Virtue of Competition

Last evening a group of parishioners attended the professional soccer game between our home team Minnesota United and the Ottowa Fury at the National Sports Center in Blaine. We watched a hard fought match that resulted in a 1-1 tie. Players on both teams competed fiercely demonstrating athleticism, ball handling and passing skills, as well as some good flopping. Flopping is faking or over-acting to draw a foul or a penalty on the opposing team. We saw a lot of that. But it is all part of competition, the fight to win. We see it everywhere around us this summer. The United States’ women’s national team just won the World Cup in soccer. Our local NBA team, the Timberwolves, made the number one pick in the recent draft and picked the NCAA Champion MVP and hometown boy, Tyus Jones also in the first round. Our baseball team, the Minnesota Twins, is having its best season in several years after hiring another hometown favorite, Paul Molitor, as the new head coach. Our own WNBA franchise, the Minnesota Lynx, are in the midst of trying to position themselves to recapture the league title. Soon the Vikings will begin their preseason workouts with new hopes for a winning year.

Athletic competition is all around us and it’s been that way for thousands of years. We know well the history of the Olympic games that began in ancient Greece. There is something about human nature that is drawn to competition. Deep within us is the desire to compete and to win on an individual basis as well as to join a team or join a group that cheers on one. As we know well, in competing there are both winners and losers. In recent years, many in our society have criticized competitive sports and other events because of the stigma attached to losing. As a result some competitions no longer have winners and losers, just participation trophies where everyone is declared a winner. This is probably a weak solution to the problem of over-emphasis on winning that is placed on children by adults leading to bigger problems like cheating and abusive behavior often by the adults themselves. The problem is not competition itself but the inordinate emphasis on winning.

Competition itself is good because it can lead to one very important positive outcome: the betterment of self. The Apostle Paul was very familiar with athletic competition and he wrote about it and applied to the life of Christians. He said, 5And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules (2 Timothy 2:5). Furthermore, he states, 24Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. 25And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. 26Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. 27But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1Corinthians 9:24-27).

24Οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι οἱ ἐν σταδίῳ τρέχοντες πάντες μὲν τρέχουσιν, εἷς δὲ λαμβάνει τὸ βραβεῖον; οὕτως τρέχετε ἵνα καταλάβητε. 25πᾶς δὲ ὁ ἀγωνιζόμενος πάντα ἐγκρατεύεται, ἐκεῖνοι μὲν οὖν ἵνα φθαρτὸν στέφανον λάβωσιν, ἡμεῖς δὲ ἄφθαρτον. 26ἐγὼ τοίνυν οὕτως τρέχω ὡς οὐκ ἀδήλως, οὕτως πυκτεύω ὡς οὐκ ἀέρα δέρων: 27ἀλλὰ ὑπωπιάζω μου τὸ σῶμα καὶ δουλαγωγῶ, μή πως ἄλλοις κηρύξας αὐτὸς ἀδόκιμος γένωμαι.

Soccer players, football, basketball and baseball players, as well as runners, track and field participants, not to mention those in spelling-bees, test-takers and even hot-dog eaters, all of them compete for a perishable crown (stephano), a trophy that is temporary. We Christians compete in order to win the imperishable crown of eternal life.

6For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

In today’s Epistle reading from the Sixth Sunday of Matthew, we hear St. Paul writing the Christians in Rome (12:6-14). Just as we often refer to gifted athletes, the Apostle mentions the various gifts received by Christ’s followers, who are on the team of the Church: prophecy, ministering, teaching, exhortation, generosity, leading, diligence, compassion and cheerfulness (vv.6-8). Then he states the following, “outdo one another in showing honorτῇ τιμῇ ἀλλήλους προηγούμενοι (v.10). In other words, strive to be first in not only honor, but also in several other areas that he mentions in the same passage: love, hating evil, goodness (v.9), zeal, service (v.11), rejoicing, hoping, patience, perseverance, prayer (v.12), generosity and hospitality (v.13). St. Paul wants us to compete against one another in Christian virtue.

This might seem odd because we assign or experience something negative to competition but St. Paul knew that if Christians tried to outdo one another in virtue, even though there might be only one winner, everybody would benefit because they would all become better at the right things, they would all become more Christ-like. For example, look at our Orthodox Christian iconographic and architectural tradition. There is sort of a competitive hierarchy: Jesus is preeminent in the dome and other parts of the temple, then the Theotokos and Virgin Mary, then John the Baptist—these are like the top three draft picks of the Christian Church. On the iconstasi we see the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. The ‘arch’ means the first or highest ranking.

Another example is the Orthodox veneration of the Saints. We call Peter and Paul chief (Greek = protokoreiphaion) among the Apostles. We call only a few martyrs, like our own St. George, ‘Great’ martyrs. Even our sequencing of canonization implies a competitive hierarchy. First, we recognize that certain people have attained the heights of holiness, then we crown them as saints, and finally we venerate them. In other words, we evaluate their effort in the Christian race, then we award them top prize, and finally we try to emulate them. As we seek to imitate them, we compete with their accomplishments.

Today, July 12th, we commemorate the newly sainted Elder Paisios of Mount Athos who reposed in 1994 and was canonized in January of this year. How did he better Himself? By constantly comparing Himself to Christ and the Saints that he read about, Paisios was able to ascend to the heights of virtue and as well became a vehicle of God’s grace working miracles amongst the faithful. How did he do it? Looking back at St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth, the hosts of the ancient Ismithian games, the Apostle said that despite there is only one winner, all competitors should run in a manner to try to win (v.24). But he notes that competitors are temperate in all things (v.25) and that he himself disciplined his body to bring it into subjection (v.26). Temperance and self-discipline are key. An athlete cannot excel unless he trains hard and he or she cannot train hard without sacrificing many other things, especially those that are unhealthy. Likewise, we Christians cannot excel in our faith unless we train with asceticism (things like prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and worship) and we cannot train in these things without sacrificing other things, especially those that are spiritually unhealthy but even those that are morally neutral or even beneficial in secular ways.

Do we encourage competition amongst ourselves in virtue? Do we act as if there is a race to see who gets to liturgy first on Sunday mornings? What about fasting, are we competing in strictness? I dare say that the exact opposite is happening in our parish communities. Instead of challenging one another to attain the heights of Orthodox Christian asceticism and virtue, we often are creating an atmosphere of laxity, as if these things are not important nor essential to our walk of faith in Christ. Or as St. Paul would say, our race.

In conclusion, let us hear the words written in the Book of Hebrews

1Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

My brothers and sisters, let us be each other’s cloud of witnesses, cheering on each other in the race towards salvation. Let us outdo one another in honor as we compete for the imperishable crown of eternal life. Amen!