‘Don’t worry Joe’, said my wife to our six-year-old son after he’d failed to win a prize at the music competition. ‘The most important thing is to do your best’. To which Joe replied, ‘You don’t understand, Mum. It’s all about winning!’
The spirit of competition is built into us from a very early age. Indeed biologists tell us that it’s part of being human: that competitiveness, the ‘survival of the fittest’, is a key component in the whole evolutionary endeavour. At its best, competition spurs us on to work hard, to be efficient, creative, courageous. At its worst, competition stops us from working together, and sends the weak to the wall.
Reflecting back over the past rather troubled year, competitiveness has been the name of the game. The political landscape has been dominated by slogans such as ‘America First’ or ‘Britain First’, with the Brexit negotiations seeing both sides uncomfortably jostling for competitive advantage. The religious landscape has witnessed different groupings vying for power, from Islamic terrorists in the Middle East to Hindu fundamentalists in India via Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar. In business, the survival of the fittest – or at least the smartest – remains basic to our whole economic model. Even in churches – and between churches - competitive power struggles have often consumed valuable energy, which should have been deployed for something nobler.
So what happens where we need to work together, not least to proclaim the gospel of Christ and protect the weak from going to the wall? Where do we look for inspiration in a world where plastic is polluting our oceans, and the Arctic icecap is melting, where the rich-poor divide is growing, and many are living without God and without hope? How do we prevent another Grenfell Tower tragedy, with its graphic reminder of the sheer vulnerability of those whom the spirit of competition has left far behind? They’re challenging questions, and ones to which this Christmas season gives us the beginnings of an answer.
For when God came to earth, He refused to press his overwhelming competitive advantage, in fact quite the reverse. He came unarmed and disarming in the body of a small child – weak, fragile and entirely dependent on the love of others for his very survival. From such humble beginnings, he went lower still, becoming known, disparagingly, as the ‘Friend of tax collectors and sinners’, while consistently rejecting the temptation to big himself up or misuse his remarkable powers. One of the very earliest of all Christian hymns speaks of how he ‘took the form of a slave’ and ‘humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross’.
There is a power greater than the power of competition, is the message of Christmastime. There is a disarming strength that is released through human weakness – or better, human dependence on the divine. St Paul regularly speaks of the Christian life as a race, but never mentions his fellow competitors. Instead it’s Vision that drives his hard work, and the unending creativity and extraordinary courage that accompanies it: the vision of Christ’s glory that stopped him in his tracks on the Damascus Road and changed him forever.
Even Paul, though, allows us one last area in which Christians are permitted to be competitive. In Romans 12:10, the apostle writes:
‘Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour’.
And with that helpful encouragement - not least if we find ourselves surrounded by children, small or large, for whom ‘it’s all about winning!’ - Have a very Happy Christmas!