When I was in school, many teachers practiced grading on the curve.  This meant that grades were assigned based on how well you compared with the other students, rather than based upon your total effort.

In order to do this, a numerical value was calculated for each student that was usually the sum of his scores from all tests and assignments during the grading period.  Then the students were sorted according to the values, from highest to lowest.  Ranges were then applied to the scores, with those on the top of the curve getting good grades, those in the middle getting average grades, and those on the bottom getting poor grades or failing altogether.

Some teachers would apply a “bell curve” (or average distribution) to the scores, with most students getting “average” grades, and only a few students getting an “A” or “F” grade.  Thus, a typical distribution might be 10% “A”s, 20% “B”s, 40% “C”s, 20% “D”s, and 10% “F”s.  This is why a “C” grade was commonly called “average,” because that was the grade that the most students received.

There are some advantages to this kind of grading system.  If you have difficult material or an ineffective teacher, the student is not penalized.  The only penalty is applied in relation to how one student performs compared to another.

Negative Competition

We see this kind of grading system all of the time, without even realizing it.  For example, unless an athlete is going for a record, the total number of points scored in sporting competitions is not important, except in relation to how many points your opponent scores.  A team could score 100 points and be heroes (if the other team scores 90), or they could score 100 points and be bums (if the other team scores 120).

This type of grading also occurs in the business world, with positions being filled according to who is the best candidate among all of those who have applied, rather than based upon their skills compared to what is needed for the position.  This is one downside to grading on the curve.  It might provide the best person among those being considered, but that doesn’t mean that person is good enough to succeed.

But a bigger disadvantage of curve grading is that it can cause what I call negative competition.  This is competition that causes you to tear down your opponent, instead of (or in addition to) building yourself up.

Again, we see this all the time in today’s world.  How about the sports team that knows the only way it can win is to injure or disqualify the star player on the opposing team?  Or the job candidate or politician who discredits or sabotages his opponents, rather than trying to win on his own merits?  Or the student who cheats in order to get to the head of the class?  After all, there can be only one corporate CEO and only one class valedictorian.

Building ourselves up and tearing the other guy down is just considered the way the competitive game is played!

We enjoy watching a reality television show about prospective fashion designers.  Each week the designers are given a challenge, some spending money, and a few days to shop for fabric and create their designs.  The least successful designer in each challenge is sent home, until only one remains.

This season we have followed a young lady who was considered an underdog because she had only been sewing for a few months before the competition began.  One week she misplaced her allocated budget and arrived at the fabric store with no money.  She couldn’t buy so much as a button, and she broke down in tears because she was sure she was going home.

The other designers took pity on her, and pooled together a few dollars that hadn’t been spent from their budgets.  She used that money to buy some cheap fabric, and actually ended up winning the week’s challenge.

But the next week this same designer refused to help when asked for a minor favor by another designer.  “After all,” she informed one of the other designers piously, “this is a competition, and helping someone would be unfair to me and the other designers.”  We were disappointed by this display of selfishness from a person who had so recently benefited from the charity of others.

Spiritual Competitions

Sadly, sometimes we even see this behavior in the Church as we find people who seek callings as if they were some kind of prize. Fortunately, it’s a rare person who aspires to be a bishop or a Relief Society president.  Those who achieve their goal quickly realize that no matter how much status the calling gives you, it isn’t enough to compensate a person for the long hours of sacrifice and service that are required to do those callings well.

There are many examples in the scriptures of negative competition.  One of the first stories in the Bible is the story of Cain killing Abel because the sacrifice of the younger Abel had been accepted, while Cain’s sacrifice was not.  It does not appear that the rejection of Cain’s offering had anything to do with Abel’s offering.  Yet this did not stop Cain from slaying his brother in anger.

Similarly, much of the contention between Nephi and his older brothers appears to have been because it was their younger brother who was singled out for special treatment by their father Lehi.  It doesn’t seem to matter that Nephi’s older brothers could have had the same blessings had they been willing to humble themselves and exercise faith.  They just couldn’t handle the fact that their younger brother was getting what they considered to be the blessings that they desired and deserved.

Rather than attempting to repent and change their own behavior, it was easier to bind their brother and attempt to kill him.

Maximum Occupancy

We have all seen the signs in public buildings and in elevators that show the maximum occupancy allowed for that area.  There are some who think that heaven similarly has a maximum occupancy rate.

Revelation 7:4 talks about the 144,000 righteous from the tribes of Israel who will be sealed in the last days.  Some Christians believe this is the maximum number of people who will be saved into God’s kingdom after the final judgment.  Based on the billions of people who have lived and who will live on the Earth, this would be a depressingly small number.

Fortunately, our church doesn’t interpret that scripture that way.  Indeed, the restored gospel teaches us that all who repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ shall be saved.  Rather than holding ourselves up as the only people who are God’s chosen, we Latter-day Saints use our missionary service and our temple work to try to bring every one of God’s children into the fold of God.  We don’t believe in exclusivity, and we don’t think of the quest for eternal life as a contest.  In contrast, our goal is to lose none His sheep.  All are beloved children of God, and every time we lose one it is cause to mourn.

God doesn’t grade on the curve.  In fact, as our religion teaches, He would like nothing more than to have all of us return.  The only thing we know for certain about His grading methods is that His only begotten Son will emerge as the brightest star, because it is only through His perfect life and His atonement that the rest of us have a chance to return to our Father.

Striving Together

How should our knowledge that God does not judge us on a curve change our behavior towards each other?  It should eliminate our tendencies towards negative competition, because diminishing others no longer provides any advantage.

In fact, just the opposite is true.  The more we help others to come closer to Christ, the more our own righteousness increases.  Once again this relates to our Savior, whose grace is sufficient for all of God’s children.  He is the ultimate example of raising yourself by raising others.

Economists use the statement that, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”  Similarly, we all benefit from the rising tide of spirituality that accompanies the improvement of all of God’s children.  By lifting others we lift ourselves, even though this is contrary to many of the world’s teachings.

The scriptures teach that the natural man is an enemy to God.  It is a daily struggle to replace our natural tendencies with godlike tendencies.  But as we learn to do this, our eyes are opened and we find that the natural law is often flawed.

For example, those who practice the law of tithing will testify that it allows 90% of your increase to go further than 100%.  This is completely contrary to natural law, and yet it is true.  Similarly, natural law teaches us that we get ahead by working hard and by diminishing the efforts of our competition.  But using God’s standard, this negative behavior diminishes us as well.

Competition seems to be a natural instinct, and there is nothing wrong with it when kept in the proper perspective.  But let us use it as a tool to make ourselves better, and to inspire others to improve as well.  There is no limit to God’s love, and to our potential to enjoy all of the blessings He has waiting for us.  We have been taught that His grace is sufficient for all of us.  There is no reason for God to grade on a curve, because there is no reason that we cannot all graduate with honors.