This is a very important question for every sports minister and athlete to ask.

If competition only came after the Fall in Genesis 3, then as followers of Christ we should move people out of competition and sports rather than into them.  Jesus Christ came to overcome all of the corruption from the Fall.  If competition is a part of this corruption, then, in our work as fellow laborers with Christ to build the kingdom of God, we should work to eliminate, not encourage competition.  However, if there was competition in the Garden, then the Fall didn’t bring competition into existence, it only corrupted it.   Our work would then be to overcome the corruption and restore competition to the original design, not to eliminate it.

To answer the question, we need first to define what we are looking for in the Garden.  The word competition comes from the Latin word competere, which means to seek or strive together.  In our culture, we typically think of competition as striving against.  In our search, we will look for the first idea – striving together.

I find at least two places in Genesis 1 & 2 where this striving together, this competition takes place.  The first comes in Genesis 1:28 where God says to Adam & Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”  These verses have been referred to as the Cultural or Dominion Mandate.

Have you ever asked, “What was to subdue if the world was perfect?”  While there was no sin, that doesn’t mean the world was complete.  It was raw, wild and chaotic outside the Garden.  Not music, no art, no inventions yet.  Just raw material.  Adam and Eve were to subdue this rawness, this chaos.  To exercise dominion meant that they were to “manage whatever facets of creation God places before them….The Great King has summoned us (them and) each of us into his throne room.  ‘Take this portion of my kingdom,’ he says.  ‘Put your heart into mastering this part of the world.  Get it in order, unearth its treasures; do all you can with it.’”[1] From the Garden and into the chaotic world around it, Adam & Eve were to bring order from chaos, a non-conforming world to conformity to God’s purposes, and treasures from the raw material in creation – including themselves.

Notice, this command was given to both of them.  They were to unearth treasures together just as they were to multiply together.  This required cooperation, a striving together toward this end.  Here we see competition.  As they strived together, each one brought out more of the image of God in them.

I can imagine one day Adam says, “Eve, would you toss me an orange.”  Now Eve had never tossed before but she picks up the orange, reflects for a moment and throws it.  It is a little high and Adam has to jump up from his seat to catch it.  He has never jumped but reflexively does so.  “Hey that was fun.  Do it again only higher,” Adam says.  Eve picks up another oranges, thinks for a moment and throws it higher.  Adam has to really jump but stretches out and catches it.  On and on it goes with lots of laughter.

Do you see what is happening there?  More of the “treasure” within them is being unearthed.  Adam’s ability to jump and Eve’s ability to calculate angle, velocity, distance for a perfect throw are coming out.  Can you sense the joy?  The fun?  Can you taste this original game?  And in the process, God is glorified.  His image, Adam & Eve, are showing off more and more of the “glory” given them.

You may respond, “But that isn’t there in Genesis.  There is no tossing, no “original corn-hole game”.  It doesn’t say there is but I can’t help but think this happened because of the second place I find competition in Genesis 1 & 2.

Genesis 1:26, 27 says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God, he created him; male and female he created them.”  God is speaking to someone here.  Who is it?  Whoever it is shares creative power (us make) and image (our image). It doesn’t say, “Let us make man in my image.” or “Let me make man in our image.” There is an “US”.  But then it says, “So God created.”  Not “they created”.  A ONE.  An US and a ONE.  Seems confusing.

Most of us, because of our background, immediately explain, “Well that is the Trinity.  One but three.  The Father is talking to the Son and the Spirit.”  We need to remember that this idea of the Trinity or the Godhead was veiled in the Old Testament.  It is there but hard to see.  The coming of the Son lifted the veil.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning….The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  (John 1:1,2, 14)

Yet much of the wrestling with Christianity has come over this issue of the deity of Christ and understanding of the Godhead, this Trinity.  How can one be three?  Without a hierarchy?  Equal but distinct?  How do they relate to each other?  We wrestle with this great mystery to this day.

In the second and third century, the early Church Fathers looked to explain this mystery.  They came up with the word perichoresis to describe the dynamic between the Godhead.  Perichoresis means to dance around.  “”Each of the divine persons centers on the others.  None demands that the others revolve around him.  Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight and adoration into them.  Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others.  That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.” [2]

The Godhead dancing.  Ever thought about that?  C.S Lewis adds, “In Christianity God is not an impersonal thing nor a static thing – not even just a person – but a dynamic pulsating activity, a life, a kind of drama, almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.”  [3]

For us dance is choreographed movement typically to music.  Play is choreographed movement without music.   Could we even think of this as THE ORIGINAL TEAM, the Godhead, playing?  Creation was the result of the Godhead dancing, may we say even playing!

