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!