the subtle trap of watching myself during the battles when my victory will only come in watching Christ.
But I have no disagreement here – simply a reflection on the mystery of how the warfare takes place.
May God assist you in the day of battle!
Good article, but Green Bay during a Packer game is very similar.
In St. John Chrysostom’s 23rd homily on Romans I recently came across sentence “For since equality of honor does many times lead to fightings, He [God] hath made many governments and forms of subjection; as that, for instance, of man and wife, that of son and father, that of old men and young, that of bond and free, that of ruler and ruled, that of master
and disciple.” In the contest of your post, Fr. Stephen, the saints comment seems to say that God promotes peace and discourages competition between men by setting up inequalities of position and honor.
I think we see God’s practice of this in the distinction between the child in the family and the child in school. God’s design of the family almost guarantees that all children in the family will be of different ages. This does not make compeition among the children impossible (as every father or mother of more than one child knows), but it greatly mitigates competition: The differences in age and maturity make much competition pointless — the five-year-old brother can beat his three-year-old sister at almost anything. These differences also make it natural for the older children to take the lead in caring for the younger, and the younger to take the lead in trusting and depending on the older. Thus, as you say, all win or all lose together. Twins (and other multiples) are, of course, the exception, and perhaps the competition between Esau and Jacob is an example of what tends to happen.
Schools, in contrast, segregate children by age for the sake of efficiency, producing groups of children who could not possibly be part of the same family. It is a group of “equals” and competition, rather than mutual concern, is the order of the day. Indeed the schools carefully grade the students’ work so that everyone can see who is on the top and who on the bottom. Those on top receive awards and the promise of a bright future of economic productivity.
It makes me wonder how much modern schooling does to mar the image of God in our children.
Should have proofread that first. I mean the “context” (not contest) of your post.