The term GOAT—“Greatest of All Time”—is commonly used today, especially in the context of social media. We love to argue over who is the greatest of all time in every field. It occurs most often in sports contexts, especially in the debate over whether the title belongs to Michael Jordan or Lebron James. But our obsession with identifying the GOAT isn’t limited to sports. In fact, the term has become so widely used that Merriam-Webster added it to their dictionary (separate from the entry for the animal) in 2018. We want to know who the best is within each style of music, within different types of literature, and even in Christian preaching or authorship.
When Michael Jordan was initiated into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, his speech turned into something of a parable. At the time, Jordan was widely recognized as the greatest within basketball, if not of all sports. Yet, his speech sadly turned into a re-hashing of decades-old slights, insults, and challenges to his basketball supremacy. Instead of being gracious and simply accepting the GOAT title that the sports world was eager to give, Jordan displayed an insecurity and an unhealthy competitiveness that still sought an outlet. Like King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes, Jordan had it all, and yet he found that it was vanity, a chasing after the wind.
Making it personal
Like Jordan’s display of self-centeredness, we often don’t just seek to know who the best is—we make it personal. We constantly compare ourselves to others, and if we aren’t the best at something (at least in our limited context), we aren’t happy. I serve as a pastor, and recently, I had lunch with a church member whose daughter has taken dance classes for years. This daughter has been gradually surpassed in ability by some other dancers who are younger than her. Now, she can’t even enjoy her dance classes because she’s not the best in the troupe.
We should seek to find fulfillment and delight in the arts, sports, our vocation, ministry, and any other good gifts, first of all, for God’s glory; he’s the one who has gifted us, enabled us, and sent us to use our abilities for his mission.
I also have friends who are incredible singers and have tried out for “The Voice” or “American Idol.” Given our cultural environment and the emphasis on being the best, it’s tempting for my friends who didn’t make it to feel like they’ve failed. In our flesh, it’s easy to lose enjoyment in something you are good at when you discover that you aren’t the best at it. So, we over-correct and insist that every kid in a sports league get a trophy simply for participating. But, what are we teaching them? What we aren’t teaching them is how to enjoy sports and other activities in life, even if we don’t win or aren’t declared the best. Furthermore, we’re failing to teach them how to celebrate others.
Pastors often compare themselves and their churches to others, too. We can end up lacking contentment because the other guy’s church is bigger, grew faster, or has a larger budget. Usually this springs from a man-centered, formulaic view of ministry and a neglect of the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty in growing his Church.
Finding joy and engaging in God’s mission
1 Timothy 6:17 says that God “richly provides us with all things to enjoy.” Sports, music, and activities of all types are blessings from God. The devil has come to destroy our joy in God’s rich blessings. But, we don’t have to (and shouldn’t) let pride and unhealthy competitiveness take the fun out of these gifts from God. This is true for all people, but it’s especially important for parents or those who teach or coach young people. From an early age, children should be encouraged to excel, to do everything “from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people” (Col. 3:23); not to pin their self-worth or enjoyment of life on the outcome of a game or how their talent stacks up against everyone else; and to rejoice with others.
We should seek to find fulfillment and delight in the arts, sports, our vocation, ministry, and any other good gifts, first of all, for God’s glory; he’s the one who has gifted us, enabled us, and sent us to use our abilities for his mission. I’ve seen God use pickup soccer games on Sunday afternoons to fling open doors for gospel proclamation. All of our hobbies and activities are opportunities for mission as we engage in recreation with unbelievers all around us. And second, we should be able to simply and humbly enjoy each of these activities, regardless of how we compare to others, because “it is also the gift of God whenever anyone eats, drinks, and enjoys all his efforts” (Eccl. 3:13).
By the time I got to college, I had taken piano lessons for 10 years, so my parents encouraged me to pursue a music minor, even though I had no plans for a career in music. I got into the program, but I didn’t enjoy most of the time I spent with the other music majors because of the competitive nature of that environment. The thing that I enjoyed the most in the program was accompanying vocal majors as they performed. In those settings, I wasn’t in competition with other piano students. Being able to support someone else as they displayed their talents and working cooperatively to create something beautiful were the main things that I enjoyed in that program.
Competition is not a bad thing, but we shouldn’t allow it to rob of us of the simple enjoyment of God’s good gifts and the celebration of others. We don’t all have to—and won’t—be the GOAT. But we can all glorify God in being faithful with what he’s given us for his glory.
And for the record, Pelé is the greatest athlete of all time.