Compassion and competition are two words that we don’t typically use in the same sentence. Compassion is the kingdom way; competition is the American way. As Americans, we celebrate winning at all costs. For us bigger is better. This is not God’s way. He calls us to sacrifice, service, and surrender. God rejoices in the laying down of one’s life. We often find ourselves trying to live in both of these realities. Yet, the longer we walk with Christ the more we feel the tension between the two.
The spirit of competition has worked itself into the place it should never exist: The Church. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I love a great ball game. Organized competition in sports and other arenas of life are fun, but when the same mindset spills over into the church it’s detrimental to the work of the kingdom. Think about it, competition puts us at odds with other people. It’s the process of trying to outshine another person. How can we genuinely serve others if we are constantly trying to surpass them?
The kingdom-life is a call to compassion, not competition. Compassion is a word that usually evokes positive feelings. We all like to consider ourselves compassionate people. However, compassion is not as natural of a phenomenon as we might think. The word “compassion” suggests: suffering with another, becoming weak, laying down one’s life. In fact, the bible teaches us to present ourselves as “living sacrifices.” The problem with living sacrifices is that they have the tendency to crawl off the altar, stand up, and start competing again.
There are two powerful narratives at work in our lives simultaneously. The first is the American narrative: a story of power, wealth, and prestige. The American story is one of competition: bigger, better, faster, and stronger. Americans don’t like limits. We like graphs in which all lines move up. This narrative tells us that limits are bad and boundaries are to be crossed. The American way is up.
The other narrative at work is called the Gospel. This is the way of Jesus embodied by his life, teaching, death, and resurrection. This narrative requires downward mobility. In Christ we don’t compete for a place in the kingdom; instead, God has chosen to be God-with-us. Jesus came down in an act of divine compassion. In turn, God calls us to reflect Christ in how we live and interact with one another. Subsequently, through us, the kingdom crashes into the world.
The way of Jesus is down. Jesus taught that the only way to find your life is to lose it. He said the first must be last… If you try and keep your life, you will actually end up losing everything. This teaching is woven throughout the Gospels. In fact, if you attempt to remove it, you would end up removing a large portion of what Jesus taught.
See for yourself: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, and the persecuted (Matt. 5:3-10). Don’t store up treasures on earth (Matt. 6:19-21). The one who seeks to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it (Matt. 16:25). The last will be first and the first will be last (Matt. 20:16). If you want to be great, you have to become a servant (Matt. 20:26). The greatest among you will be the servant; the humble will be exalted and the exalted will be humbled (Matt. 23:11-12). Anyone who wants to be Jesus’ disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow him (Luke 9:23). If you cling to your life, you’ll lose it; if you let your life go, you’ll find it (Luke 17:33). We could go on, but I think you get the picture.
The Jesus narrative and the American narrative are worlds apart. The American story teaches us that life is about success. Our worth is connected to being bigger and better. Life is a competition and the one who dies with the most toys wins. If we are going to follow Jesus, we have to switch narratives because his story is one of compassion, humility, vulnerability, and servanthood.
The kingdom invites us to pour out our lives in certain assurance that life will never run out. The Christian life obligates itself to intentionally move downward. It’s counterintuitive; it’s not natural. Nonetheless, it’s the way of Christ and it is good. The kingdom narrative calls us to devote ourselves to a lifestyle of compassion as we learn to embody the good news of a better way. This is the tale of two tales: American and Kingdom. We’re born into one; we choose the other.
(Sources: “Compassion” by Henri Nouwen, “Shrink” by Tim Suttle)