Everyone gets a trophy: what’s the problem with that?

It always intrigues me when there is a roundly criticized practice that is never-the-less almost universally… well, practiced.  I hear a lot of people criticize what they see as rewarding mediocrity by giving every kid a trophy in children’s organized sports.  I don’t really recall anyone speaking in favor of doing so – and yet we still do so, continually, almost universally.  So apparently the criticism is falling on deaf ears, or we like to criticize but not actually do anything to change it. 

However, I’m not weighing in to merely comment on this strange practice of speaking out without actually seeking change (though that is itself an very important lesson for Christian discipleship which often does much better with what we say than with what we actually do), I’m actually interested in whether or not this criticism makes any sense from a Christian perspective.  Many of the people I see who do not like this idea of rewarding mediocrity (and I’m not calling anyone out here… this is really just me working out my interior thoughts out loud) are also people who make a strong faith claim in grace – in the idea that God’s love and salvation isn’t earned, cannot be earned, but is freely given.  (Almost like a trophy for every person regardless of how well they did.) 

We cringe at the last place team getting trophies, and then go to church on Sunday (if we aren’t at a soccer game instead) and read about the first being last, about all the workers receiving the same pay regardless of how few hours they worked, and about the fact that we are to receive God’s love and not earn it. 

Where is the consistency in our ethic?  How confused are we (and how confused are we making our kids) when we say – you don’t have to earn God’s love but you do have to earn everything else and it’s wrong to reward you unless you beat everyone else.  (Yes I totally agree that playing is its own reward – in fact I have some reservations about the trophy at all, first or last place, because I don’t really want to reward people for competition… but that’s maybe a later continuation of the conversation and I’m actually pretty unsure of all that in my head… so let’s not digress any further.)  It’s important to know that I don’t really care one way or the other about sport trophies (in fact I wouldn’t mind if they got rid of them and they didn’t cause extra clutter in my house).  I do care about the conflicting messages around competition and works righteousness and achievement. 

God rewards mediocrity while asking for better, for more, for… perfection (Matthew 5:46-48).  God desire us to seek to be our better selves, without it meaning competition with who is the best… and the “reward” is the same for those who come in first as it is for those who come in last.  Each of the synoptic Gospels have a conversation on the greatest, and in Luke 9 the disciples even get worked up that others might be doing things in Jesus’ name.  Jesus invites us (as I hear it) to put aside our competitiveness and remember that we are called to service, and our focus should be on our own service – not if we are the best, or if other’s aren’t good enough.  Jesus thinks we don’t need a reward to think it’s worthwhile to try harder.  Competition isn’t necessary, and we won’t simply settle for mediocrity without it.  So the “reward” if you will: God’s love, salvation, acceptance… whichever way you want to name it – is given to everyone before an effort is made.  We all get the trophy.

When we say that in one place, like church, but then say elsewhere that it’s damaging to give everyone a reward like a trophy simply for playing… are we actually refuting our first message?  Are we confusing our ethic?  Are we saying that the way of Jesus works at church and in “eternal matters” but not in our sporting and working and schooling life? 

This is the kind of double messaging that doesn’t work with discipleship in which we are actually seeking to follow the way of Jesus Christ in all that we do and all that we are in the world – the whole world.  This means the last comes first in soccer… just as in the Kingdom of God.  Because whether we like it or not – the Kingdom of God is an all-inclusive “place” and the soccer field, the board room, the class room, and our church meeting rooms are all contained within it.  There is no place where our ethic is other than following in the way of Jesus Christ.  Everywhere we go, in everything we do.  In all that we do we are to seek to be our better selves, to realize our full potential.  But not for rewards sake.  And in all that we do and all that we are – we are all to be rewarded.  But not for achievements sake.

We seek, with help, to realize our full potential because it is pleasing to God, to one another, and to ourselves.  We are rewarded because we are all made in the image of God and worthy of love regardless of what place we come in when the whistle blows.  Thanks be to God; so be it!

About Andrew Kukla

I am the proud father of four wonderful children, loving husband to Caroline, brother to three mostly wonderful sisters, and son of two parents that gifted me with a foundation of love and freedom. I also am a Presbyterian pastor and former philosophy major with a love of too many words (written with many grammatical errors and parenthetic thoughts), Soren Kierkegaard, and reflections on living a life of discipleship that is open to all the challenges, ups and downs, brokenness and grace, of a chaotic and wonderful life founded upon the love of God for all of creation.

Posted on August 17, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I too, am not a fan of the everybody gets a trophy. Mostly because in the real world sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. I also believe in grace, that God loves you just the same win or lose.

    So my question is what’s the next step? No trophies, no games of skill, no competition?

