Since childhood, I’ve been obsessed with analyzing life to discover what the best is. What exactly does “obsessed” look like, you ask? For me, it often came in the form of actual charts with complex rankings, systems that went far beyond pros/cons. And nothing was immune to my criticism and final assessment. The comparisons just changed as my interests in life changed – professional athletes, TV shows, school subjects, clothes, movies. It’s true, you can ask me for my list of 250 favorite movies sometime, including my 25 favorite in each genre. The comparisons and rankings only got less healthy from there – friends, pastors, girls (I know, before you label me as an “awful human being”, understand that I’m not justifying the behavior, simply sharing it to let you know how bad my comparison tendencies were. Fortunately, the LORD blessed me with such a wonderful woman who gave me no more reason to ever rank again 🙂 ). I hope that comparison to this extent has never been a problem for you. However, obsession over comparison and analysis is so common that I will go so far as to say I guarantee it exists in your life more than you know. And the odds are that it’s making you feel bad.
So where do we get such a craving to compare and contrast? Well, for starters, we see our world doing it all the time, so unless our head is in the sand, to some degree, it’s a learned behavior. Every year the best-selling issue of People magazine is that which labels its 50 “most beautiful people”. Every year the time that Americans are most fascinated with Barbara Walters, a pioneer female journalist, is when she trots out her list of “10 Most Fascinating People”. One of only 3 shows to be ranked #1 in the Nielson ratings for 5 consecutive years, the most popular show in America, American Idol is nothing but performers standing in front of a panel of judges and getting compared, evaluated, and ranked. And then there is the Miss America competition – what kind of 3rd world chauvinist came up with this thing? We’re going to dress women up (and in the case of swimsuit competition, down), parade them around a stage, make them demonstrate whatever talent they think will endear them most to us, and finally, ask a random and painfully open question that is more than likely going to cause them to look foolish. And finally, yes, we’re going to let a panel of B rate celebrities RANK THEM. In the end, we’ll put a crown on the winner like she’s our queen, so she can cry, validate herself, and inspire many young women to compare themselves to one another in their clothes, swimsuits, talents, and overall looks & personality. Maybe I’m overreacting. This seems like a bad idea though.
Comparison that leads to discontent is obviously nothing new. Let’s take it back to the first sin again. When the serpent tempted Eve in the Garden, he offered her fruit that would cause her to “become like God”. Do you see what’s going on here? How many people did Eve know at that point? 2 – Adam and God. And the apparent pecking order of personal beings at this point was God – Adam – Eve. Is it possible that this crafty serpent was preying on some brewing discontent in Eve? “Why do I have to be the suitable helper?! Why can’t I be more at the top, like God?” That was appealing fruit. Since Satan figured out that trick early on, he’s been reusing it ever since to cause each and every one of us to believe that we’re somehow shortchanged by God, deserving of much more when we compare ourselves to the world around, and desirous of leap-frogging to the top. The discontent spawned by ongoing comparison will lead us to do and feel terrible things, from slandering others to starving ourselves to be skinnier.
Although I now recognize the danger and destruction caused by my comparisons and have understood the importance of walking away from it, it’s still a temptation, even for a pastor. I try to read several books/month on ways to improve a congregation’s ministry and improve myself as a pastor. Simply by the nature of publication, the people who are writing these books are relatively successful, at least from an earthly standpoint. And although I glean what I perceive to be many valuable insights from them, you know what feeling I’m left with almost every time I put the book down?……………a little bit of guilt because I haven’t been able to produce what that person has. “Maybe there’s something wrong with me” if their ministry is as vibrant and engaging and growing as it is and mine is not. Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that only the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word and Sacraments is capable of truly bringing someone into the “Church”. But Satan continues to take shots at my human pride and suggest that I’m a failure if my “church”, by comparison, isn’t stacking up as well as I might hope.
