I resented him. I didn’t want to. My best friend.
We were life buddies — same school program, same goals, same views on everything. We were enjoying lunch, laughing about school and work, and then he said it — another moment in a string of increasingly disturbing moments: “We had dinner at his house.” Who? Only the wisest and most influential professor on campus. He’s going to work for him. With him! What I’m about to say will sound deranged to some, and perfectly rational to others: I was so envious. So defeated. I felt betrayed.
What did I say? With a smile: “Congratulations! Tell me about it!” My heart was, of course, wrong. It seems innocent enough, and rivalry can even be fun, but competitiveness can be toxic in a friendship.
The procedure is quite simple — a sevenfold path from love at first sight to hate at first slight.
- Meet person.
- Have everything in common with person.
- Become best friends with person.
- Have too much in common with person.
- Find an opportunity or relationship that only one of you can have.
- Become embittered mortal frenemies — arch-rivals, nemeses.
Five Faces of Competitiveness
The distinction between best friend and rival can be semantic. Whether a relationship will be one or another rests on a hair-trigger. And the looming possibility of a flip can corrode intimacy in a split second.
Let’s define competitiveness, and then look at five features.
Competitiveness is a kind of relationship in which the purpose of relating is to be better than the other person.
1. Measuring Everything
Competition does not seek betterment, but brutality. Competitiveness turns the school sandbox into an MMA octagon. In order to save face, and feign obedience to the rules of friendship, our barbarism will take subtle shapes. Competitiveness does not shift a relationship from friends to enemies. The Christian propensity to save face would buck against such undisguised discord.
- We stack our successes against the other person.
- We hide our failures from them.
- We lose the ability to genuinely speak well of them to others.
- We weave better reputations for ourselves.
G.K. Chesterton explains, “It is not familiarity but comparison that breeds contempt” (Autobiography, 327). The best person to “defeat” — which will give the greatest ego-boost — is someone who is exactly like us.
If we can be better than someone who is our age, has our aspirations, and lives in our community, then we can, de facto, be imitated. Comparison is a leech on similarity — and the enemy of intimacy. It’s not that I have to be the best. I have to be better than him or her. That is what competition fights for.
In this sort of friendship, when one succeeds, it feels like poison to the other. In a competitive friendship, the savage emerges, internally reels, emotionally convulses. Every success in the friend’s life communicates, “You are worse.” “The fact that you try is . . . cute.” Every success feels like a betrayal. Every blessing they receive feels like a knife in your back.
“Comparison is the enemy of friendship.”
The competitive friendship is two humans who pit themselves against one another, like animals, to fight for the right to be worshiped, for the title “God.” Only, instead of biblical words like “holy,” “worthy,” and “glorious,” the worship-words we fight for are “hottest,” “smartest,” “most impressive,” and even “godliest.” Even Christians fight viciously for those words.
Chesterton again helps, “The name of it is Presumption and the name of its twin brother is Despair” (327). Words of grace toward another are now forbidden. That would risk giving them the victory. Saying something positive about the other is not worth risking my value, my superiority, my identity. No way. The competitive friend experiences all critical facts as threatening and insulting. And he gives a megaphone to the facts that promote his own prestige.
To the competitive friend, all encouragement seems pretentious and smug. Competition sneers at encouragement. It can’t stand the taste of love from a rival. Competitiveness is relational rabies — everything is seen as an attack, a power-move, a one-upping strategy. Competition foams at the mouth with bitterness — it rejects the love of a friend: the water of spiritual and emotional health (Proverbs 27:9).
Encouragement is intolerable. It’s patronizing. I reject you, and I reject your love. You are not safe.
To reject love is to accept despair. Without received love, isolation is a cruel and persuasive prophet. To play into a competitive friendship is to believe that love is the cruel and sinister jungle where your life is not sure, where your best friend wants to step on and manipulate and hurt you. The only safe place is inside oneself — alone, unknown, unloved, and desperate.
