I've heard the claim often enough that competition is inherently wrong because of the potential loss of self-esteem to the many who don't win; I think that's a little over-simplified. Not just because the many who don't win may still gain awareness or accomplishment, may take satisfaction in putting in a good showing or a personal best, or from being exposed to the next level of skill, determination, innovation, and dedication. Also because there are often-unnoticed spiritual risks to the one who wins, in the forms of temptations to pride or arrogance -- or needing and expecting recognition.
Is there such a thing as healthy competition? We have an older letter in which St Paul set up a friendly competition among the churches on his circuit to see who could provide the most disaster-relief in a particular disaster; it seemed healthy enough. "Friendly competition": there is such a thing. It happens when each side spurs the other on to greater heights, to dig deeper into our own determination to do the best we can possibly do. Game on!
It's more typical that we don't use it to spur each other on to greater heights; we use it to try to gain or hoard recognition. For this, the spiritual risks of winning rival those of losing. In the original Lent -- Jesus' journey from the Transfiguration to the cross -- after he told his followers that he expected his own execution as they headed to Jerusalem for the Passover, there were arguments among his disciples about who was the greatest, and about who would sit on his right or left hand as Messiah (when he was crowned king, they may have expected, having missed the point about the upcoming death). They were interested in competition in which the goal seemed to be self-promotion. And I wonder how much the goal of self-promotion would make any competition unhealthy. I wonder how often that is exactly the draw for us.
I also found myself wondering if there are suitable prayers out there to help guide us into the right frame of mind as we enter a competition. I searched and found some online; I've linked some that I found that seemed to build a right heart and mind. I'd like to quote some gems that I found (all available at the linked sites):
- May I compete with your love shining in my heart. May I push myself to be the best.
- I feel Your delight when I compete. All of my abilities are from You, Jesus. My heart yearns for Your applause.
- I am humble in victory and gracious in defeat.
- Lord, I admit that my prayers before competition are more focused on the scoreboard than on becoming like You. I desire to pour out my heart before You every day that I compete. Develop in me a pure heart.