Why Have a Goal?
2 Timothy 2:5 - Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor's crown except by competing according to the rules.
Is sport or other competition compatible with Christian life? Surely, you may reason, sport prompts a sense of competition, of me not only trying to be personally better that others but also to be publicly seen as better? So isn't being competitive in public contrary to Christian humility?
Maybe, though, a perspective of “fulfilment through teamwork” is insightful here. Part of the bigger picture then includes collaboration and communication to the extent that the success of the game involves true dependence on the team spirit and dynamic. Each individual's attention includes facilitating every other team member, enabling the best and supporting the least. The real achievement of team-building objectives may, at times, be much more beneficial overall than the final score.
With this as a personal focus and the dawning realisation that I wasn’t going to be the next Messi or Ronaldo, the experience of competition for the sake of winning a match has seemed to lack spiritual value. I could see it reduced to an ego driven exercise - one bang average footballer exerting dominance over a mildly below average footballer. It begs the question, “Why bother with goals or keeping score?”
This can be applied to our wider questions of life. Why aim for something when you won’t be the best? Why bother if second is just the first loser? Well it depends how raw competitiveness is understood. Is there a drive to win at the human level and play the zero sum game of one man wins and another loses by the same amount? My gut response is that without understanding love we struggle to believe any different. What if, however, we start with “mutual pursuit of an ideal” and look to the beneficial result being a feedback of who is closer to such an ideal. If we were playing football the interaction might go something like this (insert your own sporting figures and analogy where appropriate) we are both aiming to be the closest thing we can be to Barcelona, despite being the Catholic Society team playing with a combined two left feet against a team united in their cause by studying history and having too much spare time on their hands. We will then compete to our fullest in gladiatorial combat until the final whistle, trying to replicate the actions of sporting heroes and pull off the ‘Ronaldo’ chop. In this way we use our ego centric thought centres to project an image of which the reality is a laughable imitation. Then we shake hands, thank the opposition for the relative feedback on our performance, whether that be a 9-0 win or a 10-0 loss. We then dwell on the positive aspects of our performance and learn from the mistakes and look to overcome deficiencies. In this way the team we call the opposition become a collaborative force in our pursuit of the whichever ideal we are in pursuit of; hence the zero sum game narrative is diminished (and we’re all winners as cheesy as that is). We all win because of (not despite!) the discrepancies between the two teams and by being different entities, the positives and negatives of each are revealed. When this is related to our personal spiritual journeys the competition aspect of our lives is more complicated, however being joined to our opposition in pursuit of an ideal still holds. If my football relative skill in comparison to Pele (the ideal of football) is miniscule, Jesus’ thirty odd years of sinlessness (the ideal of humanity) contrasted to my day so far might require a similar comparison. In the ‘game of life’ we are on our own, therefore we can choose to interact with our opposition as a zero sum, me or you game, and our winning becomes an exercise in boosting our pride and rooting our identity in something as unstable as ‘winning’. This is the same pride invested in ‘outsmarting God’ by living by our own rules and pretending they are getting us further than living out the best version of Christianity we can. The way to pursue the ideal genuinely is to turn our opposition, embodied in the game of life as other people in comparison, into a great gift. With the more formidable opposition allowing us to grow, they enable us to closer realise our potential in our pursuit of the ideal of Jesus Christ. Using our innate tendency to compare ourselves to others is changed into a positive experience when applied this way, with the Church laying out the lives of the Saints as realistic perspectives on the heights people can reach.
I feel the best way to summarise is to use a passage on competition taken from a sermon by Saint Gregory Nazianzen entitled, ‘Two bodies, but a single spirit’ based his friendship with Saint Basil in the fourth century. Saint Gregory is referencing their time as students in Athens, and how their pursuit of same goal was a enabler in their quest of supernatural virtue:
“When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognised that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper. The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own. We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. Though we cannot believe those who claim that everything is contained in everything, yet you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other. Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong. Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.”