By Leah Fuller
Is it easier to compete with others or to unite and cooperate with them? Much of American culture centers around competition. From a young age, kids learn to compete to win through team sports or to achieve top honors in an academic setting. While the educational system champions leaving no child behind, we cannot deny the classroom hierarchy that naturally develops as some students excel and others struggle. Even if our culture weren’t preaching this gospel, it is practically ingrained into the very fiber of our humanness. Even in biblical history, examples of jealous comparison and competition abound: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, competitive squabbles amongst the disciples, and the list could go on.
One afternoon last summer, I was leading campers as they tackled a battery of group initiatives. Group initiatives are puzzles or games that encourage a group of individuals to work together to find a solution. Earlier in the day, I had worked with the first half of the group and now led the remaining students. As they neared the end of the first initiative, one of them looked at me and asked, “Did we do this faster than the other group?” I gave them a quizzical look, grinned, asking “Why does it matter?” The response was classic “We just want to know if we did better than them.” Their interest led to a conversation about comparison and competition—the places where they are of benefit, such as in sports, but also the ways that comparison and competition actually can create disunity in the body of Christ, stealing what God actually might have in store for us.
This scenario is not uncommon, and while I would love to say that this is a message for everyone else but me, this is not true. It is difficult not to want to compare and compete for God’s love, measuring my maturity and growth by the maturity and growth I see in others. I often find myself comparing my value to someone else’s, fearing that when a co-worker receives affirmation, my value has been judged and found lacking if I don’t also receive affirmation. I find that spiritual comparisons are some of the most detrimental. When a friend receives a word from the Lord in prayer for someone and I don’t, I wonder if God favors them more than me. When another is quick to serve others and meet needs in a group, I feel like I’m not being servant-hearted enough. I hear friends who are mothers make statements comparing their parenting based on how disciplined their children seem to be. Deep down, I struggle to live from the truth that my value and “belovedness” are not diminished by others’ success or bolstered by others’ failure. Maybe you have thought this, too? You see, we long for a tangible measurement of the love we ache to feel, but are afraid we will never have.
Henri Nouwen in his book Life of the Beloved says “It is impossible to compete for God’s love…It is only when we have claimed our own place in God’s love that we can experience this all-embracing, non-comparing love and feel safe, not only with God, but also with our brothers and sisters.” Scripture abounds with this truth, urging us to remember that “we have different gifts, according to the grace given us” (Romans 12:6). God made us different on purpose, to complement one another, and to make us aware of our need of Him as we acknowledge areas of weakness. We know this truth in our heads, but often it is difficult to believe it in our hearts. It is difficult to remember the truth that “my salvation and my honor depend on God” (Psalm 62:7) and that no matter what, He loves me with the deep, unconditional love that I long for. What would happen if I focused the energy I use comparing my value to others’ on thanking God that He has gifted me and He has gifted them, even as our gifts are different? And in that place of thankfulness, wouldn’t I remember that my value does not depend on another, but solely on the love of Christ freely given for me?
It requires effort to live from this truth. Why else would Paul urge us in Ephesians 4:3 to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”? Unity in the body of Christ requires effort as we each learn to receive God’s love for us. It is not an effort of striving or grasping, but an effort of continuing to return to the truth that God has chosen and gifted me and that He has chosen and gifted you, too. In an effort of surrender and death to self, we relinquish our reputation and value, trusting that God loves every bit of us, the weak parts and the strong. As I make the effort to surrender and receive God’s love for me, He fills my cup full. His love begins to overflow, and I find I can speak the truth of your “belovedness” and “chosenness” with a heart of gratitude. This is what Paul meant in Romans 12:3 when he said, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”
Perhaps today you can take some time to take an inventory of your relationships, noting places where you may unknowingly have been comparing or competing? Bring these relationships before the Lord asking, “What does God think of me?” Next, take time to renew your mind, remembering the truth that your value is not diminished by others’ success or bolstered by others’ failure. Now turn your heart to God in gratitude for the ways He uniquely loves you and has gifted you. Finally, thank God for the ways He uniquely loves and gifts others. Return to a posture of trust that “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
By Logan Nicholson
One by one, the high school students disappeared through the cave wall. That mud-encrusted hole is tricky to negotiate. You have to work your way past obtrusive cave formations to reach it, search for foot and handholds that you can’t see, face claustrophobia, and then encounter the drop. Exploring beyond that hole wasn’t required, and yet they chose to go through, knowing only what we told them about the next room and understanding that my co-leader was willing to go through first.
“If you are up for a challenge you can go through the hole in the wall.”
“What’s in there?” they asked.
“You will have to find out for yourself, but it’s worth it.”
Hesitant and debating among themselves whether or not to try it, one stood up to declare, “I am going through;” then another, “I’m going with you!” Soon I stood with the last two, who had stated emphatically that they would not go through that hole.
The last courageous camper slithered out of sight and silence enshrouded the room where I stood with the two remaining campers. Then came a shifting of feet squishing in the mud.
“My feet are going to get stuck, and I won’t be able to make it out of here. It’s a good thing I didn’t go in there!” one of the young men rationalized. (The voices from the other side began to fade into the distance.) “They must be going a long way. Are they coming back this way?”
“What do you think?” I responded.
“I think they are coming back. It’s a good thing I didn’t go ‘cause then I would just have to come back. I just had surgery on my back, and I can’t re-injure it.”
“Wow! I didn’t know you had back surgery. What was wrong?” I asked knowing that I certainly would have seen it on his medical forms if this had been the case.
“Well it wasn’t really surgery, but the chiropractor said my back was injured and he fixed it, but he told me to avoid stuff like this for a while.”