    As a former college athlete and weekend warrior, I’m not sure I like that. As a pastor who preaches grace daily, I’m ok with winners and losers in these types of games (certainly there are poor winners and losers, but for the most part I think it’s ok) I even think there can be grace in winning and losing AND I believe God calls us beloved win or lose.

    I guess my question is, what happens when the rubber meets the road?

  2. I’m always intrigued when someone says the “real world.” What is real? (A spin on Pilates question to Jesus I guess.) I think Jesus would say that the real world is the world as God imagines it. I think in such a world there isn’t competition. Because in the end competition is another form of violence. I’m thinking of Walter Wink’s book the Power That Be that promotes a need to practice non-violence as counter to the dominance systems of the powers and principalities. I think most team sports (and some individual sports) are about creating such systems and it runs counter to the gospel. (As an example from a former tennis player… when I was playing well it was about planning my shots to put my opponent in a place where they had no shot back… to dominate them to a point where they were helpless. This is attempting to break down the other, not to build them up.)

    Now to your question – and a really good one – what happens when the rubber meets the road?

    I happen to like sports. I’m not prepared to advocate an anti-sports line, but I’m caught in a challenge because I think they can be (and not necessarily are always) a road block to gospel good news in many instances. Now because this is straying to a much bigger conversation than I am prepared to have right now I will say this. I simply think when we are okay with a winner/losser set up we are advocating a system contrary to the gospel in which all people win and particularly those whom the world likes to think are losers. Blessed are the meek, the mourning, the poor, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not those who are physically, mentally, or spiritually more gifted than others. (And yes I mean to make sure I don’t leave this as the purely physical because the injustice of competition is a possible a greater burden in other arenas than sports… it is the idea of rewarding excellence that creates a society that believe poor people shouldn’t have safety nets because… well I don’t know what the because is… because they need the fear of failure to push them to succeed? )

    Okay I think I’m a bit lost and my wife needs me so that will have to suffice for now. I appreciate your thoughts and your push back. As I said… or maybe I didn’t… I’m thinking out loud because I feel this push from my sense of what it means to follow Jesus to rethink my own appreciation of sports and competition and what exactly we reward people for. (You want to really get me worked up mention the need to get service hours for schools… as if the only reason to tutor kids, or help people, is because I GET something from it for my benefit.)

  3. Okay – it bothers me that I talked around your question without answering it. Maybe its as you say we find a way to play that emphasizes the building up and not the tearing down. But to do that we have to de-emphasize winning and losing and emphasize working to together, trying hard, and playing in a way that respects all the players and seeks their good and not just our own.

  4. Well said.
    I hate it when the gospel gets in the way of my competitive spirit.

  5. Hmmm. I am mostly sympathetic with the thoughts expressed. I find myself flinching, however, at the notion that God wants us to become perfect. I was was most comforted years ago when someone invited me to read that passage in Matthew as an expression of being, rather than potential. Perhaps I’m overly taken with what I see as cleverness in Voltaire’s observation, which, I think suggests the impossibility of defining, let alone achieving perfection. Mostly I prefer my friend’s interpretation that, in God’s eyes, I already am.

  6. I think its quite possible to hear Jesus on many levels. For myself and my own struggles with that text I tend to take Jesus at his literal word, that he truly means for us to endeavor to be the perfection of God – the image of God.

    The text sits at the end of the the fifth chapter of Matthew which begin with the beatitudes which are lot about being – so that does sit nicely in your friends interpretation. The line comes as part of a unit after the antithesis (in which Jesus offers new and higher standards on old laws): “44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat 5:44-1 NRSV)

    Thus we get a word that all people get the same reward (rain) regardless of the quality of their actions. Then we are reminded that just anyone can love only people who love them back… but again Jesus ramps up the understanding of the law – makes it higher, makes it aspire to the nature of God. So it sits in a context that is about aspiring to more than is standard practice – to love more than most people are willing.

    Thus for me to be perfect, as God is perfect, is about aspiring to the character and nature of God. This is the gift we have in Jesus – that in Jesus we see both what it means to be God, and what it means to be human. And it means the same thing. This is what it means to me.

    The last word I’d share on this passages meaning to me comes from Thich Nhat Hanh who writes in Living Buddha, Living Christ that when we tell someone to go north by following the north star, we do not expect anyone to actually reach the north star – but we use it as a guide on our journey. When I read this I immediately jumped to the command to be perfect. The nature of God’s love – which Paul writes about as well when he says perfect love casts out fear – becomes the guide to our own journey into love. We aspire to “love as we have been loved,” or to be “perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

    Now how this ties so nicely back into my original post is that Jesus sense of universal reward (it rains on all of us) does not come without a sense of high standard and expectation of realizing our full potential. We do not need to compete in order to strive to become our better selves.

    I have more thoughts that you have inspired… but this response is long enough as it is. So I’ll say thank you and leave off more rambling for now. 🙂

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