Competition: One-Upped!

It was our first summer back in Asia in the country where I had been born and raised.  I was a young wife and mother learning to navigate living in familiar territory, except now I was no longer a child, but rather an adult with adult responsibilities.  My family had been well known in that country among expats because my dad was a family doctor.  So whenever my husband and I were introduced, we were always “Dr. West’s daughter and son-in-law.”

That summer at the annual conference where all the M’s gathered for a week, I met a veteran M who knew my family well.  She asked what we were doing and I responded that we were teaching at the MK school (we were still MKs as the term TCK was not yet in vogue). I will never forget her response to me: “Oh well then, you aren’t real M’s since you are just teaching at the school.”  I was speechless and I’ll admit that my pride was a bit wounded.   I could not think quickly enough to find an appropriate reply, so thankfully I chose to remain silent and just smiled.  It’s been over 35 years since that conversation took place and yet, I still remember it as though it happened yesterday. I was “one-upped” and I felt that my story and my value was minimized.

“Oneupmanship” is the art or practice of outdoing or keeping one step ahead of a friend or competitor.  Our first thoughts might lead us to believe this is an issue for people “back home,” not for those who are living in a foreign country or for those who are in ministry.  But if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we have participated in “one upping” conversations, which might sound something like this:

Between a newbie and a veteran M: “Well, when we first came to the field ten years ago we had to _____________ (fill in the blank).  Be thankful that you are here now!”

Or between young mothers: “I had a natural birth without any medication and have never given my child a drop of formula – only breast milk.”

Or to the single missionary: “You have it so much easier than the rest of us because you don’t have kids; be glad you don’t have to raise as much support! It would be nice to only have to worry about myself.”

Or a response to the person who has been sick with the flu: “When I had malaria I had to be hospitalized and on IV fluids for a week.”

Well, maybe these are a little extreme and maybe you haven’t said it out loud quite like this. But why do we feel this need to “one up” our friends in our community or our partners in ministry?

Why do we feel the need to compete as to who is truly engaged in “real” M work or who has the most significant ministry or who is the most effective mother?  Are we trying to validate our lifestyle, our reputation, or our standing in our respective communities?  Is it our insatiable desire to establish significance for ourselves?

It’s no surprise that we do this today because even Jesus’ earliest and closest followers were competing for position in Matthew 20.  The mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus to ask that her sons would receive a place of honor–to sit on either side of Jesus in the coming kingdom.  The other 10 disciples were indignant.  After all, weren’t they all deserving of honor?

Jesus answers them that this is not a request he can grant.  Instead, it is the Father who has prepared and decides the place and position.  Then Jesus offers the truth that soothes the restless soul searching for significance: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”

Grace is the love and mercy given to us by God–not because of anything we have done to deserve it, but because of His kindness and goodness.

When I am living in God’s grace, I receive all of the validation I need from Him.

My standing in my community of fellow M’s, mothers, or ministry partners, does not define who I am or what position I have before my Father.

Refusing to one-up one another is a vital part of Kingdom living.  But refusal to participate in this destructive practice is just the beginning point of Christ’s call to consider others as more important than ourselves.  Dallas Willard painted a masterful picture of this next step when he wrote, “If you want to really experience the flow of love as never before, the next time you are in a competitive situation, [around work or relationship or whose kids are the highest achieving or looks or whatever], pray that others around you will be more outstanding, more praised, and more used of God than yourself.  Really pull for them and rejoice in their success.  If Christians were universally to do this for each other, the earth would soon be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God.”

How do we get there?  It all comes back to grace.  When I am truly living in grace, I find that I am not as emotionally vulnerable when external recognition is taken from me. Nor do I need to “one-up” someone in order to prove my worthiness or justify my sacrifices. Living in grace means that I can listen well without inserting myself into someone’s story.

Grace liberates us to serve one another without the burden of competitiveness.
Can we humbly offer one another a little grace?


  1. Michele Call February 2, 2016

    Yes! I think there is a big temptation to oneupmanship on the field because we aren’t receiving a lot of validation on the things we do well, and/or we aren’t doing a lot of things well because of so many setbacks and obstacles and the language barrier, and so the temptation is to show that we’ve suffered more, or we’ve achieved more than others around us. And when I smart at the competitive comment of someone else, my pride is exposed just as if I was the one making the hurtful comment. I love the quote from Dallas Willard. It will be going in my journal. These struggles are a beautiful opportunity to become more like Jesus, to become the person I have prayed to become. Thank you Julie.

    1. Julie Breuninger February 3, 2016

      Michelle – I appreciate your thought –  “When I smart at the competitive comment of someone else, my pride is exposed just as if I was the one making the hurtful comment.”  So true! It’s great when we are teachable and allow the Holy Spirit to prick our hearts at the most necessary times.

      The Dallas Willard quote came from John Ortberg’s book, Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You.  An excellent book – I recently finished reading.


  2. Courtney February 2, 2016

    The one-upping is something I am guilty of and your words have encouraged and convicted me in best of ways. Thank you for sharing your heart!

    1. Julie Breuninger February 3, 2016

      Courtney-  Thanks for your comment.  Generally my sharing  and any writing I may do are things that I am being reminded of myself.  It’s always interesting how God uses so many different avenues to speak Truth into our lives.  Carry on Sister – fight the good fight!

  3. T February 3, 2016

    Nice to hear from you here, Julie!  Thanks for your words!

  4. Kim February 3, 2016

    This goes really well with the book we’ve been reading: “The Listening Life” By Adam McHugh. Desiring to become a better listener, I’m seeing evidence of how that can be worked out everywhere I look these days 🙂

    1. Julie Breuninger February 4, 2016

      Kim – Thanks for the book recommendation.  I too am desiring to become a better listener and will have to check out that book.  Always interesting how when we are learning something new it pops up everywhere….we suddenly see things with new eyes.  That often happens to me when I learn a new word…..then I see/hear it everywhere!

  5. Jenilee February 3, 2016

    sadly, I’ve been the recipient of much of that and yes, it does smart a little bit! But by God’s grace, we stand in Him, validated by only His work in us. Life lessons… Beautiful post!

    1. Julie Breuninger February 4, 2016


      I am so sorry that you have had that experience.  Yes…life lessons are hard.  When we learn through the lessons, we become better instruments of His grace !  For our good and His glory!


  6. Michele Womble February 5, 2016

    I love the encouragement to pray that those around us will be better than we are – more outstanding than we are – more useful to the kingdom. Wow.

  7. Monica F February 5, 2016

    Thank you for this post.  Such a rich reminder of grace, and where we stand.  I have been guilty of one-upping, and in fact, have said those ‘one-upping comments’ you gave as examples above (including the malaria one!).  Over a year ago, I was deeply convicted by the Spirit of my competitive and one-up nature, that I took time to make amends and apologize to people I know I chronically ‘one-upped’ like some of my team mates, and fellow colleagues.  As difficult as it was to do- it was actually very freeing- and took me to a place in my faith journey that was new and fresh…standing alone in God’s grace, not in ‘spiritual competition’ with my brothers and sisters.  Thank you!

  8. Julia May 31, 2017

    This really resonates with me. I am always comparing myself to my co-workers and trying to justify or shame myself while I inflect the same onto others. Thank you for your very needed reminder. We are here to build each other up, and run together forward. I am not really a M by title (although that is the point right ) and I am not a part of a team of M, but I am a Christian working in a Christian School with very little Christians… Teamwork and love is very important here.

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