As a child, I had a very competitive nature. In some cases, the drive to be better and, if possible, the best, served me well. In the classroom, it helped me achieve a high GPA; on the softball field it drove me to throw hard, hit far, and run fast; on the soccer field it created in me a ferocity that overcame my lack of skill; at church (yes, I was even competitive at church) it inspired me to memorize dozens of Bible verses. Unfortunately, that competitive nature proved to be a double-edged sword, not always benefitting me, or others around me.
In sixth grade, for instance, a group of like-minded girls joined me in fighting back against the boys, who refused to let us play football with them during recess, even after a new girl moved in whose father played professional arena football (she could throw a perfect spiral, farther than most of the boys!). We decided we would just set up our own game right next to theirs, to show them that we were perfectly competent football players. This seemed like a good idea until the day our two games collided, and I took a boy’s knee in the eye, which instantly swelled to the size of a lemon and turned black and blue. While this accident did cause the boys to finally relent and let us join their game, I paid the consequences of my competitive spirit for weeks, as I was in no condition to play football. My sixth-grade picture even memorialized the event by capturing on film, months later, my still-blood-red eyeball.
There was another time, some years later, that I allowed competitiveness to trump compassion. Our church-league softball team’s shortstop took a hard-hit grounder to the face, and although I saw the blood gushing, I also saw that the ball had stopped right in front of him, and instinctively yelled for it at second base. He tossed the ball to make the out; immediately after that, he had to be helped off the field with a broken nose.
This extreme competitiveness has mellowed (at least somewhat) over the years, likely because I had to face the cold, hard reality that I was never going be able to win everything, or maybe because my body so often cries out for me to stop pushing it so hard. Or maybe I have finally internalized the biblical truth that “winning” in the world’s view is not always truly winning. In fact, the Bible pretty much turns upside-down every human concept of achievement. “…the last will be first, and the first last,” Jesus says (Matthew 20:16). Paul adds that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27).”
Most importantly, the Bible makes it clear that there is absolutely nothing I can do to earn my way to Heaven. I could strive to set the best church-attendance record of all time, memorize the entire Bible, and outdo everyone else in philanthropic deeds, but still not meet God’s standard of holiness. According to Romans, no one is righteous–“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” Thankfully, Romans 4 follows up by telling us how we can be made righteous in God’s sight: by faith in Jesus Christ, “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification (Romans 4:25).” What an amazing, freeing truth! I don’t have to work the hardest or be the best at anything; I just have to acknowledge, by faith, the work Christ has already done on my behalf, and thus receive His free gift of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9). Oh Lord, thank you for making a way of salvation that “does not depend on human desire or effort,” but on your mercy (Romans 9:16)!
Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. Psalm 46:10 (NASB)