I played my first tee ball game when I was six years old. To this day, I can still distinctly remember the yellow jerseys we wore that sported the name Lions Club of West Carrollton. I don’t remember anything about what happened in the game, except that the other team scored more runs than us.
As my dad started our four-door sedan and began to pull out of the parking lot, he asked me a simple question: Did you have fun? Etched somewhere deep in the fabric of my DNA was a strong desire to win. I was extremely attuned to the strong emotional correlation between winning and having fun. So in my six-year-old mind, I thought my dad was asking me a stupid question. We lost; of course I didn’t have fun. It wasn’t until many years later that I began to understand the profoundness of his question.
The Desire to Win
We’ve all encountered people who can turn seemingly everything into a competition. They turn eating into a competition. They turn working out into a competition. They turn work projects into a competition. They even turn going to the bathroom into a competition. And the rules of the game always seem to change in order for that person to win.
I hate to admit it, but for a long time, I was one of those people. I took everything, including all the simple, noncompetitive tasks of life, and turned them into competitions. Competition can be a healthy thing. It can motivate us to step up our game and prove to both others and ourselves that we’re capable of performing at a higher level. But competition, and specifically the desire to win at all costs, can be extremely destructive to both us and our relationships. This was the place I found myself.
After getting my first taste of what it felt like to win, I eagerly awaited the next competition, and the one after that, and the one after that. I became so enamored with the feeling I got from winning that I turned everything in my life into a competition so that I could experience that feeling again and again. I competed with my friends and family to see who could eat the most food at the all-you-can-eat buffets. I competed with my sister for my parents' attention. I competed with my classmates for the best grades. I competed with my little league baseball teammates for the best batting average. I needed competition because I needed to win.
In the midst of my hard-core competitiveness, I only recently realized the depth of the negative impacts it has had on my relationships. Let me put it this way: there’s a reason I’ve never won a sportsmanship award. When I used to engage in competition with someone, even if it was my best friend, I’d villainize the person for the duration of the competition. Growing up, I had a friend down the street who was about my same age and both of us were uber-competitive. When we competed against each other, which was every time we hung out, we were bitter enemies. In the same way, when Amy and I first started dating, we became bitter enemies when we competed against each other. Both of us wanted to win so bad that we’d turn everything into a competition and then fight about which one of us was the winner.
I’m not proud to admit that this was how I behaved for most of my life. And I wish I could go back in time and change the way I treated the people around me because I’m certain I hurt a lot of them in the process of trying to win.
The Mystery Revealed
A few years ago, the mystery behind my strong desire to win began to unravel. Up until that point, I’d never really contemplated the mystery behind why winning felt great; I just knew it did. But through a number of fiery trials that took place in my life, I began to gain some insight into my perpetual struggles.
Although none of us want to admit it, you, me, and everyone else struggle with massive amounts of insecurity. We all seem to wrestle with a very simple, yet defining question: Are we good enough? This question gets asked in a million different ways, but the same basic question remains at the center. Are we good enough to earn acceptance?
It’s no coincidence that we experience a close correlation between winning and being accepted. Think about an athletic event. When the home team wins, the fans cheer. When the home team loses, the fans boo. Do you see the natural correlations our minds draw from these experiences? Since we associate applause with acceptance and booing with rejection, when we win, we think people will accept us. When we lose, we think people will reject us. As someone who deeply desires to be accepted and having, from a young age, correlated winning with acceptance, I wanted to be a winner.
My life could’ve continued exactly the way it had for many years. But God, out of not only knowing what’s best for me but also acting upon it as any good parent would, decided to show me the immeasurable greatness and worth of his acceptance of me. He did two things.
First, God starved my winning idol. At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening. I was continuing to hone my skills in order to win more, but instead of winning more, I was winning less. It seemed completely counter-intuitive. If I was dealing with random chance, then I’m certain the results would’ve been as expected. But I’m not dealing with random chance; I’m dealing with the God who spoke the universe into existence. If he can part the waters of the Red Sea, cause a shepherd boy to slay a giant, and shut the mouths of hungry lions, certainly he can also cause me to lose more even though my skills have become more developed.
And second, God showed me an overwhelming glimpse of the unconditional love he has for me, a love which I not only read about in a book, but one which I personally experience every single day. He doesn’t work the way most people work. God’s love isn’t contingent upon my ability to perform a certain way. He has decided to love me and his decision is final; it will never change based on what I do. At the same time, as a good father, he isn’t content to leave me where I am. He wants me to have the best. And because he wants me to have the best, he’s starving my winning idol. I wait in eager anticipation of the day when that idol is completely removed from my life.
In the meantime, although God is not yet complete with his transforming work in my life, I’m amazed and excited about the difference that his work has made in my life. It’s so freeing to wake up every morning and not see everything I do as a competition. It’s so relieving that Amy and I have stopped fighting about everything we treated as a competition. And it’s so refreshing to realize that I have a Father who loves me no matter what.
When I think back to the question my dad asked me twenty-five years ago, I realize that maybe his question wasn’t so stupid after all. Maybe he was trying to teach me that winning isn’t everything. And more importantly, maybe he was trying to teach me that he loved me unconditionally, regardless of whether I was a winner or a loser.