Love isn’t competitive

Workplaces can be competitive.

The academic environment is no exception. For professors, tenure and promotion require a track record of scholarly productivity. But not everyone agrees as to what “counts” and how much. The targets can be vague, making it hard to know if you’ve done enough. This creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety, especially for junior faculty making their way up the ranks.

I’m one of the old guys now, so it’s much less of an issue than it was when I was younger. But even though ideally we’d celebrate every accomplishment of every faculty member, the atmosphere of competitiveness is never truly gone. Who got the promotion, the prestigious lectureship, the endowed chair? How many articles or books has someone published, and with whom?

It’s hard to get outside the game of social comparison. We want people to notice our accomplishments. We take secret (or not so secret) pride in them. We like feeling superior, and conversely, don’t like the feeling that we’re not measuring up.

Unfortunately, the church can be a hotbed of social comparison too, and the stakes are higher when it’s a matter of arguing who has God’s favor and who doesn’t. There are rules (usually unspoken) about what makes a person more “spiritual” than someone else. How often do they show up at church? How many things do they volunteer for? How much money do they give? Do they use the right catchphrases? Can they quote Bible verses at will? And so on.

Don’t get me wrong. Volunteering to serve at church is a good thing, as is tithing, Bible memorization, and all the rest. The question is the motivation behind the behaviors. Are they authentic expressions of worship? Or are they ways of cementing our social standing and boosting our feelings of pride?

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Paul describes love as “patient” and “kind” — references to God’s gracious love for us, the foundation for our own patience with and kindness to others.  He goes on to say that love “isn’t jealous… doesn’t brag… isn’t arrogant” (1 Cor 13:4b, CEB). I believe these three should be taken as a trio, for together they address the many ways that social comparison was undermining the unity of the church in Corinth.

There are two sides here, representing the attitude of those who are looking from the bottom up, and those who are looking from the top down.  The former are described as “jealous” (some have suggested “envious” instead) while the latter are arrogant braggarts.

What? In the church?

Sadly, yes. We’ll look at the problem of jealousy first, in Sunday’s post.