When I found myself yelling at my computer screen over a high school marching band competition last weekend, I decided maybe it was time to examine why I had such a strong negative reaction, even when my alma mater won second place in the state. I realized it was rooted mainly in the curse of rivalry, as my band lost to a band we’ve been trying to beat for years. The truth about rivalry isn’t popular, but judging by my reaction, it’s necessary to uncover.

I’m an avid University of Kentucky basketball fan. But my brother attends the University of Louisville. When we’re at home (in UK country), you wouldn’t believe the amount of crap he gets from people– even people at our church. Because of my brother– and largely because of the ridiculousness of how they treat him– I don’t actively root against Louisville (except when they play Kentucky, of course).  I was even proud to say our state brought the NCAA title home two years in a row.

You know what I get for that? Not people appreciative of my grace and level-headness, that’s for sure. Even fans of other teams rail me for not cheering against my team’s rivals, saying I’m not a true fan. It’s rivalry that turns loyal fans into raging criminals, friends and family into game day enemies, and normally kind people into trash-talking jerks. Yet it’s widely accepted– even celebrated– in our culture.

Why has loyalty become more about who you’re against than who you’re for? I think I can still be loyal without being hateful. I can even root for other teams from time to time if I want. That doesn’t mean I’m not committed to my chosen team. That’s like saying pizza can’t be my favorite food because I enjoyed a chicken sandwich the other day.

While I’ve had a soft spot for Louisville for a while, I had to learn this lesson myself when I lived with Duke fans during basketball season this past year. To me, they are the real Kentucky rivals. The fact that the networks play that Christian Laettner shot every chance they get doesn’t exactly help us get it over it. But what I found was, while some playful banter between us was fun, we were always gracious to one another, in victory and defeat. And you know what? I liked that better than being bitter enemies.

I’m not saying all competition is bad– it helps us excel. And epic rivalries make for some great stories. But when rivalry turns into hatred, anger, and rudeness, it’s time to check it. I know a lot of good people who go from mild Bruce Bannering into HULK SMASH!ing when it comes to rivalry. Part of loving each other is not being jerks when we’re cheering for different teams. It’s as simple as that.

The Bible is full of rivalries. The first murder was the result of a rivalry. Rival brothers (made so by their parents) Isaac and Ishmael became the fathers of people groups that are still rivals today. Saul tried to kill his friend David because of rivalry (and a few loose screws). The Philistines and Israelites were always at odds. Even Jesus’ disciples had their own little rivalries going on, trying to figure out who was the greatest. And the Corinthians tried to get one started between Paul and Apollos.

Rivalry is far from a new concept developed with the current sports-obsessed culture. It’s an ancient human instinct. It can be personal: I want to beat you at something. Or it can be corporate: I want the group I identify with, follow, and praise, to beat the group you identify with, follow, and praise. When it goes too far, it becomes spiritual: I want what I worship to beat what you worship.

Let’s be real: rivalry reveals idolatry. When you neglect to show love to your brother or sister because of who they’re cheering for, you’re showing that you love the game more than you love God.

In 1 Kings 18:20-39, when Elijah calls on God and God pwns Baal by sending fire when the false god produces nothing, we see an example of the only way we can get extreme rivalry right: when we want God to beat the idols, powers, and evils of this world.

But most of the time, that’s not the case. And the Bible has a lot to say about those other forms of rivalry.

“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” — Philippians 2:3

“And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.'” —Mark 9:33-35

“If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying… But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.” — James 3:13-14, 17

THREE!!!! That’s right. We just made a swishing bucket of conviction.

We also shouldn’t be too quick to put God one side or the other of a rivalry. God doesn’t choose sides. We see that when He appears to Joshua before the battle of Jericho (Joshua 5:13-15). Joshua asks who He’s for, the Israelites or their enemies, and God says, “Neither.” He doesn’t have to pick a team. He’s the way, the truth, and the life. He always wins. We need to be on His side by believing and following Him.

And when we do that, whose colors our friends wear on game day don’t matter as much as Whose image they’re created in, Puke Duke fans and all.


JOIN THE CONVERSATION: I’m issuing a challenge. Everyone name their favorite teams, and let’s see if we can not post any negative comments in response.