The orange team scores and the crowd explodes. The blue team answers back with a 3-point bucket and their fans jump to their feet. There is stomping and shouting, hugging and clapping. Frenzy in the fieldhouse! It’s madness; march madness. This is single elimination folks. Win, you move on. Lose, you go home. The NCAA championship trophy is on the line.
Next year, let’s change it up, why don’t we? Let’s just play a round robin? Go ahead and wear your uniforms so we know who’s who, but we’ll have the guy running the clock signal when it’s time for the next group to take the court, so everyone is sure to get equal playing time. At the buzzer we’ll shake hands and board the bus for another game in another city. Doesn’t matter who or where. At the end, let’s all just get together at the banquet and hand out the participation trophies. We’re all champions, after all.
Which one sounds like more fun to you?
I am ever amazed at the ability of sports to show us to ourselves. When nothing is on the line, it doesn’t matter. When something is on the line we discover the very best in ourselves. The key isn’t the winning; it’s the discovering. Which requires that there be only one prize. If we give one to everyone, it not only encourages some to coast without contributing, it devalues the prize.
The Christian life is exactly this: to play in such a way that you might win the prize. If we live as if everyone upon exit from this life is gonna be handed the Jesus trophy just for participating, we miss the point. We’re meant to live as if we mean it, as if everything is on the line.
Participation trophies are our response when ‘what if we don’t win?’ rings in our ears. But that’s fear speaking; not faith. Faith says, there is one prize and room enough for everyone to hold it high.
“Teamwork makes the dream work” … they say.
Winning. Competition. Trophies. Prizes. Those things all held real sway for me as a young athlete. I wanted them. And, many times, I got what I wanted. I was successful, often a winner. Much celebrated and complemented. When I became a Christian I came to see myself on the winner’s podium, and I didn’t necessarily like what I saw. I didn’t like:
- the elevation
- the view
- the way people were looking at me.
But most of all I didn’t like the pride I took in myself or the temptation to hold myself in high regard. So I “graciously” stepped down to “help others less fortunate.” Now here was something that wouldn’t be a temptation, right? No podium. No trophy. No prizes. No striving.
Problem was…there was still this matter of running the race. The race for the prize, that being the heavenly call.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Philippians 3:13-15
God has designs on my life. He has designed me for this race. Not to meander along the way. My husband, ironically not a professing Christian or a student of the Bible, told me last night, “Your goal is to keep your eyes on the prize.” He meant, don’t let distractions stop you. Don’t interrupt your race to correct the folks who are misbehaving, the people who trip you up. Don’t stumble over the stuff that isn’t worth stopping for. Keep your eyes on your objective. Eyes forward.
Funny, because this put competing in a whole new light. It was okay to push ahead as hard as I could, as long as I kept my eye clearly on my goal, the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Jesus would not justify “all means” to get to Himself, but my stopping to tidy up around every turn, to make sure that everyone who interrupts my progress is set straight, is not my calling. They are running their own races. I have been dallying in mine and this is not of God.
Along the course of every road race there are many, many intersections. I am pledged to look both ways before crossing, perhaps lend a hand at one or grab a cup of water at another, but the main thing is the race.
Let my eyes not stray and my will not waver from His course and His will which, for me, is the race set before me. This kind of freedom is the only way I can run the race of my life.
This from Seth Godin this morning. (He’s a marketing guru and motivational speaker and champion of the “common man,” so to speak)…
Ways to improve your performance:
- Compete for a prize
- Earn points
- Please a demanding boss
- Make someone else’s imminent deadline
- Face sudden death elimination in the playoffs
- Wear a heart monitor and track performance publicly
- Go head-to-head against a determined foe
The thing is, all of these external stimuli are there to raise your game and push you ever harder. They are fences to be leaped, opponents to be defeated.
The alternative is to compete against nothing but yourself. To excel merely because the act of excelling without boundaries or incentives thrills you.
And the good news is that once you find that, you’ll always have it.
For me, sports and academic competition taught me that first set of principles for improving my performance. Seeking the accolade, the victory, the edge. When do we transition to the second way? Seeking excellence for its own sake? And once we do, do we stay there?
Thank you, Seth, for reminding me that the thrill I get from wax on – wax off, shine(!) is just as real and way more enduring over the long haul.
Now, what do I do about all that competition that is rabid for the victory in head to head competition? Remind myself, that’s how one learns. But that’s not where I want to end up. I guess the occasional slippage may be human but my goal is to spend way more time in the intrinsic arena.
They say “you can’t go back,” but I think I can and do. Even when I do, as Seth says, “you’ll always have it.” It’s mine for a moment. Then I give it to the One to whom it really belongs. Then it’s ours forever. “Here God, will you hold my trophy (paycheck, certificate, diploma, recognition dinner, promotion) so I can get back to work?”
Perhaps the proof of its staying power is when I can celebrate, truly celebrate, the excellence in another’s product or effort without an ounce of envy or regret.
Of course, the best things can always be better, right?