The lurking rival

Rivalry is at the root of many conflicts

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“Love your enemies.” Some of us struggle with these words of Jesus. “I’m a nice person,” we think. “Most of the people I know are nice people. Who are these enemies I am to love?”

What if we replace the word “enemies” with the word “rivals”? Love your rivals. Maybe this evokes a different picture. Rivalry has to do with a sense of competition—a need to win, to be right, to look good. All of us have rivals now and then, here and there, and these rivalries can take on a destructive life of their own.

Who hasn’t felt growing tension in a relationship such that a chill sets in on the communication between us? Pretty soon we start wondering, “How did we get here? What happened to our previous closeness?”

To speak of rivalry is to speak of conflict in a slightly different way. Indeed, at the root of human conflict lies rivalry. The Holy Spirit empowers us to address rivalry, but this has less to do with overpowering our rivals and more to do with undergoing transformation.

What is rivalry

Some of us associate the word “rival” with sports, whether it be professional, college or high school teams that have a particular game circled on the seasonal calendar. The competition between rivals for bragging rights is fierce. That sense of rivalry is certainly in view in this article, but it is not confined to athletic competition. Some persons have a subtle (or not so subtle) rivalry whenever there is a church potluck meal to see who gets the most accolades for their dish or dessert.

Most basic definitions of conflict tell us that it involves persons who perceive that their goals are being blocked by another. Rivalry has to do with a sense of competing with others for goals that are win-lose.

A sense of rivalry is at the root of human conflicts. This stems from our heightened human capacities for imitation. Babies emerge from the womb as incredible, impressionable sponges, soaking up perceptions regarding the world and how to be human in it.

Throughout life, other humans are models for us: how to act, what to desire, what to possess, etc. Such modeling is generally helpful and inevitable. The dark side of imitating models is that, often, the models we seek to emulate become rivals we seek to eliminate. Thus, rivalry can become volatile and destructive. This is why human cultures develop structures and norms to manage rivalries, to keep them in check.

Rivalry lurks in many relationships, and it manifests most anytime we begin to feel significant tension with another human who is perceived to be thwarting a goal we have. The tension we feel is often perceived in our bodies as a danger signal (elevated heart rate, anxious butterflies, etc.). Our goal is being obstructed. We are under threat, and our instincts cue for emergency response to the danger.

The threat a rival evokes for us is never simply a matter of scarce resources. Two women, unknowingly, wear the exact same blouse at a public gathering. Suddenly, both see a rival. It is not that there was only one blouse to be fought over. There were many blouses on the store rack and both women bought one. But how can each woman be seen as unique and valuable (not a reasonable goal for each) when the imitator in the same blouse inhabits the same social space? For many persons in this situation, it is hard to not feel threatened, perhaps tumbling into cycles of comparison and self-doubt or outrage and disdain.

Rivals seem to produce threats of various kinds: threat of being in the wrong, of losing reputation, of not being valued and more. We react to such threats (often with fight or flight) because of fear and a sense of needing to defend or secure what we believe we deserve.

Some rivalries tend to be or become quite visible. When children struggle to share toys, they experience the other as a rival. (It’s mine!) When teens push against boundaries, the parent-child relationship feels like an exhausting rivalry. (I want to be in control.) When followers of Jesus have differing perspectives over theology and ethics, they often experience the other as a rival. (I’m right.) As noted above, the sense of rivalry tends to breed competition and the feeling that we are in a win-lose situation. So, we may seek out like-minded allies and hope that our rivals come to their demise.

Yet, rivalry is not always highly visible. For those who have conflict-avoiding tendencies, rivalry often remains harder to see from the outside. Rivalry may be less visible to those around us but, if we find ourselves giving excessive mental space to another person with relentless questions like “How could they behave that way? How can they believe that?” then, we inhabit a rivalry relationship. Rivalries that flourish in our heads are still powerful and hold the same potential for damage as more visible rivalries. Thus, Jesus counsels disciples to be attentive and take action to disarm the destructive potential of rivalry.

Defusing rivalry

The first place to face the threat of rivalry—whether it is more or less visible—is within ourselves. Rivalry thrives in our minds, as we churn on thoughts of outrage, hurt, disgust and fear. This is why Jesus—our preeminent model who embodied a freedom transcending persistent rivalries in his life—instructs us to “pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). While we may be hard-pressed to describe how exactly our perceived rival is persecuting us, the underlying dynamic is present. “Persecutors” can be a way of describing just about anyone who appears on our horizon as a threat to our goals or wellbeing.

As already noted, rivals trigger our nervous systems as dangerous, as threats. So, praying for rivals is a crucial practice. Praying for our rivals may begin with interceding for our rivals’ demise (see many of the Psalms). Yet time spent in prayer—in the safe space of God’s presence—invites us to name how exactly we are feeling threatened and to listen. What might God be saying to our threatened, reactionary hearts? Prayer for our rivals opens us to wider perspectives and to our own need for change. Praying for rivals disarms rivalry and allows us to see our rivals in new light.

Along with praying for our rivals, Jesus also counsels parallel action: “love your enemies [rivals]; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:27). Granted, the thought of trying to love someone who triggers a sense of threat in us often seems beyond comprehension. However, the Spirit-empowered practice of holding a rival prayerfully in the light of God begins to open space for imagining what it might mean to love that person.

A mentor of mine from long ago defined Christian love as action that we take for the good of another, even when it proves costly to us. And, I believe, this is what Jesus points toward when he says to “do good to” and “bless” our rivals. When someone is good to me, when they show genuine care for me—especially if I can see that it is not easy for them—I struggle to maintain a hostile attitude toward them. Speaking well of and to our rivals further disarms hostility and makes space for changed relationship.

As rivalry is disarmed, a different kind of relationship can (re-)emerge. Rather than being driven by threat reactions, we can find the resources to value the-other-who-became-a-rival and ponder the mysteries of the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in all our lives.

Disarming rivalry will not mean complete harmony and bliss forevermore with all our rivals. But, in cultivating the practice of disarming rivalry, we can live into the wisdom of the apostle Paul to inhabit a better relationship: “Do not regard them as enemies [rivals] but admonish them as brothers and sisters” (2 Thess. 3:15).

Rivals are bound to appear in our lives. Some of us have long-standing rivalries. Others of us see rivalries come and go. The intensity of the rivalry and our sense of threat can vary. The question before us as followers of Jesus is what will it look like to love our rivals?

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