Tag Archives: competition

Being wise.

What does it mean to be wise? James (and we are reading James 3:13 – 4:8) uses the tradition of wise sayings from the Old Testament (often called the “Wisdom” tradition), and will quote from Proverbs (3:34) but he is ruthlessly practical. No exams and certificates, no obscure theories. As faith must show in action, so must wisdom.

Some things aren’t wise. Bitter envy and selfish ambition are destructive; by no means unknown among religious people, they are the opposite of God’s wisdom, they cause disorder and evil. But what are the alternatives? There is a link to humility.

17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

James 3:17

all this is very desirable – especially in other people! The trouble is that worldly wisdom is often about “getting on” – put bluntly, outperforming others, getting to the top of the pile. That is not what James is talking about. 4:4 reminds us that friendship with this world means being God’s enemy. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy anything; it does mean that your outlook, priorities and ambitions must not and cannot be formed by what everybody does. We need to be careful what we celebrate – achievement yes, as somebody making good use of their gifts, persisting in training. As beating others into a lower place, making the competition look silly, NO.

Church is meant to model a form of cooperation, where everybody learns, everybody benefits, not a form of competition, where a few take prizes of precedence, superiority, title. But in our world, everybody fights everybody else. Sometimes literally, because people get on one another’s nerves. But also because of the inner conflict of disordered desire spills out. What do you want? Actually, if you can reduce it to one thing, you could probably have it. – but could you limit yourself to one thing, and pursue it systematically?

Even our personal religious life can be ruined by not being clear about our aim – what do you really want from Christian faith? Many forms of words would do –

  • to follow Jesus be his disciple and learn from him;
  • to live a life that fulfills what it was created and intended for;
  • to be a blessing to other people.

Follow through any of those, and I think it will bring you back to what James is talking about. James tells us to ask God 4:2, but also that in asking it’s no use imagining that God will help us against others. We need to ask, not for our pleasure, but for the good of all people. That would be wise.

We are easily distracted. We get another agenda from our friends, from advertisements, from “what everybody says”. God doesn’t work like “the world” – and the way of “the world” doesn’t work, because otherwise we would have lots of happy, contented, people.

God tells us to be humble, to submit to his plans and ways resisting the devil. That will bring us close to him, and we shall probably find that it brings most of the things we really wanted, leaving out some that, on reflection, would not have been so good after all.


We like to do well, and to encourage others – celebrating family and friends’ achievements. But we can overdo it! A proper ambition can become stressful competition of the most unhelpful sort. What to one person is friendly rivalry and motivation is to another a load of expectation and the fear of failure.

Paul had a problem with the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 12:2-10). He found that they were preferring to listen to other teachers, whose example was harmfully competitive, perhaps with a financial motive. His reaction is not to enter the competition, but to “boast”. There seems no doubt that “the man” who had the revelations he talks about is himself, but he prefers to boast about his weakness, so that he can focus on the strength God supplies.

This may seem remote from our experience, yet it has importance. On the one hand, we are warned against being competitive in telling stories of our religious experience. There is no merit in “experiences” unless they lead on to a changed character, and a life of faithful and effective service – and that can be seen without publicity. At the same time, we are reminded of God’s help, to provide what is needed (yes, not always what we want, or even think we need!). The focus should be on God, not on self-dramatisation.

On the other hand, those who choose Christian leaders, whether deciding which group to join, or which person gets a job, need to beware. The qualities that matter do not include an inflated sense of self-importance, nor stories of dramatic spiritual experience. If there is faith, the experience will show in gifts and character. If there is only a desire for excitement or the unusual, there is danger.

Recipe for action

Imagine what it would be like if every Christian was confident in their faith. I mean confident, not bumptious or aggressive – indeed confidence would let them listen to other views and other ways calmly. What sort of a church would result from people who took seriously 2 Timothy 1:1-14, starting with verse 7? Let’s think about it.

for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

Paul is writing to Timothy, a young and possibly rather diffident leader in the church. He gives thanks for his faith, and v 6,7

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

God’s Spirit fills us with power. Not like Superman – or the Amazing Hulk. Not power for display, but to get things done. Paul talks about witnessing, about not being ashamed of Jesus. That’s an important part of Christian confidence. “I may not have got all the answers, and I’m not holding myself up as perfect, but I can recommend a Saviour.” It takes power to make that recommendation graciously, whether it means speaking up in an awkward silence, or being consistent about living differently to others.

But it’s not just power, love is needed. What has love to do with confidence?

God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

God’s love is what has saved us. A love for the unlovely. A reason to know that we are valued, that we have a place – and not because we pretend to be something we are not, but because God makes us something we are not. If the Spirit fills us with love, the competition to be more important, more successful, loses its point. We can love and accept others because we are loved and accepted.

for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. s not make us timid; instead his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control.”

Self control? Paul was no control freak. He travelled the Mediterranean, and there were no timetables (and no travel insurance). Paul’s life was flexible, but there was a discipline there to get things done. He said that it was not what he achieved, but what God did in and through him, and together they worked well.

Self-control is no easier to find than power or love, but we are told that these are things the Holy Spirit gives and develops as we live as Christians. It’s not a passing or accidental reference in verse 7, because verse 14 underlines it:

14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

That needs no explanation. We need confident Christians, filled by the Holy Spirit with power, love and self-control. Don’t just think about it; do it!