The Big One

October 12th, 2012

Somewhere on some sports team’s schedule at your local high school is a game that is considered “the big game.” If the team loses all the rest of its games but wins that one, so be it. Every sport at the school probably has a game like that in its season, but there’s usually one that trumps all the others and unifies the school (and maybe even the community) around this game. Because we have to beat them. People make signs, and student athletes lose sleep.

It gets stronger and stranger as you go. Now that we’re well into the college football season, you’ve probably experienced the effects of rivalries firsthand. People attend an educational institution for four years (or less), or grow up in a household devoted to that school; swear a lifetime allegiance to the school’s teams, colors, and mascot; and develop an abiding hatred of that school’s rival.

High school and college rivalries divide states and communities, and national television fuels classic rivalries in professional sports: Yankees vs. Red Sox; Bears vs. Packers; Lakers vs. Celtics; Cubs vs. the postseason. Millions of dollars are made as two teams battle for bragging rights, and maybe a better position in their division or conference. No diseases are cured; no lives are saved.

A Time for War

Rivalry isn’t limited to sports. It seems to be woven into the very fabric of our being. We continually measure up one another, quietly (or not so quietly) vying to best whomever we confront. Along the way we’ll meet someone whose skills or talents or other points of measurement do not match our own—some who exceed us and some for whom we are a reasonable match. This last group is the most exciting. They can push us to our limits, making us better, or—if we let them—crazy with competitiveness.

Scripture is packed with stories of rivalries. From the sibling rivalries and warring nations of the Old Testament to the beautiful chaos of the early church, our Bible reveals time after time where the people of God encountered, and sometimes even created, rivalries. Some of these conflicts ended up being destructive, tearing apart families and nations. But in some cases, as a result of the experience, the people involved in these rivalries grew in faith.

Live and Let Live

Scripture, in addition to giving us accounts of rivalry, offers us guidance for responding to such conflicts. The Bible advises us not to provoke conflict. Of course, whether or not we get mixed up in a rivalry that turns ugly is often beyond our control. In these situations we can learn from the example of David, who became a rival to King Saul. Even though Saul had tried to kill David on multiple occasions, when David had an opportunity to kill Saul, he refused. Jesus had plenty to teach about rivalry and conflict. In addition to his well-known commandment to love our enemies (see Matthew 5:44), he taught his followers to resolve conflicts with rivals face to face (see Matthew 18:15). Paul echoed this teaching in his Letter to the Ephesians when he told early Christians not to “let the sun set” on their anger (Ephesians 4:26b). As somebody’s mom has no doubt said (more than once!), we should “be the bigger person” when it comes to rivalry and personal confrontation and competitiveness. It’s true that we can’t always avoid conflict and rivalry, but we can learn to let it shape who we are instead of letting it become who we are. When we feel ourselves being drawn into rivalry or competition, we can begin to recognize when it’s all in good fun or when someone could get hurt.

This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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