Our Problem with Comparison

In May 2017, Time magazine reported on a British study that surveyed almost 1,500 teens and young adults about social media usage. The report determined that Instagram is hands down the worst platform for mental health. Heavy use was “associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, or the ‘fear of missing out.’” Specifically, seeing photos of friends on vacation or enjoying a night out promoted a “compare and despair” attitude.

Instagram isn’t the root of our problem with comparison. It’s just a vehicle for it. We are presented with perfectly posed portraits of lives that seem out of reach, yet we reach for them. In our heart of hearts, we believe others have it better than us. And this goes beyond the grip of social media and seeps out between cubicle walls, throughout classrooms, and across playgrounds.

Even Christians—saved by the abounding, steadfast love of God from the plight of our own sinful hearts—fall into the trap of comparison and despair. Even godly pursuits become measures for what we believe to be a successful day and a successful life. We go beyond comparing our careers or parenting styles to comparing who is the “better” Christian.

How often does she have quiet times? What time does she wake up to read her Bible? Does she have a space in her home dedicated to solitary prayer? How many books has she read? How many verses has she memorized?  Yuck!

Rather than celebrate and praise God for the fruit he is creating in our sister’s life, we stack ourselves against her and make it about us—about our own shortcomings or, maybe worse, how we think we might be doing things “better.” Either way, we are bringing her down rather than lifting her up to the Lord. Rather than being spurred on by our sister’s pursuit of God, we are cast down and feel ashamed for not being as good at pursuing him as she is.

Clearly we have a problem with comparison. We take cues from others to set the bar for what makes us whole/complete/content/joyful/successful in the various roles in our lives. We not only judge ourselves by this bar, we hold others to it as well. Our problem with comparison is complicated, multifaceted, and playing out on the battleground of our hearts. Our desire to compare ourselves to others reveals both our lack of contentment now and our homesickness for heaven. When we see other Christians who seem to have it all together and respond with envy, we struggle to find joy in our own circumstances and we are reminded of how far we are from Christlikeness. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Our hearts are complex, flawed, and in need of major restoration.

Fortunately, we have a perfect physician able to do the open heart surgery we so badly need. In Jesus’ own words, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) Let’s look at our problem with comparison and then look to God for his solution.

The Diagnosis

Medically, diseases are often discovered and rooted out by looking at the symptoms the patient has. Jesus teaches us to do this by looking at the kind of fruit found in our lives. In Matthew 7:17, he explains that “every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.”

This begs the question: when you linger over a friend’s Instagram post or hear about her promotion or see her minute-by-minute homeschool schedule, how do you respond? Do you feel worse about yourself and your circumstances, resulting in jealousy or envy? Do you feel better about how your life is shaping up, resulting in pride? Can you process past the wall of your gut reaction (and possibly your emotional flare up) to put your finger on the pulse of your heart? Can you see the deep need for God to intervene and do that transformative surgery within you?

Believing that there is something better out there—that someone else’s grass is greener—is not a new phenomenon. Finding contentment in the life God has given us was challenged at the beginning of time when God created the first humans and the serpent whispered lies to our first mother. In convincing Eve to eat fruit from the one tree God had forbidden her, the evil one tempts her: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5).

And here we stand today, no different from sweet Eve believing the lie that her good God might be holding out on her. We look to our earthly identities (e.g. worker, mother, wife, hobbyist, volunteer, influencer) so that our eyes might be opened and we would be like God. And to make matters worse, we compare ourselves to one another in these secondary identities. Rather than embrace our humanity and humble ourselves as creations of an all powerful God, we evaluate ourselves and others by our own standards of completion and wholeness. We define what it means to be successful in our day and age, rather than looking to God to provide us with ultimate joy and fulfillment.

The Cure

So how does God do the heart surgery that transforms us more into the image of Christ? This change happens through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He must uproot the lies that produce the bad fruit in our hearts and replace them with truths able to produce good fruit reflective of our new nature as children of God. And these truths are found in Scripture. Being armed with these truths allows us to be participants in the sanctification process, able to speak directly to our deceiving thoughts. For example,

Lie: God is holding out on me.
Truth: God is a good father who provides perfectly.
And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)

Lie: I have to keep striving for more. I can never rest.
Truth: I am secure in Jesus Christ and can rest in him.
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13–14)

Lie: My happiness is more important than loving others.
Truth: God first loved us.
God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:16–19)

Lie: I am alone. No one understands what I’m going through.
Truth: Jesus knows my loneliness. His work on the cross makes me a member of God’s family.
For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18)

“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:11–14)

Come As You Are

Recognizing our problem with comparison and seeing its cure should not leave us feeling hopeless or overwhelmed. On the contrary, we should come to the Lord just as we are, laying these shortcomings bare for him to work on in us. Be encouraged by the words of the beautiful song “Come As You Are” by Shane & Shane:

Come out of sadness from wherever you’ve been
Come broken-hearted, let rescue begin
Come find your mercy, oh sinner come kneel
Earth has no sorrow that heaven can’t heal
Earth has no sorrow that heaven can’t heal
So lay down your burdens, lay down your shame
All who are broken, lift up your face
O wanderer come home, you’re not too far
So lay down your hurt, lay down your heart
Come as you are

And above all, let us “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) Rather than compare ourselves to each other for measures of success or wholeness, we ought to lock arms and pursue Christ together. Let us pursue peace among ourselves and encourage one another. This race is not meant to be run alone.

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:16-18, emphasis mine)