This article was also posted on ChurchLeaders.com.
When was the last time you heard someone talk about envy or competition in ministry? For me, it’s been a while. It’s pretty taboo. But as much as we may be hesitant to admit it, those of us in professional ministry struggle constantly with comparing ourselves to one another, or even to ourselves. Do we measure up?
Maybe it’s the size of one’s church or congregation, or the influence and popularity that somebody else has. Maybe it’s a person’s wealth or comfort, looks, or apparent happiness. Envy seems to stem from a desire to have something that somebody else has, that you believe you want for yourself. And deep inside our hearts, I believe we long for something more healthy and fulfilling than this. So where do we go from there?
I believe at the core of competition there exists insecurity: that we are not good enough as we are. And what accompanies this, surprisingly or not, is often a lack of awareness about who we are!
Perhaps one of the best examples of this comes from the movie, “Chariots of Fire,”about two British Olympic runners, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. Abrahams is strong-willed, intense, and has lived most of his life trying to prove himself through competitive running. Liddell is also intense and principled, and finds himself torn between his love of running and his call to be a missionary in China.
One of the key distinctions illustrated in the movie is the reason that each man runs. When asked if Abrahams loves to run, he responds, “I’m more of an addict. It’s a compulsion; a weapon.” After he loses a race for the first time in his life, he says, “I don’t run to take beatings. I run to win. If I can’t win, I won’t run.” After commiserating with his girlfriend, he concludes that the only thing that can keep him going is to train, so that he can eventually beat Liddell.
Liddell, on the other hand, describes running as living out a central dimension of how God created him as a person, as he says famously in the movie: “I believe that God made me… fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. To give [running] up would be to hold Him in contempt.”
Contrary to what some might think, I don’t believe the movie really has much to do with Abrahams being Jewish and Liddell being Christian. In fact, though I’m a Christian, in some ways I can relate to Abrahams more than Liddell, since part of Abrahams’ motivation is fueled by his reality as a minority, as he admits at one point. I think the heart of the movie has to do with how we see ourselves and others, and the anxiety or peace that results from that.
For many people in ministry (and in life), we are surrounded by a seemingly endless amount of needs and opportunities. It often appears that there’s not enough time to do all that we want to do, or feel like we should do. And when we finish one thing, there’s always something else waiting to be taken care of. If we don’t have a clear sense of who we are, and our purpose (including what we were intended, and NOT intended to do), we can become overwhelmed by anxiety. It’s similar to what Abrahams described as he reflected upon his upcoming race in the 100 meter dash: “Now in one hour’s time I’ll be out [on the race track] again. I’ll raise my eyes and look down that corridor, four feet wide with ten lonely seconds to justify my own existence. But will I? I’ve known the fear of losing, but now I’m almost too frightened to win.”
Sometimes I wonder if our projects and missions can feel like each race did to Abrahams — always with something to prove, whether to ourselves or to others. And when it passes, it’s on to the next project. And the cycle continues.
Or this kind of insecurity can lead us to compare ourselves to others. And like Abrahams discovered, there wasn’t just Liddell standing in his way, but a whole group of competitors who could beat him on any given day. When we consider the things we think we want in life, there will always be somebody who appears to have more of it than we do — whether it’s money, friends, power, or influence. But when we feel envious of others, I would pose two challenges:
Would we really be happy if we got what we think we want?
Do we really want what we think we want?
When Abrahams saw Liddell run for the first time, he clenched his fist, riveted by the passion with which he ran. He wanted what Liddell had, and so he hired the best coach he could find to help him become like (or better than) Liddell. How often do we do this unknowingly: try to imitate somebody whom we admire, wanting the same “fruit” or “results” that we see them have? I know I’ve done it before.
But Abrahams didn’t see that what Liddell had, was not something he could imitate, duplicate, or “beat.” Liddell was simply living out who he was created to be, and Abrahams could never truly be Liddell. And God didn’t want him to be… He wanted Abrahams to be himself! Yes, Liddell was successful, but the key distinction is that for him, it wasn’t the results he coveted above running itself. He ran because of who he knew he was, and the fruit and results flowed out of that.
“Chariots of Fire” provides a helpful lesson in portraying the contrast between Abrahams and Liddell. When we truly grasp our unique identity and purpose, like Liddell did, our need for competition or comparison fades away… because we understand that we each have our own unique story to write.
Ministry jobs are full of insecure people, just like in any profession, seeking to find their place and meaning in the world. And I’ve come to see that the nature of our work lends itself just as much to anxiety and competitive feelings (if not more), as secular fields. But what can secure us is knowing that there is a God who cares about each of us, and is weaving our backgrounds, gifts, and passions uniquely together like a master storyteller. And when we realize and accept that this will look different for each person, we find peace and freedom from having to prove ourselves, imitate, or feel the need to “be better than” anyone else.
The image that always inspires me is that of Liddell at the end of the movie, running with his head lifted to the sky, as he “feels God’s pleasure.” So what is it for you? When do you feel God’s pleasure?
What are some other perspectives that can free us from the poisonous spirit of envy, competition, and comparison?
Questions for further reflection or discussion:
What do you wish you had, that you don’t currently have?
In what areas do you most often find yourself comparing yourself to others?
What kinds of fears or anxieties do you think lie behind these feelings?