Those who know me well enough to know my political/economic opinions know that I love free markets. If you didn’t know this about me, don’t take it personally, I try not to be super dogmatic about this kind of stuff.
Nevertheless, I believe that when markets are free of interruptive oversight and cronyism, the competition that results usually provides the consumer (you and me) with the best possible products at the best possible prices. In this model, which many economists likewise support, competition is a good thing. It’s the vehicle that brings out the best possible outcome for the consumers.
Between this and my love for sports, I’m usually a fan of competition. But competition isn’t always good on a personal level. While competition can certainly be healthy and bring out the best in people, it also has the distinct ability to be destructive and bring out the worst. I was reminded of this in my daily Bible reading.
Like many Christians, I have a goal to read through the Bible in 2019. Eager to get a head start, I began the journey before Christmas and am over halfway through Genesis. I had never seen it before, but there are a couple of vignettes back to back in Genesis 26-30 that illustrate how destructive competition can be when it involves jealousy or personal spite.
First, you have the competition between Rebekah/Jacob and Isaac/Esau. Rebekah and Isaac unfortunately played favorites with their sons. The result was Rebekah trying to compete to have her favorite son Jacob receive the blessing that belonged to Esau. Rebekah and Jacob developed an entire ruse filled with deception and lying in order to win the blessing. They didn’t really care about the fate of Esau, they just wanted to win.
The next (and likely more grotesque) competition is between Leah and Rachel. First, a quick primer on the Rachel/Leah story. Jacob falls in love with Rachel and seeks to marry her. Rachel’s father says that Jacob can marry her if Jacob works for him for 7 years as a servant. 7 years goes by and and Jacob marries… Rachel’s sister Leah. Rachel’s father, in an interesting example of poetic justice, deceives Jacob into marrying Leah, she is after all the firstborn daughter and by ancient Near East custom ought to be married first (Gen. 29:26).
Shortly thereafter, Jacob marries Rachel as well. Here is where the competition brews. Like his parents before him, Jacob plays favorites. This time it’s not with children but with wives. The narrative tells us that Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah. God, being a God of justice, hears the cries of Leah and blesses her with Child after child (Gen. 29:31-35).
The text tells us next that Rachel envied her sister (Gen. 30:1). She goes as far to say that if she doesn’t have a child with Jacob she will die. So, in order to enter this baby competition, she has Jacob make children with her servant instead. This was a drastic measure fueled by jealousy.
Eventually Rachel is able to bear Jacob children as well. (The competition takes a weird turn when you realize that the names that these women give their children are essentially snide comments to each other about their ability to have children.) After reading this I was kind of shocked. I had never really thought about it or noticed it before.
The lesson isn’t that we can’t compete for anything. The lesson is that when we do compete (for jobs, promotions, awards, etc.) we must be hyper-aware of our intentions. We need to remember that the works of the flesh include things like “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy” (Gal. 5:20b-21a ESV). Winning is great, but not at the expense of the dignity or eternity of other people. Compete like Jesus. Compete with meekness, love, and self-control.