Posted by: John Vandivier | July 21, 2013

What Does the Bible Say About Competition?

Competition is a key economic concept. As we study Caeconomics, which is decision theory from the economic point of view, presuming that Christianity is true, but realizing that every person must interpret Christianity on a personal level, let’s see what the Bible has to say about competition.

From the following site: http://www.openbible.info/topics/competition, I selected 5 verses which interested me. Openbible.info is a great site, in particular for topical Bible studies. All verses are English Standard Version (ESV). I will first show the verses then analyze:

1 (Philippians 2:3-4) Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

2 (1 Corinthians 9:24) Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.

3 (2 Timothy 2:5) An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.

4 (Mathew 19:30) But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

5 (Ecclesiastes 4:4) Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Economics Perfect competition graph

Economics Perfect competition graph (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First off we notice that when the Bible talks about competition it is usually related to athletic competition. Economic competition is not athletic competition, but the two are often analogous, so this study may still be helpful. 1 tells us that rivalry is bad, but 2 tells us that we should strive to win. It seems that competition is advocated by the Bible, but that the competition needs to not be motivated by beating another person in competition. Rather, biblical competition should be about doing whatever is necessary to earn “the prize” for its own sake, not for the sake of beating others. This concept is reiterated in 5 where we are told that trying to be better than someone else is vanity, or a wasteful use of time and effort based on superficial desires.

3 tells us to follow the rules. “Rules” in the bible are God’s moral law. This means that if we “win” a competition immorally we will not receive the prize. Related to economics this means that we shouldn’t pursue immoral money such as blood money or sin-based money. It also means we shouldn’t pursue illegal money as per Romans 13:2 which states that one of God’s laws is to follow our government’s laws.

4 seems to be a contradiction at first glance. It is possible, however, for first to be last and last to be first if they are being arranged or ranked by different criteria. For example, in a race one might be first for crossing the line first, however if the goal is to cross the line last then the person previously considered as first will be considered to be last under the new method of ranking. I think the point of the verse is to say that we need to question how we are measuring first and last, better and worse, and make sure it aligns with God’s ranking system. It will likely turn out that our measures of success such as fame, wealth and power are quite opposite God’s ranking system of humility, charity and love among others.

Two final points I would make are about empathetic utility and objective utility. In economics we assume that everyone is trying to maximize their own utility, but point 1 tells us that we should value the interests of others as much or more than our own interests. Therefore we can experience empathetic utility when we satisfy the desires of others. Furthermore, if we define objective utility as our ability to satisfy the wants of an objective reference frame, in other words God, then we can consider that utility is objective rather than subjective which also spits in the face of the usual paradigm of subjective value.

In conclusion, the Bible advocates competition with various caveats. The competition should be motivated by earning the prize of winning a competition, rather than the motivation of beating another person. The way we win the competition must be by the rules. The rules will be according to God’s definition of success, which is pretty opposite that of most people’s definitions. Finally, the values and utilities we should seek to maximize in order to win the competition are God’s objective utility and values. These values and utilities can be achieved in the form of empathetic utility by helping others just as easily or easier than achieving them ourselves. It is true that any goal we set will be our own and any utility or value we deem beneficial can be called personal utility or value, but that does not preclude the utility of value from being equal to an objective utility or value. The process of sanctification is in a sense the process of making our personal utilities and values align with those of the objective reference frame God.

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