The Trouble with Competition:
When Winning is Losing
by H. Wallace Goddard

I remember riding in the car years ago with my beloved Grandpa Wallace. I was only a boy at the time. My brother, Alan, and I sat in the front seat with him. Grandpa took a pocketful of coins and divided them between my brother and me. I suppose that Grandpa wanted to provide us with a little spending money. My first instinct was to count up Alan’s take and compare it with my own. I still remember being anxious that I got my fair share.

That is the mindset of mortality. Comparison. Score-keeping. Competition. But it is not the mindset of Heaven.

A Challenging Parable

In a parable that challenges our mortal mindset, Jesus tells of a householder who hired laborers for a penny per day (Matthew 20:1-16). Apparently the laborers were glad for the work and accepted the proffered wage as reasonable. The householder also hired laborers at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours with the understanding that he would treat them fairly. At the end of the day, when those who had worked only a few hours each received a penny, those who had worked all day hoped to receive more. When they got only a penny, they complained. The irony is they got exactly what they had contracted for. They had been treated fairly. Their discontent was aroused because others got just as much for fewer hours. They begrudged the short-timers their good fortune. So the householder asks:

“Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” (Matthew 20:15).

God seems to ask: “Would you feel richer if others got less? Why would you begrudge someone else his good fortune? Do you want to set limits on my goodness? Are you glad for the grace that saves you but resent the grace that rescues others?” The Prophet Joseph observed that: “It is the constitutional disposition of mankind to set up stakes and set bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty” (TPJS, p. 320).

Jesus concludes the parable with this observation :”So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” (Matthew 20:16).

Are We Truly Followers of Christ?

Could Jesus be saying that the final test for those who have labored many years in the kingdom is the grace they offer those who are latecomers? Could He be challenging us to be glad when a soul repents? Is it possible that the final test for entrance into His kingdom is that we are gracious in the same spirit in which He is? Is it possible that many who were first in the earthly kingdom will fail this heavenly test of jealousy? Could the ultimate test of our discipleship be a recognition that all of us are paid far more than we deserve and, therefore, our deserving is insignificant in any formulation of pay?

Elder Holland has powerfully challenged us to overcome our shrewish envy in his discussion of a parable of two brothers one of whom we call the prodigal: “Who is it that whispers so subtly in our ear that a gift given to another somehow diminishes the blessings we have received? Who makes us feel that if God is smiling on another, then He surely must somehow be frowning on us? You and I both know who does this-it is the father of all lies. It is Lucifer, our common enemy, whose cry down through the corridors of time is always and to everyone, “Give me thine honor.”  How can we overcome such a tendency so common in almost everyone? For one thing, we can do as these two sons did and start making our way back to the Father. We should do so with as much haste and humility as we can summon. Along the way we can count our many blessings and we can applaud the accomplishments of others. Best of all, we can serve others, the finest exercise for the heart ever prescribed. But finally these will not be enough. . . .So we pray that They will help us, that They will “come out” to meet and embrace us and bring us into the feast They have prepared” (Ensign, May 2002).

Returning Good for Evil

A colleague and I recently worked on a joint project. When the project did not go in the direction she preferred, she became very upset. I tried to find a mutually agreeable solution. She balked. She tried to have the project shut down. Our leader concluded that there was still merit in the project. It seemed that I was vindicated.

And there is the test. Will I smugly laugh at her misfortune? Will I gloat over my victory? Will I arm myself for future battles? Will I talk of her with colleagues to undermine her power base? If there is a turn of events, and my pet approach loses favor, will I be bitter?  If I do any of these, I am demonstrating clearly that the doctrine of the atonement has not reached my heart. If I act in any of those ways, I may spout the words, but I do not live the redemptive doctrinal truth of the Gospel.

In contrast to small-minded responses, Jesus set the terms for true discipleship. “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

I have heard it said that Satan does not have the gift of discernment. He knows our individual weaknesses because he hears us talking about each other’s weaknesses endlessly. We open the door for Satan’s work when we speak ill of anyone.

Living with Grace

When that colleague and I work together again, am I prepared to bless her with graciousness and heartfelt kindness? Am I willing to yearn for her good fortune? The task is daunting. Having been personally hurt and offended, I confess that I cannot do as I am commanded. “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). I can only act as I should if I am filled with Him and His goodness.

It is not enough to merely love the loveable. “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more [than others]? do not even the publicans so?” (Matthew 5:46-7).

God has a higher standard. Much higher! “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Or as Luke expressed the goal: “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

A More Perfect Way

Fortunately God is a Heavenly Father rather than a Heavenly Accountant. The more we become like Him, the more we will wish well to all people, even those who are different from us or who persecute us.

It is easy to see that a culture filled with competition, trophies, hierarchies, and double elimination tournaments may not help us think the way God does. That does not suggest that competition should be done away. But the more we understand the gospel, the more likely we are to be glad for excellence on all teams. We appreciate good ideas from all political parties. We value good ideas even when they undermine our preconceptions. We are genuinely glad for any goodness regardless of the source. We must be gracious just as God is. Exactly as He is. For we are to be filled with Him.

Richard L. Evans described God’s exemplary attitude. “Our Father in heaven is not an umpire who is trying to count us out. He is not a competitor who is trying to outsmart us. He is not a prosecutor who is trying to convict us. He is a Loving Father who wants our happiness and eternal progress and everlasting opportunity and glorious accomplishment, and who will help us all he can if we will but give him, in our lives, the opportunity to do so with obedience and humility and faith and patience” (Conference Report, October 1956, p.101).

I confess that I am surprised to find myself still so unskilled at so central a task so late in life. I am a 55 year old toddler. Yet I know to what source I must look. I know that this vital lesson can still be learned if I let Him teach me.

May we all seek the mind of Christ (See I Cor. 2:16) that we may see each other—even the annoying-with love.


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