by Liz Robson
We live in an age where the lure of comparison is more enticing than ever before. Facebook tells us what hundreds of people are doing at any given moment. We have Instagram and Twitter to monitor the world’s every move, and there’s nothing quite like a little bit of Pinterest envy on the side. Now, thanks to Skype, we even have to consider how we present ourselves while making a call!
I read a quote on a blog recently describing this comparison syndrome caused by social media: “While you’re waiting for your coffee to brew, the majority of your friends probably aren’t doing anything more special, but it only takes one friend at the Eiffel Tower to make you feel like a loser.”
Today, more than ever, it’s easy to compare our appearance, our abilities, our children, our gifts, our finances, our possessions, our relationships, our achievements, and even our holidays. Almost everything that can be measured in some way is: we manage to do it.
Comparison is in our faces all the time, but what’s at the heart of our constant desire to compare ourselves to others? And more importantly, what could we do instead? How can we change?
Ancient wisdom for a modern problem
Here’s how Paul addresses the first-century Christians in Rome: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given each of us.” (Romans 12:3–6)
How often do we think of ourselves with ‘sober judgment’? And what does it even mean to judge with sobriety? How do we form a self-judgment at all?
I can tell you how it usually happens. It’s usually made by comparison with someone else. We tend to swing to one of two extremes. We either think we’re pretty awesome, or we think we’re really useless (and sometimes we can go from one to the other in a matter of nanoseconds!). Our self-assessment fluctuates as quickly as it takes to refresh a Facebook newsfeed. When we’re struggling, it only takes one person having a really great day to bring out bitterness and envy. On the other hand, on those days when we’re enjoying life, to read about someone who is struggling can confirm in us pride and self-assurance.
What we need to realise is that usually we’re neither awesome nor useless. We need to work on seeing ourselves for who we really are — forgiven sinners, saved by grace and loved by God. This is at the heart of a sober self-assessment. If we understand just how much we’ve been saved from, and what it is that we’ve been saved for, it will bring immense freedom from the bonds of comparative judgment.
As we grasp onto our status before God as forgiven sinners, this essential truth brings sweet relief. Instead of groaning or smirking in our comparisons, we can use our gifts in the service of God and his people. It means we are free to rejoice in the gifting of others without letting it cripple us in our resentment. It means we can kneel down and help to shoulder the burdens of others without becoming puffed up with our own superiority.
Not one of us is ‘awesome’. We all fall short of the standard that God requires, and Jesus alone stands as the solution to our greatest need — the forgiveness of our sin. Once we have truly taken hold of this reality, we will quickly start to see that we therefore need each other in order to function as the body of Christ. Each member ‘belongs’ to the others. We are not all the same, and we do not all fulfil the same function, but we are all indispensible to each other as we work together to bring glory to Jesus.
But comparisons are the fuel of our self-saturated, self-centred, self-aggrandising world. The way the world decides what we are worth is by comparison. Your house might be worth $1 million, but that’s nothing if your neighbour’s house is worth $1.5 million and the grass really is greener on their side of the fence. Gaining your BA might be a great achievement for the woman whose family never finished high school, but what about the woman whose older siblings both have a PhD? We learn very early how to assess our value by comparing ourselves to others.
But if we really understand where our worth comes from, we can learn — like Paul — the secret of contentment. We will stop living lives which are defined and constrained by comparisons. Instead, we will judge ourselves by God’s standards, not the world’s. We will grasp onto the knowledge that our worth and our status are defined by our relationship with our heavenly Father.
Will our dreams come true?
Paul writes, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12–13). Paul’s not saying, “You can do anything you want if you just put your mind to it! Follow your dreams!” Try telling that to the couple struggling with infertility, or the mother of a rebellious teenager who didn’t come home last night, or the man who’s just had a terminal cancer diagnosis. Sometimes your dreams just don’t come true.
But Paul isn’t talking about dreams. He’s talking about life — real life. In any and every situation, both in plenty and in want, he is content — because he knows the strength that only God can provide.
The problem is, we still want our dreams to come true. We want our house to be bigger, we want our family life to be just what we always imagined. We want our kids to be better behaved, and we want our diseases cured. We even get so used to saying “Jesus died on the cross for me” that we start to think that MY salvation is the reason that Jesus came to die. But it’s not. We’re not the centre of God’s salvation story — Jesus is. (Go ahead and read Revelation 5.)
We need to first understand who we are, the reality of our status before God. Second, we need to understand where our worth comes from. Our identity is bound up with who we are as forgiven sinners, kneeling at the foot of the cross. We’re neither awesome nor useless — but, once we know the forgiveness that only Jesus offers, we are always forgiven.
Can you see how ridiculous it is to define our worth by how we compare to other people? Our value and our worth is bound up with our place in God’s plans, centred on Jesus. Our worth isn’t just that we were created by God, loved, saved, and forgiven by him — but also that we were created FOR him (see Colossians 1:16). Our purpose on this earth is to bring glory to God’s son, the Lord Jesus, in everything we do.
So, on that final day, are you going to look around at other people and boast about your fulfilled dreams, your large house, your well-educated kids, or your hefty overseas holiday album? Are you going to hang your head and regret your list of aspirations that never came to be? I doubt it. We will be infinitely better occupied on that day.
Liz Robson is a Regional Staff Worker for the University of Canterbury Christian Union in Christchurch, New Zealand (a TSCF NZ group and IFES affiliate). She relocated from Sydney to NZ with her husband and three kids in 2010, nine months before the first major earthquake hit Christchurch. Despite the heartache and chaos of the past four years, her love for her adopted country and its people abounds.