As I write this, the 2010 Winter Olympics are underway in Vancouver. Top athletes from around the world are sliding, sledding, skating, swooshing, and shooting for the honor of a gold, silver, or bronze medal, and the pride of their nations. People who have never strapped on a pair or skis or seen a bobsled are cheering on their nation's athletes, shouting victoriously when they win, and falling into a funk when they lose. At this point, The USA is ahead in the medal count, followed pretty closely by Germany. This gives great joy to Americans, and spurs Germans on in the race.
We do this every four years (every two years when you realize that the summer Olympics are on an offset schedule). We'll sit up late at night to see the results of the Men's Giant Slalom or the Ice Dancing competition. We talk about it at work. We write e-mails to our friends. We gently (and not-so-gently) tease our friends from other countries. We'll hold Olympics parties, and we'll hold our breaths when an athlete takes a hard fall or crashes in a turn.
Ever wonder why? For that matter, did you ever wonder why grown men (and women) cry when their college football team wins a national championship or the NBA team they love gets knocked out of the playoffs? Sometimes it's not even the local NBA team or the college they attended. Why do NASCAR fans wear their favorite driver's number like a badge of honor? In all likelihood they've never met the guy and they sure have nothing to do with how many races he wins or loses.
I'm not ragging on sports fans here. Far from it. There is something in athletic competition that thrills us, something that drives us to choose sides and defend that choice in the face of all odds. Just a little over a month ago, we saw the New Orleans Saints win their first Super Bowl. Ever. Before this year they had gone 42 years without a playoff win. People who have never even been to Louisiana and couldn't locate New Orleans on a map walk around shouting "Who Dat?" The Saints' rise out of the watery devastation of Katrina inspired a nation. Who can forget that joyous celebration, that picture of Drew Brees holding up his little son, the boy's tender ears protected by headphones?
It's as if we were made to compete, or to take sides. Let me be a little more definite about that. We were made to take sides. It's in our blood, our genes. It's in our souls.
I don't mean that we are all supposed to be athletes, or that those of us who aren't (and believe me, I'm not) are less important than those who are. What I mean is that we were born into a cosmos at war, and from the beginning we were meant to take part in that war.
In Genesis, when God placed Adam and Eve in the garden he told them to "care for the garden." Actually, the word we translate "care for" is the same word that is used later, after the fall, when God set the Cherubim to "guard" the garden, keeping Adam, Eve, and their offspring out. Our original job on this earth was to guard creation. We were put here to be on God's side. We have always been intended to be God's allies in the battle against Satan and those with him, the third of the angels who followed him in rebellion against God.
We came into a world at war, and it is reflected by our love of competition. It's also reflected in the way we admire courage and despise cowardice. Think of it. Cowardice is the one vice that is universally hated. Even those who are cowards (and we all fall into that category at one time or another) hate the idea of cowardice. It's the one sin that doesn't even generate the least bit of pleasure.
But we admire courage, even among our enemies.
We all have a competitive nature. It is stronger in some than in others, and it takes many different forms. But it is something that is within all of us.
Now, it's easy to be over-competitive, or to use our innate competitive drive for the wrong thing. I mean, some people are actually Philadelphia Eagles fans.
Okay, that was a bad example. But we can and do twist our natural competitiveness into evil shapes. Remember that all of the angels were originally created to serve God. Yet a full third of them rebelled. So you have things such as the mayhem of soccer hooligans, and fans at football games throwing batteries at the opposing players, and men who twist their competitiveness into cheating, or bullying, or brutality. There is plenty of that in the world.
But the impulse, the original competitiveness, is a good thing. Without it there would be no striving for excellence, no courage, no sacrifice, no initiative.
So, cheer on your favorite athletes. You're exercising a small portion of your calling. But guard against the darkness that lurks in the shadows. Ask yourself, "Am I building someone up, or tearing someone else down?" The answer will help you (and me) stay on track. Even if you like the Eagles.