Competition and Faith: Who Am I Running the Race Against?

St. Paul advises us all to “Run so as to win.” Interestingly, though, he does this right after talking about how he strives to be all things to all people, even that he “became weak, to win over the weak.” It is clear that St. Paul, when he talks about running so to win, he isn’t viewing those he shares the word with as competition. So, who are we running against?

This concept of faith as a competition, or even a battle, is certainly not a new concept, but like so many images, I worry a lot about the way we view them in the modern age. Our western, or, perhaps even more specifically, American culture is way more individualistic than the cultures St. Paul was attempting to evangelize. For St. Paul’s audience, his statement that only one of the runners can win may not have seemed to clash with his statement in the same passage where he becomes all things to all so that some might be saved. Today, on the other hand, we have a tendency to view competition as a zero sum game.

This view to competition is annoying and problematic in a classroom setting where a more cooperative approach could improve the learning of the students, but it is downright dangerous if applied to the question of our salvation. It is dangerous to those who are not among the faithful, but it is no less dangerous for those who count ourselves as members of the Church. For those of us in the Church, the idea that we have to attain a certain level of holiness in order to win can lead to a degree of pharisaic rule creation and an attempt to force others to jump through the hoops we’ve developed. We lose sight of the fact that Christ told us to bring everyone into communion with Him, and instead become gate-keepers who decide who can and can’t get to Jesus.

Ultimately, St. Paul’s take on competition, in the full context of his letter, makes clear that his competition is himself. He spreads the Gospel so that he might have a share in it. As with most things in life, the goal each day is to be closer to God at the end of the day than we are at the beginning.

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