Here comes a compressed story, a punchline, and some reflections.

A bit over twenty years ago I moved for a year from teaching to research responsibilities. I was engaged in a research laboratory in Atlanta and was one of several workers in what might be called a “research group.” The group had a boss who was about fifteen years younger than I was, two graduate students, another post-doctoral student, and two technicians. Except for the boss, all were under thirty. How I ended up working there is another story, but the boss told me he selected me in order to “add maturity and stability” to the lab; I tried not to smile.

This was a high-powered research group doing sophisticated experiments. The topics in the lab required use of language that includes many of the concepts considered today in the COVID-19 pandemic.

In these research groups, there is a clear division of responsibility. The boss mainly stayed in his office planning experiments, interpreting data, and writing research papers and grant applications to fund the laboratory. The rest of us had specific pieces of a larger research problem. I had my own small room with a lab bench and certain drawers containing my supplies.

Scientific research looks much more glamorous on television than it really is. In fact, much of it is repetitive and nearly tedious. Others have suggested that such work is 5 percent inspiration and 95 percent perspiration.

My work involved challenging some cells biochemically and then doing a specific assay on the cells looking for results. This assay was a multi-step process that took longer than one working day to complete. I did it so many times that I figured out potential temporary stopping places so that I could, for instance, eat lunch, or even stop for the day.

The pattern of the boss was to stay in his office most of the day but in late afternoon to visit each of our labs to see how the experiments were going. In November about 4 he came to my lab. I was working through the assay and had decided to stop and put everything on ice until the next morning. The alternative was to continue and finish about 6:30 or 7 pm.

The boss himself had done this assay many times so he knew just where I was in the process. He said, “Are you going to finish that today?” 

I answered, “No. I’m going to put it in the cold room and pick it back up tomorrow morning.”

(The punchline is coming soon.)

He said, “I’ll bet when you were younger that you would be so interested in the results that you would continue it now and finish. Right?”

I responded, “Yes, you are right. And then I began getting Christmas cards like the one I got just yesterday from a colleague near my age. He has just had his first cardiac catherization because of arteries in his heart beginning to close off. News such as that causes me to wait until tomorrow to finish the assay.”

There was a long pause. 

He said, “Oh,” and turned and walked out.

I suggest that you and I are caught in a competitive world that is challenging for a person trying to follow God. We need to be concerned how deeply embedded we are. 

It is nearly un-American to say that competition may have more negative qualities than positive, but count me in that group. One can make the argument that competition causes one to do one’s best, to overcome obstacles, to achieve difficult goals. I agree. It is even truer that God wants us to do our best, to overcome obstacles, and to achieve difficult goals. Furthermore, God’s desires for us do not include stress, guilt, backbiting, envy, pride, and selfishness, all of which basic competition includes. It seems we are caught in series of races; when is the race going to end for you and me?

Scripturally, Paul writes in Hebrews and both Timothy books about “running the race,” and “fighting the good fight.” However, the context of the race is not get there first, but just to get there. The fight is not against someone, it is against the worst in ourselves. Indeed, the only clear allusion to competition is Romans 12:10 where we are challenged to “outdo one another in showing honor.” That is it; we are to see which of us is better at showing honor to one another.

Perhaps God’s preferred tactic is not competition, but collaboration and cooperation.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain

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