I smiled to myself as the excuses continued to flow: He didn’t want to get his dad’s flashlight muddy. He thought there might be water, and he didn’t want to get wet. He could just find out from the others what it was like, and so on. In the midst of the excuses he stopped and said, “Fine, I’m going in!” but then his friend talked him out of it and the excuses started up again. I lost count after seventeen individual excuses.
Listening to this young man struggle, I knew that he was fully able to do what I had asked of him. I knew both the challenge and the reward that lay ahead, and I knew his excuses masked his choice not to step out in faith. He made excuses, successfully convincing himself that he really was not able to go through that hole. Excuses would have been unnecessary had he not already decided not to it.
I am convinced the Christian walk presents similar situations. There are many points along the journey where the road gets scary, the way looks difficult, and we have to make a choice. Will I be obedient to the Lord and let Him lead, or will I choose my own way? The only difference between the cave scenario and the choices we face is perhaps in degree. Our challenge may be much more risky but our reward much greater.
In Luke chapter 14, we hear a similar story about a man who sent out invitations to many for a great banquet. When the time for the banquet came, he sent for those invited and told them to “Come, for everything is now ready” (v. 17). One by one though, “they all alike began to make excuses” (v. 18). One just got married, another had to work, and still another needed to inspect a new purchase he had made. These excuses aren’t that different from those boys’ or from the ones you and I make.
How many opportunities to share the gospel have I missed, making excuses? “I might offend them,” or “I can live a good life, and that will be my witness.” How many opportunities to show hospitality have I passed up, with false claims? “My house is too dirty, and I didn’t plan anything for supper.” How many potential missionaries refused God’s calling. “I can be a missionary right here,” or “Someone else will do it.” How many believers never give money to support outreach? “I give to the church… sometimes,” or “I can’t afford it!” How many of us don’t visit the sick or teach the young or study their Bible? “That is the pastor’s job.” Or one of the easiest excuses of all, “I’m too busy.”
Excuses are no less than lies that we tell ourselves to justify avoiding what we don’t want to do. Excuses are lies that we tell others to preserve their perception of us. We use excuses to feel safe and comfortable when, in reality, they actually prevent us from experiencing and receiving the greatest reward—a life of adventure with Christ leading us.
The antidote to any lie is truth. The truth is that when God calls us to do something—no matter how impossible it seems to us or how many barriers we see in the path—we are without excuse because God has issued an invitation into something bigger and deeper and better than we could imagine, and He will make a way in what He calls us to.
“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)
By Joel Bates
I leaned over and whispered into my son’s ear as the music started, “Isn’t it like magic?” He looked straight ahead eyes transfixed and nodded. It was his first time at the symphony, and for me it may as well have been because every time I get the rare pleasure of soaking up the music at the concert hall its like downloading spiritual clarity. Music can do that. We cannot see the sound waves or completely understand why it makes our heart want to leap out of our chest or even draw us to tears, yet the magic remains. In that moment it occurred to me that I almost missed it.
My wife’s middle name is “Noelle,” so at our house when the holidays roll in we roll out the red carpet. Up goes the tree, on go the ornaments, and out come the lights. But the most anticipated, highly to be praised holiday tradition for most of us is the advent calendar. We cut out last year’s Christmas cards and make them into advent post-it-notes that Julie and I (mostly Julie…. OK pretty much always Julie) write upon the advent activity for the coming day. I say most of us like this because not all of us always enjoy this activity. So, maybe it’s mostly me that doesn’t always enjoy this activity. But before you judge me as a scrooge hear me out. The holidays are already a very busy time. Can I get an amen? And to make matters worse, my wife’s birthday is smack dab in the middle of the season. And I’m a procrastinator, so you see why adding a list of extra things we have to do every day to celebrate advent is not always my absolute favorite idea, but I go along with it. Until it came to the idea of going to the symphony. It was on a Saturday. My day off. It was two hours away. I didn’t feel like driving. And I woke up that morning with the sinking feeling that something inconvenient was going to happen. And I for one feel that inconvenience is best dealt with from a la-z-boy chair in the comfort of one’s own living room. I certainly didn’t want to venture out in mid-December haphazardly throwing ourselves at the mercy of Murphy. A blizzard could blow in. The car might break down. What if we got all the way to the symphony and there were no more seats available? I actually had this discussion with my wife. She just smiled and said, “Yes, but isn’t it more likely that something good will happen?” It’s that kind of thinking that can get a chap killed! But I couldn’t argue against a person with the middle name “Noelle.” And the kids had already discovered the surprise.
Our trip to town was pleasant but I was on the lookout for trouble. The parking garage was even free, but I wouldn’t believe it and wandered around a bit looking for a sign that would tell me how much I owed. But there was no sign, just free parking. I had to admit that things were looking up when the guy standing in front of us in line enviously said we had the best seats in the house. As if I needed more convincing, from the moment the conductor’s wand struck sharply at the air signaling the musicians and the sound filled the hall with familiar Christmas splendor, I was relieved to discover that there was no place else I would have rather been. At the last after wooing us with the tones of the season, the conductor regaled the audience to join in singing a series of holiday carols. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better I found myself with thousands of other concert-goers singing spiritual songs about the savior accompanied by a professional ensemble. I struggled to hold back the emotion as I took to heart the words I was singing, “Glory to God in the highest,” “Oh come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emanuel,” “Round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild,” and I stood there in heavenly peace.
As it turns out, something good did happen despite my best effort to avoid it. I am convinced that that is the way our God is. Without our involvement or input He sent his son. A child came as a perfect sacrifice, lived as a man and died for our sins completing a plan that would bring about good to all of mankind. It happened right under humanity’s nose in a simple stable on an obscure day. It just goes to show that good is alive and waiting for you. All you have to do is accept it. Let the peace of this holiday fill you with the hope that good is in season.
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.