Five Faces of Friendship
Competitiveness struts with both fear and a fighting attitude. That’s perfect for the Redeemer. He’s both Protector of his loved ones who are afraid (Psalm 68:5), and the Fighter of his beloved who want to fight (Genesis 32:24; Job 40:7). He is both, always as peacemaker (Isaiah 57:17–19; Matthew 5:9). Here are five ways God fights for the competitive:
To love like Christ means to love first (1 John 4:19). This action is, without a doubt, the hardest move. “Sure, I’ll love first. But what will they give back?” Here is the hard pill to swallow: It may be nothing. James gives a profound insight: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16). James is obviously talking about frenemies here. In a competitive friendship, there does not feel like a harder command in the entire Bible than “count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
A competitive friend focuses all of his energy on managing the face of the relationship and playing a chess game at the heart level. A Christian friend focuses all of his energy giving humble support to the other person’s heart. He strives to shorten the gap between the heart level and surface level of the relationship.
Magic Johnson commented on how the need to outdo Larry Bird drove his entire career. “When the new schedule would come out each year, I’d grab it and circle the Boston games. To me, it was The Two and the other 80.” Bird says, “The first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn’t care about anything else.” Does that feel like your relationship with anyone?
One of the most disarming and Christian things a friend can do is say, “Hey, I struggle with feeling like we’re competing all the time.” Keep going. “I’m measuring everything you do against what I do. I care too much about being better than you. And I’m sorry.” Chances are they feel the same way. Be honest. Secrets breed more hurt.
“The Lord doesn’t compare humans, so you shouldn’t compare yourself to others,” is almost too cliché to be helpful. In a sense, it’s not terribly relevant for our competitiveness that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11), because we all still want to be stable and strong. A more relevant truth about God is this: The timing of his provision is always meaningful.
God is not arbitrary or inactive. That God is blessing your friend does not mean that God has judged you less. It means he has a different plan that is not the same as his for your friend. The suffering you experience when your friend “wins” is not that God and community have rejected you, but that your path is not as clear — God has tailored your path for you, and God is preparing you for it (Psalm 77:20). God’s provision for your friend is proof that he cares about you, not proof that he has forgotten you. “Your holiness [is praised] in the assembly of the holy ones” (Psalm 89:5).
When God is not in the picture, our ambitions become threats to those around us. “Let brotherly love continue” (Hebrews 13:1). Why would it stop? Because it’s hard. When we love our neighbor-in-competition, we’re set free. Free from the whip of measuring, saving face, and being the best. Free from the inability to rejoice in our brother’s or sister’s victories. Free from the lie that God does not have a unique plan for our lives.
We are free from the toxin of comparison, and receive the new ability to dream big for the glory of God — to take life by the reins and be truly, selflessly, personally ambitious — toward others in love, and toward God in faith. Love frees us to take risks and strive for goals without the added anxieties of finding our identity in beating someone else. God gifts us each with the opportunities and resources he wants us to have (Matthew 25:24), and we should take risks that yield fruit according to what he has given us (Matthew 25:27).
We have what Dave Harvey calls “the God-implanted drive to improve, produce, develop, create, [and] do things” (Rescuing Ambition, 215). Godly ambition, though, not only makes room for love of neighbor, but requires it — it is a task that God takes on himself personally. “You yourselves have been taught by God to love one another” (1 Thessalonians 4:9). You can still be ambitious. You should. Developing a personal and individual sense of ambition, grounded in your faith in God, can be a safeguard against the bitterness that comes with competitiveness.
God does not promise that you will be the best. God does not promise to reward and punish — to clarify and set the record straight — in this life (Luke 6:23; 1 Corinthians 3:14). You could be more gifted, more skilled, a harder worker, and your friend may be more wealthy and popular. That can easily be a thorn of justified bitterness.
The good news for us is that God has not scripted a solo for us. CEO may not be in the cards for me. Best-in-my-circles may not be my role to play. Best dad? Best boyfriend? Best Christian? Best student? Best preacher? Best writer? These are cheap machinations masquerading as healthy goals. These ideas are often merely flimsy eschatologies that we use to justify ill will toward God’s children. The notion that God has not given us something great to do is a hard pill to swallow. But not-the-best-ness is glory, and goodness, and sanity. To let competition rule the scene of a friendship is to pit God’s script for one role against his script for another. Life isn’t about earning stage time from God — to be seen by men or to be measured against our frenemies. It’s about being “imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1).
Competition isn’t bad. Competitiveness is fertile ground for self-deceit. The gospel invites us to authenticity with ourselves and with others. The safest disposition toward the world comes from John Owen: “What [a] minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.” Whatever opportunities God affords us, let us strive to be honest about weaknesses, that the grace of Christ and the glory of God might be magnified to others — even our frenemies (2 Corinthians 12:9).