As far back as I can remember, I was one of those super competitive kids. Like, “refuse to play a game again if I lose” kind of competitive. Fortunately, as I grew up my parents worked with me to help me see what kind of reactions weren’t acceptable, but deep down that competitive spirit still lives on in some ways. For most of us, it’s just part of our human nature to be competitive. To use materialism as an example, consider how we talk about “Keeping up with the Joneses.” In our careers, we have ambitions to climb the proverbial career ladder. And, unfortunately, those tendencies can spill over into our spiritual lives as well.
One of the only ways we know to measure ourselves is by looking around at others, or by tracking our own perceived progress. In our walk with God, that creates a destructive inward focus built on competition rather than on Christ. Christianity is not a competition. We’re going to look at three types of competition that can creep into our spiritual lives. Two of them are obvious. The third, however, is one that I don’t think we see as a problem, though as I’ve discovered it in my life I’ve found it to be the most destructive.
Competing with those outside the church
In our spiritual immaturity, we can find ourselves using those outside the church as a standard of comparison. “Well I’m not perfect, but at least I don’t do (insert sin that Christians have no business doing).” In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul was adamant that the church should not remove itself from the world or judge the world for its sins, as they are already outside of Christ. Measuring our righteousness in comparison to the world is akin to surrounding ourselves with the shortest people we can find in order to feel tall. Fortunately, this type of spiritual competition is rarely found among strong Christians.
Competing with other Christians
Despite my best intentions, I catch myself competing with other Christians far too often. Since we don’t often know how to measure our growth, we start looking around the church building or even the religious world to see where we stand. Churches get caught up in this competition – “Why can’t we be growing like the congregation on the other side of town?” Ministers can find themselves thinking these things, too – “Why are more people reading that guy’s material? Why am I not getting speaking invitations like that other preacher?” And, worst of all, we can get caught comparing our sins and struggles. The problem with that is that there is always someone more spiritually mature than us, and there’s almost always someone less spiritually mature. But at the judgment, none of us will stand before the Father and make a successful case that we were good Christians because we attended worship more than so and so or didn’t do the things that those folks did. We all have to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
As Jesus illustrated so perfectly in Luke 18, looking down on the sins of others with an attitude that says, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like this man” is one that shows a terrible problem of pride. Even wanting to be on the same level as those who are stronger than us can show an inwardly focused spirit of envy. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.” When we take pride in our accomplishments and growth relative to where someone else is, it will never fulfill us. God is not glorified in me being “better” than someone else, so striving to reach that goal only serves self.
Competing with ourselves
I think we’re generally well aware of why the previous two forms of competitive Christianity are wrong, though we may still succumb to them from time to time. Over the last few months, though, it’s become increasingly clear to me that my greatest struggle in being a competitive Christian comes in the form of using myself as the standard. I believe so many of us do this without even realizing it, or even worse – we think that’s what it means to be a good Christian. We talk about “trying hard” and “doing our best,” which makes us our own standard of measure.
When we stumble, we can fall into the habit of beating ourselves up, because we know we could’ve done better. We get mad at ourselves for not choosing what we should have. It’s natural, but it’s not ourselves who we’ve failed. Our focus should be genuine sorrow before God, the broken and contrite heart David had in Psalm 51. I know I’ve had times when I don’t want to go before God in prayer until I take a couple of days to do better. Some Christians even pass on partaking in the Lord’s Supper. Any actions like that reek of arrogance, implying that there will ever be a point at which we can come before God due to our own goodness and righteousness. That all stems from when we compete with ourselves spiritually. As A.W. Tozer said, “We have measured ourselves by ourselves until the incentive to seek higher plateaus in the things of the Spirit is all but gone.”
When we’re measuring our spiritual growth by ourselves and our own effort levels, even the good we do becomes about us and not God. I decide I’m going to try really hard, or do better fighting sin or acting as a Christian should. A few days later, I start noticing just how well I’m doing because I’m measuring myself by my old abysmal standard. As Lewis wrote in the voice of Screwtape, the fictional demonic expert on human temptation, “All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them.” When we measure our good work by ourselves, it’s not too hard to make ourselves look good. Then pride sets in. Then all the good work is undone.
What do we do, then? We fix our eyes on Jesus and run each day to get to Him (Hebrews 12:1-2). Consider Peter walking on the water as an illustration. He had no reason to boast in the fact that He was on the water when others were still on the shore. He couldn’t brag to the other disciples who wouldn’t get out of the boat. It wouldn’t even have done him any good to look back at the boat and see how far he had come. All that mattered, and all that kept him afloat, was fixing his eyes on Jesus. As Jesus reminded His disciples in John 15:5, apart from Him we can do nothing. Because of that we see a standard of righteousness that we’ll never meet, but that has already been given to us. Just as with Abraham in Genesis 15:6, and as Paul repeated in Romans, God credits our faith as righteousness.
It’s not of our works, or of how much we can grow in a lifetime, because that would give us reason to boast (Romans 3:27, 4:2, Ephesians 2:9). Once we give our lives to Him in faith, everything we do is for His glory, and we’re going to continually fall short of that (Romans 3:23). I know what you’re thinking – “But we have to obey!” Yes, we do. But that’s the natural result of our faith, not something we get a pat on the back for. We can’t do anything but obey once we realize how little righteousness we can accumulate on our own. The more we grow in our love for Christ, the less we’ll compete against others and against our own shortcomings and instead keep our eyes on Him at all times.
By Jack Wilkie
Jack Wilkie is the author of “Failure: What Christian Parents Need to Know About American Education” and is the speaker for Focus Press’s “The Lost Generation” seminar. To schedule a seminar at your church, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.