October 21, 2017

The Competitive Nature of the Christian Life

Walter Kirk

When one enters the Christian life through belief and trust in Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior, he also enters into the arena of conflict and competition. The Christian life is by its nature competitive. The old life prior to conversion has been shed, and the believer now stands on God’s side, prepared for conflict. Our opponent is Satan, who ever stands as a “roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8) and his army of fallen angels. The apostle Paul describes the nature of this conflict in Ephesians 6:10–12.

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Competition, or the lack of it, is not a choice for the believer. In various aspects of life, we choose to compete or not compete; but not so in a life lived in Christ. The forces of competition are there every day, and the believer, to be successful and victorious, has no choice but to compete at the highest spiritual level.

David was but a lad when the giant Goliath, the hero of the Philistines, defied the God of Israel and challenged any Israelite to fight him. David took up the challenge, slew the giant, and brought victory to the people of God. Victory came when David accepted the challenge of competition.

Believers too have “Goliaths” that challenge them every day—adversities, heartaches, discouragement, physical suffering, and opposition from an ungodly world. All of these test our wills to meet them head-on and compete for victory.

Dr. Bob Jones Sr. used to say, “The test of your character is what it takes to stop you.” This is a statement of success in competitively meeting life’s challenges head-on. The Reformer Martin Luther, who led the revolt against the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the 16th century, knew the rigors of conflict and competition. He courageously nailed the 95 theses of protest on the door of Wittenberg Church, and before his trial at the Diet of Worms refused to recant his beliefs based on sola scriptura.

The competitive spirit of Luther led to a sweeping revolt against the heresies of Rome and ushered in the Protestant Reformation.

Vince Lombardi was coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s. During Lombardi’s coaching tenure in Green Bay, the Packers won the Super Bowl twice and reached the elite status of professional football. Lombardi was known for his tough competitive spirit that produced a winning football team. He not only knew how to coach, but he knew also how to inspire his players on the gridiron. His adherence to toughness and the work ethic were the hallmarks of his success. Here are several of his famous maxims:

The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.

Success demands singleness of purpose.

The will to excel and the will to win, they endure.

How does one achieve success in battle? I believe it is essential that battles are won primarily in the hearts of men. Men respond to leadership in a most remarkable way, and once you have won the heart, they will follow you anywhere.

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, was a strong competitor in war and in his presidency. The story is told that the boyhood friends of Jackson could not understand how he became a famous general and president of the United States, while others with greater talent never succeeded. Said one, “Why, Jim Brown, who lived right down the pike from Andy, not only was smart, but could throw Andy three times out of four—but look where Andy is now.”

Responded another, “How did there happen to be a fourth time? Usually, it is three times and out, isn’t it?”

“Sure, but not so with Andy. He would never admit he was beat. He would never stay throwed. So, by and by, Jim Brown would get tired, and the fourth time Andrew Jackson would throw him, and be the victor.”

The moral of this account is, no matter how many times you are throwed don’t stay throwed! Sometimes, the Devil “decks” believers to put us out of commission or cause us to quit. God wants us to get off the deck and go on serving Christ. If Satan throws you, don’t stay throwed.

Competition is not always winning, but it is always competing. Competition is not failure, but failure to compete is failure. Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times, a record of futility unapproached by any other player in the history of baseball; but that is not what we remember about Babe Ruth. His 714 home runs completely obliterate the 1,330 strikeouts. He failed often as a batter, but he stands alone in baseball immortality. Failure to Babe Ruth was only a stepping-stone to the successes he achieved on the baseball diamond.

The WW II years of 1941–45 brought our nation into conflict with the Nazis of Germany. Western civilization and our way of life were threatened by the dreams of world conquest of Adolf Hitler. Ironically, the inspiration for victory received by all the Allies was from the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who said,

If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without bloodshed, if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly, you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you, and only a precarious chance of survival. There may be even a worse fate. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.

