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What Do Rivalry and Fear Have To Do With One Another?

Sep 6, 2022Blog, Culture, Theology

A business colleague tries to undermine his boss’s integrity so as to pave the way for his corporate advancement.  

A team’s leading scorer is double teamed at the end of the game and instead of passing to his open teammate, he takes the shot and misses badly. The teammate that was open is the team’s second leading scorer. 

One nation covets a neighboring country’s resources so they unleash a plan to attempt to erode the neighboring country’s economic, technological and moral infrastructure in order to weaken them. 

These are all examples that exude what is often called a “spirit of rivalry.” We all have our own experiences of it because from siblings to sports, no one is immune to it. Rivalry is defined as “competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.” I’ve crisscrossed the globe and in every country, city and culture I’ve seen, there is rivalry. Where people are, rivalry is too. But why? Where does rivalry come from?  

The Bible claims to be the true story of the whole world and the first place human rivalry is depicted is in Genesis 4 with the story of Cain and Abel. The story goes that Cain offered God leftovers from his field as an offering/act of worship, but Abel offered the best of his flock. God accepted Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. Cain then kills Abel. But why? 

The way the story is typically interpreted is that jealousy (particularly for God’s love/acceptance) is the source of Cain’s actions. In the examples I provided above, it could certainly be inferred that jealousy is at the root of each one. The 4th century theologian St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions about having “personally watched and studied a jealous baby. He could not yet speak and, pale with jealousy and bitterness, glared at his brother sharing his mother’s milk. Who is unaware of this fact of experience?” So is jealousy the root of rivalry? There is certainly a tight link between jealousy and rivalry, but if you dig a little deeper I think there is something more basic than jealousy at the root. 

And that’s fear. 

Consider the examples above: the businessman’s actions were perhaps predicated by a fear that he would not have enough (money/resources) or be enough (to satisfy his ambition). The leading scorer’s fear of not being the best or getting a college scholarship drove his sense of ‘excellence’ thus costing them the game. The nation’s fear of a lack of resources drove its aggressive behavior toward their neighbor. 

The Bible is aware of this. Which is why one of the foundational principles of living a wise life is to “Fear the Lord” above all else. Miles Custis speaking to this Fear of the Lord says, “While fear can describe terror or dread (Genesis 3:10), the Old Testament use of fear often indicates awe or reverence. To fear God is to express loyalty to him and faithfulness to his covenant. Those who fear God exhibit trust in Him and obedience to His commandments.” When “Fear of the Lord” is the greatest “fear” a person has, then “fear” of other things – shortage of resources, being overlooked, being alone, death – get put in their proper place. In the normal course of life after the fall (Genesis 3), these are all justifiable fears. 

Which is one more reason why the Gospel is such good news. 

When you look back at the tragic story of Cain and Abel, perhaps at the root of Cain’s actions is that he believed God’s love was in too short supply. Sin does that. It awakens our conscience to know that something is off. That our relationship with God is out of sorts. It is very possible that his spirit of rivalry, which was stirred up by jealousy of God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering, was undergirded by the fear that God would not accept him also. But the tragedy of the human condition is that Cain’s remedy is far too often ours: get rid of the other person. 

What God has done in the Gospel is provide resources to live differently. Instead of rivalry, we can consider others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). Instead of getting rid of others, we can “get rid of ourselves” through repentance. And instead of fearing God’s love is in short supply, we can trust that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is our substitute for acceptance with God and that He gives us His Spirit to fill our hearts with His love (Romans 5:5). 

When perfect love casts out [misplaced] fear (1 John 4:18), then, and only then, will jealousy, and rivalry, cease.