The challenge to compare. The temptation to copy the success of others. And, finally, the feeding of our ambition by seeking to turn ministry into grounds for competition.
I’m really competitive, and I’ve been that way since I was a kid. In fact, I was so competitive as a young boy that I would be emotionally crushed whenever I lost a game. Thankfully, my parents saw this pattern that was developing in my life and began to work with me in this area. My mom would play board games or different sports and not let me win, as parents often do when their children are younger. In fact, she would try to find as many opportunities as she could for me to lose, so she could work with me in responding the right way. I didn’t lose heart or my competitive edge, but I learned how to hold my composure and not fall apart. I can remember one year I was on a little league team that lost every game of the season. I got so frustrated and wanted to quit the team, but my dad wouldn’t let me. He taught me about fighting for the team, never quitting, and finishing what you start.

Competition can take various forms in leadership and ministry. Sometimes it’s not as obvious as others. Competition can also be healthy. As I mentioned earlier, I grew up playing team sports like soccer, basketball, and baseball. Some of these teams won championships, some were okay, and some where outright terrible. Through the years, I’ve seen different types of athletes and team dynamics. One thing that was an obvious principle in the success or failure of a team was how everyone on the team worked together.

If we’re comparing ourselves with others or we’re copying what others do in order to fit in and get noticed, we can almost without notice need to sustain ourselves by showing ourselves to be better than others and can begin to compete with those around us. Whether we realize it or not, our actions or motivations become driven by this.

Often, we don’t even realize that this is what’s driving us. I’ve often found myself in the midst of doing really good things but noticing that something was off inside of me! After stopping and taking a step back, often using my coach, friend, or wife to speak truth into me, I gain perspective that my root issue and motivation is often one of proving myself to be better. If what I’m doing, no matter how good it is, appears to be not getting the results I say I should be making, I often push the “I am better than them” button.

As leaders, we are called to serve and empower others—which is how Jesus chose to advance his Kingdom. True fruit is seeing others thrive and grow. If we’re constantly competing with others around us, this becomes impossible to achieve. Not to mention un- healthy! Though few are willing to admit it, when we see a ministry or team like us succeed, it often can bring out a competitiveness that works directly opposite of Christ’s upside-down Kingdom.

There are other ways competition creeps in. We often compete with the “ambition” or “pre-conceived visions” of what success looks like with- in ourselves. And if we aren’t careful, those can wander right back into things that were started for right purposes, but become a threat to that which was good and right to do. A classic example of this is having to recreate a successful event, when God intended it to be a “one-time ” experience. The end result is that we spend our time competing and recreating, instead of contributing around the calling God has entrusted to each of us and the community in which we are a part.

I was a sophomore in high school on a mission trip to the Philippines. I was part of a team of about 15 people. About halfway through the trip, a few people on the team were really starting to get on my nerves. We were living in close quarters, eating together, traveling together, doing longs days of ministry—basically we did everything together. This meant that we all saw the best and worst of each other. I remember being at the end of my rope and spending some coveted time alone away from the group reading my Bible and journaling.
One passage specifically got me thinking.

Therefore, putting away lying, “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another. “Be angry, and do not sin”: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil. Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one an- other, even as God in Christ forgave you.

I was instantly convicted. Something in this passage jumped out at me:

“Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.”

The trap, then, is this: if we put our focus on the wrong thing, we put ourselves in danger of missing the real thing Jesus has called us to do or accomplish. In this verse, I initially thought that “Let him who stole steal no longer” was a reference to the enemy. Then I realized that the next part ruled him out. The enemy can’t produce “something to give him who is in need.” This verse is talking about us.

“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” James 4:1-3

If we’re asking for the good of those around us and our motives aren’t for our own fame but to see the goodness of God released to a dying world, everything changes. We’re no longer competing, but joining God in what He has done from the beginning of time: giving to bring life, hope, and transformation. Of course, I haven’t yet completely mastered the temptation to compare, copy, or compete. However, I know what it looks like, so I pay closer attention to what is motivating me and I fiercely guard what it is that God has called me to cultivate, create, and contribute to the places where He has given me influence.

In the end, what will you choose? I challenge you to cultivate instead of compare, create instead of copy, and contribute instead of compete.

This was written for the book “Awakening” by Terry B. Walling. You can check it out here.