If Adam and Eve were made in this image, would play have been a part of their lives?  Absolutely!!!!

Lewis asks, “And, now, what does it all matter?  It matters more than anything else in the world.  The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way around) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in the dance.”[4]

Look around us and, without a doubt we are a long way from that original dance, that original play.  But if we don’t have this picture clear in our mind, if we don’t taste of this joy and fun, and the glory it gives to God, then when we attempt to take our place in the dance and ask,  “What does Christian competition look like?”, we find that it is like trying to restore a pile of metal into a ’57 Chevy , but we have never seen one!  We would be lost and confused.

To clear up the confusion, we need that picture.  We need to study it, to think about it, to envision it, to feel something of what it was like.  We need to “get back to the Garden.”

For further development and understanding of these ideas, check out For the Love of the Game.  


[1] Richard Pratt, Designed for Dignity, p. 34, 35.

[2] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (Penguin Group, 2008), p 215.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Simon & Schuster, 1980), p. 152.

[4] Ibid

 

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About the Author

Bob Schindler has worked at CSO since 2003. Prior to coming to CSO, Bob worked as a pastor for 18 years - eight as an Associate Pastor in Leadership Development, Outreach, and Youth, and ten as a church planter and Senior Pastor. Before vocational ministry, Bob worked in business for six years in sales and marketing and corporate training and played professional golf for four years. He still has an interest in golf but would most of the time rather play basketball or rock climb or kayak - something more active than golf. He and his wife, Beth, have four grown "kids" and one very precious grandson.

  • Brian

    If you are a Christian and love sports, there is a strong motivation to prove that God loves sports too. Your point about ‘striving together’ is a key element. If you are a pole-vaulter, a broad jumper, golfer or bowler for example then your motivation is to do your best for yourself or your team’s victory. You are not directly interacting with your competitor. This type of sport could be enjoyed in a way that is honoring to God. The winning team enjoying the fruit of their training. The losing team would be encouraged to continue striving toward a future victory. Of course this type of sport is not immune from sinful behavior like performance enhancing drugs, but certainly has its advantages.

    What about sports that involve direct competition? I’m thinking about games like football, tennis, wrestling etc., is all about DEFEATING THE OTHER GUY which is inherently not ‘striving together’.

    The other team is the enemy to be defeated. There is an element of doing your best in those sports too, but the winning strategy will incorporate negative elements. Tactics such as intentional fowling, trash talking and faking injuries should be obvious to most Christians. But what about something as common as faking left and then going right? How about exploiting a known weakness – if your opponent tennis player has a weak backhand – where do you hit the ball? Is that striving together? No – it’s all about deception and exploitation of weaknesses at its core. The effects can even be seen in the audiences of these sports. But that’s another topic.

    I realize that there are teams playing direct competition sports that strive to play in a Godly way by avoiding the negatives like fighting or cheating but I don’t see how this can ever be called ‘striving together’. They may strive together within their team, but what is the relationship with the other team? How do they achieve their victory?

    Striving together and direct competition sports are not compatible. Trying to defeat an opponent is a good thing, but only if you are attempting to defeat something that is morally bad to accomplish God’s purpose. What happens when two Christian teams play each other? Do you exploit the other team’s weak defensive player? Confuse and misdirect? Would you do this to your Christian brother? For that matter would you think it a good witness for your unsaved opposition that you’re hoping to witness to?

    Were there sports in the Garden? If Adam and Eve did ‘toss an orange back and forth’ it was a striving together for a common good. In this hypothetical game – no one would have kept score, there was no winner or loser and there was no prize awarded. In contrast all popular sports have these elements.

    I’ve experienced the ills of direct competition even in a small way while playing a game with my wife. We used to play Scrabble together, but I sensed tension in our relationship when I won the game. Even this simple and certainly non-violent game involves the ‘defeat the enemy’ strategies.

    In the play of the game I can choose to make a long word with my remaining letters and get points, but that may give my opponent an opportunity to build off of my word. To combat this I can instead choose to add a single letter to an existing word which may get me as many points, but frustrate my opponent’s ability to use their letters. Perhaps I should abandon this strategy since I’m not striving together with my wife.

    We came on a different solution… we now play the crossword puzzles together – each of us adds words over several days until the puzzle is complete – a great feeling of accomplishment for both of us. Striving together!