C. T. Studd of Scotland was captain of the English cricket team and an all-England cricketer. He was a fierce competitor. He became one of the most used of God’s missionaries in the early 1900s. He opened the Congo to the gospel and had thousands of converts. C. T. Studd said,

I cannot tell you what joy it gave me to bring the first soul to the Lord Jesus Christ. I have tasted almost all the pleasures that this world can give. I do not suppose that there is one I have not experienced, but I can tell you pleasures were nothing compared to the joy that the saving of that one soul gave me. Formerly, I had as much love for cricket as any man could have, but when the Lord came into my heart, I found I had something infinitely better that cricket. My heart was no longer in the game. I wanted to win souls for the Lord.

Cricket had been Studd’s life, but now Christ was his life. The energy and competitive nature that caused him to excel in cricket were now turned to blazing trails for Christ in the far distant mission fields. God does not call every athlete who is saved into His work, but many are called. One reason is the competitive spirit they have developed in athletics; the desire to go into conflict and bear the scars of battle; the determination to “stay the course,” never surrendering when the odds of winning are against them. These traits were certainly exemplified in the life of the missionary evangelist C. T. Studd.

When a believer steps out for Christ to live a life dedicated to Him, there is only one direction to pursue, and that is forward. All bridges are burned behind him as he begins the trek of a Christ-centered life. There is no turning back. This is the nature of the new life in Christ. The following illustration is from the life of the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

The day was done for the troops of Napoleon. The general called for his little bugle boy as his army faced annihilation. The emperor said, “Boy, go up there on that yonder hill and blow ‘retreat.’” “Sir,” said the boy, “I don’t know how to blow ‘retreat.’” Said Napoleon, “Son, our army is doomed unless we retreat.” So the boy went up, but he didn’t know how to blow ‘retreat’; and so, he blew CHARGE! CHARGE! CHARGE! That army heard, roused themselves, and turned retreat into victory.

Imminent defeat in the life of the believer in Christ is often turned into victory by godly perseverance and undeterred faith.

Though the nature of the Christian life is competitive, the undergirding strength is the character of Christ in the life of the believer. Though the conflict may be fierce, we must engage in the conflict in the gentleness of Christ. “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient” (2 Tim. 2:24).

This truth is illustrated in the book Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations On and Off the Court. Coach John Wooden won ten championships in basketball at UCLA from 1964–75. John Wooden was raised in a Bible-reading Christian home in Martinsville, Indiana. His life was centered on three criteria: family, values, and virtue. Coach Wooden said concerning gentleness, “There is nothing stronger than gentleness.” He gave the following true-to-life illustration:

My dad, Joshua Wooden, was a strong man in one sense, but a gentle man. While he could lift heavy things men half his age couldn’t lift, he would also read poetry to us each night after a day working in the fields raising corn, hay, wheat, tomatoes, and watermelons. We had a team of mules named Jack and Kate on our farm. “Kate” would often get stubborn and lie down on me when I was plowing. I couldn’t get her up no matter how roughly I treated her. Dad would see my predicament and walk across the field until he was close enough to say, ‘Kate.’ Then she would get up and start working again. He never touched her in anger. It took me a long time to understand that even a stubborn mule responds to gentleness.

The apostle Paul was knowledgeable of the ancient Greek Olympics, as in Scripture he describes competition in the Christian life to the Olympic Games: “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they [the athletes] do it to obtain a corruptible crown [garland]; but we an incorruptible” (1 Cor. 9:24, 25).

Paul did run the race for Christ, and he ran well. At the conclusion of his life, Paul gives to us the finality of this race in 2 Timothy 4:6, 7: “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course (race), I have kept the faith.”

It is incumbent upon believers today to offer themselves to God on the altar of sacrifice, to run the race for God, and to keep strong in the faith. Through adversity and conflict will emerge a life well lived and a crown well won.


Original bio as seen when this article was first published: Dr. Walter Kirk, past Southeast Regional Moderator of the FBFI and cofounder of Baptist Home Missions, Inc., in Efland, North Carolina, is pastor of University Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2002. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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