That’s just a pastor’s struggle though. You guys are facing numerous more widespread attacks like this. And unfortunately, like my childhood, nothing is immune to comparison – houses, jobs, spouses, kids, vacations, looks, wealth, sense of humor, intelligence, dress, and so on. And in the past several years, the most powerful comparing device of all time has been developed, and Satan has set up shop. It’s called Facebook. Now, as with many abused blessings, Facebook itself isn’t evil. In an article several weeks ago I even mentioned what an incredibly valuable asset it can be. But, you have to recognize the temptation – it’s as simple as God’s Command not to “covet”. Have you noticed how very few people put pictures of themselves wearing horizontal stripes online? :). In other words, if people have 100 pictures of themselves, guess which 10 they’re likely to use as their profile pic? The one they look the thinnest in, with the most hair, with nothing in their teeth, and with their eyes open (but not too intensely). They post their best! They post pictures of their new house. They post pictures of their great vacation. They post a witty status that they’ve thought about for a couple of minutes. They don’t post the lame joke that probably no one would laugh at. Almost no one posts reality! And yet, when we bounce around from profile to profile, we assume this is their life. We compare it to ours. We recognize that there indeed is stuff in our proverbial teeth, our eyes are closed, and we do look a couple of pounds overweight. And then………by comparison……….we feel awful. How naive are we?!
The biblically operative word that we need to find here is “contentment”. I’ve found the Apostle Paul’s words to the Philippians to be a great source of encouragement. In 4:11-13, he writes, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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 everything through him who gives me strength.” I don’t think too many of us would suggest we’ve had it as rough as Paul did on many occasions. And yet he found contentment in knowing that God was going to meet his needs, that God in Christ had forgiven him for his sins and in doing so had given him the keys to eternal life, and that in the strength he found in his Savior he could handle anything in this life and still maintain peace and happiness. Often his “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” phrase is taken a little out of context. Some may use it to say that God can give them the strength to run a marathon in 3 hours or bench press 500 lbs. While that may be true, note the immediate context of what Paul’s saying. He’s saying that despite some of the lousy conditions he’s been in, God still gave him the strength to find contentment through God’s promises. Being satisfied in life is much more difficult for us humans than running fast or lifting heavy weights. But with Christ-centered motivation, fleeing known temptations, and praying for strength to be content, we can find that same satisfaction that Paul found. If we can stop comparing and start “contenting”, we’ll find satisfaction. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find greater success along the way either.
Here’s a (hopefully) helpful tip to get you started. In their best-selling book Every Man’s Battle, Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker advocate a practice that they call “bouncing the eyes”. Now, it’s worth pointing out that they’re specifically writing about men not looking at women to avoid lustful thoughts and temptation, but the fundamental mechanics of it would work for anybody who is looking at something that it causing them to sin – for our purposes today, looking – comparing – and coveting is the problem. If looking at one person’s Facebook page always makes you feel bad about your own life, don’t look at it. If you can’t resist, delete them from your “friends” list. If they ask why, and you told them that your admiration for their life was leading you to covet, they’d probably go off on how unspectacular their life really is. If looking at all sorts of people’s pages makes you feel bad, delete your account. It’s not worth it. The same is true in other walks of life. If every time you see your neighbor’s new car in the driveway makes you want it, stop looking. If seeing unrealistically muscular or emaciated actors and actresses on TV makes you feel bad, get rid of your cable and magazine subscriptions. If reading ministry help books ever gets to the point where I know I can’t resist coveting, it’s time to stop reading them. More time to read my Bible – no real loss after all. It’s really simple Christian living – Be honest with yourself. Flee your temptations. And don’t come back until your weakness is replaced by strength. This side of heaven, that might be never. “Bounce your eyes” from your temptations and stop comparing your life to other people’s lives.
The truth is, God intended their life for them. According to his own divine plan and reason, he allowed your life to be yours. It was specially blueprinted for you. There’s purpose and meaning to it. Focusing on other people’s lives (in covetous ways) is only going to cause you to lose track of God’s purpose for your life. Renewed focus will help breed contentment. For instance, when you examine someone else’s life and find something that you really want in it and your pride is bruised because you don’t have it, what are your natural (and sinful) human defense mechanisms? Answer: To criticize the other person for having it. Soon you’re criticizing everyone and everything. And you know what, criticism generally isn’t isolated in a person’s life, it touches all aspects, including the way you view yourself. Show me someone who is highly critical of others and I’ll show you someone who is comparing others to himself, is likely highly critical of himself, and consequently is also very unhappy. If you can stop comparing and stop criticizing, the fun little secret is…………………YOU’RE GOING TO LIKE YOURSELF MORE. And then, you’re going to think of yourself as highly as God, through Jesus’ blood, thinks of you too.