    The same feeling can be had when working on a Habitat for Humanity project. But there are no cheering crowds. Which activity is more beneficial in the long run? Which better demonstrates the love of Christ? If I play sports to ‘glorify God’ and I win – how exactly does that bring glory to God? Formulate your answer clearly in your mind, write it down, then ask yourself ‘are you sure?’. Are you certain that there is no ‘self’ in that big win? What if you lose – does that take glory away from God? God’s victories are not found on scoreboards! Remember Isaiah 55:8, 9 God’s ways are higher than ours!

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  • http://www.csosports.org/tim-briggs Tim Briggs

    Brian, I would humbly disagree with your point that “striving together and direct competition sports are not compatible.” I would certainly affirm that we don’t often see it happen but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. I can certainly imagine two football teams who want to play to the best of their ability and genuinely desire the opposing team to do so as well. The game then becomes not about dominating each other but rather bringing out the best in one another and the opponent. In this way, they can “unearth” the treasure in each other that God has given them. The game and its outcome then become about God’s glory and the desire to establish their own glory vanishes.

    Again, I would reiterate that you don’t see it often but it’s certainly possible.

  • Brian

    I suppose that if everyone on both teams were wholeheartedly committed to the concept of bringing out the best for their team and their opponent, then it would work. I don’t think that will ever happen in a sinful world. Perhaps if there is directly competitive sports in heaven it would work, but I doubt that we will be doing that when we’re in the awesome presence of God’s Glory.

  • Brian

    This discussion brings up the question… So why be involved in competitive sports? How does this huge investment of our time benefit the players or honor God? Lets face it – only a small percentage of those who compete in high school or college sports end up making it a full time profession. So is there something that could be done in its place that would generate even greater benefits for those involved? When discussing the benefits of competitive sports, one usually mentions how it builds teamwork. I mentioned Habitat for Humanity earlier. I found that my experience helping build a house for the needy was very rewarding – it was a great teamwork experience that produced lasting results – a home that a family could live in for many years. The recipients were overwhelmed with thankfulness and praise to God. Contrast this with the result of a sporting competition that entertains the viewers for only a few hours and if successful results in a shiny plastic trophy, but is soon forgotten.

    I have a challenge for Christian schools – Imagine this… what if a school chose to cancel their football for a year, and in its place spend the time and money on building and repairing houses for the needy. Seriously, imagine that for a moment! The after school football practice would instead become a hands-on-education of how to put up sheet rock, install insulation and paint walls. It would build teamwork, and would be more inclusive to those who are unable to be involved in sports and give the participants practical skills for their later life. But most importantly, it would be a way to say to community that Christians are willing to set aside temporal pleasures and pride to achieve a greater good by serving others. Wow – what a testimony that would be! I’m sure it would be tough to convince those in power to make such a radical decision. I can hear the arguments: “Students might change schools”, “But we’ve always had a team”, “It’s expected of us to have a team”, “Parents would complain”.

    I propose that the idea be presented as a topic for debate at the schools. Take your side and make your case. You might be surprised what the students come up with.

    Oh – and be sure to help students get some exercise!
    1 Tim 4:8 For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

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  • http://www.compete4christ.blogspot.com Kurt Earl

    I have written extensively on this topic at http://www.compete4christ.blogspot.com Discovering God’s will for us in competition is a passion of mine. My thoughts regarding motivation and what I call a Grace Filled Performance (tabs at the top of the page) are probably most helpful to this discussion. Check it out and leave a comment if you like. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  • http://www.csosports.org/tim-briggs Tim Briggs

    Brian, to answer your question of why be involved in competitive sports is simple: to glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Too many Christians have a compartmentalized view of life. In other words, there are things that are sacred and things that are secular. Looking at life through the lens of bringing glory to God in whatever you do allows you to break down these walls and see life more holistically.

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  • Mark Hamilton

    Brian, the last few weeks I have been working on a scholarly article on this very topic. Just today I came across this article as I was searching the web. My work is to go back to ground this in the nature of God, particularly in His divine attribute of creativity. This will actually be for a conference of non-Christian sport philosophers. I’ve been teaching philosophy at Ashland University in Ohio for 31 years and do courses in sports ethics. I’m also the University’s Faculty Rep to the NCAA. I’ve published in about a half dozen books on topics related to sports ethics including on plays of deception in a book Baseball and Philosophy 10 years ago and a couple of years ago on the distortions of Play in The Image of God in the Human Body. Keep up the good thinking and love to talk to you sometime about this “Prelapsarian View of Competition” as I am calling it. .

  • http://www.barclaycollege.edu RyanK

    Mark, I teach at a small Bible college in Kansas. I teach Sports Psychology and Character Development Through Sports and Rec, among other classes. I’d love to have a conversation about this topic and others. It sounds like you would be a great reference for my classes. I hope we are able to get connected.
    Ryan

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