The Perils of Comparison
Love does not envy or boast, and is not proud
1 Corinthians 13 / Luke 18:9-14 / Matthew 7:1-6
We all do it: comparing ourselves to others. It is in our nature, psychologists tell us. We can’t help but look to other human beings and see them and ourselves differently in light of what we think we see. Like me, you might have memories of childhood where you look at the star football player and long to be as good as they are, knowing that actually you probably never will be. Or maybe you had that person who had all the good looks, who found maths easy, and was constantly surrounded by adoring friends and fans. What did you feel about them and about yourself after looking at them? I guess most of us didn’t naturally come away with positive thoughts, did we? You’re probably like me and felt something like envy, wanting what they have. But comparison is understandable. We do it without being conscious of what we’re doing most of the time. So what can we do with this? If it is beyond our control, why do I bring it up? Well, while we cannot stop comparing ourselves to others, we can make decisions about what we do next. We can make a choice about what I do with the feelings and thoughts that arise when I see someone who is better than me, or even someone I think I am better than. And it’s important we think about this stuff. Because comparison, and negative responses as a result, can become corrosive in our relationships. It can start to rot the foundations, to make the supporting structures shake, and all the other scary metaphors for a building that is about to collapse. Paul takes aim at this temptation, and in a series of negative examples he tells us: love does not envy, is not proud, and does not boast. These three temptations are potential fruits from comparing ourselves to others, and Paul urges us to contemplate them so we might not fall into the trap. Love always longs to build up, to nourish, to have good relationships, to strengthen ourselves and others. Envy, boasting, and pride are risky emotions that can turn toxic to those kinds of relationships. So what is the wise way of dealing with all this?
Envy, boasting, and pride are risky emotions that can turn toxic
Jesus offers us some wisdom. In our first reading (Luke 18:9-14), he imagines the situation of a tax collector and a Pharisee going to the temple to pray. The Pharisee is proud of himself. And he starts boasting to God: thank you I’m not like that kind of man. The tax collector, on the other hand, wasn’t looking at the Pharisee at all; he was only interested in his own heart, and he wanted to be honest before God. He admits his own failings, and Jesus tells us which man went away justified that day, and it wasn’t the Pharisee. Do you see the danger of comparison? The Pharisee looks at the tax collector and sees a man who is worthy of his contempt. And then he looks back at himself and is quite pleased! I’m nothing like this other man; I am better. But is he really? Jesus wants to pop that bubble and introduce some humility. He wants us to pay attention to what we so easily do when we compare ourselves to others. How different that story could have been. What if, when seeing this tax collector, the Pharisee asked himself some questions: what led this man to this place in his life? What is he feeling about his choices? Is he seeking to put things right? Could I be like him if my life turned out differently? Those kinds of questions interrupt the poison of comparison. They invite us into a loving response rather than one which is destructive and judgemental.
And with that word ‘judgemental’ we come to another teaching (Matthew 7:1-6). It’s a famous one. Judge not lest ye be judged, in old English! Here Jesus uses the image of the splinter and the plank of wood. If you don’t deal with your own plank of wood, you’ll never be ready to help others deal with their slinter. In the process of dealing with your own shortcomings you will learn to accept the love of God, the mercy of God. And only then will you be ready to speak into other people’s lives. There is nothing more dangerous than someone who is ignorant of their own faults trying to fix other people. Judgement of others is a dangerous path to tread. Jesus cautions us against it. His advice is to judge ourselves, to allow God’s mercy to deal with our issues, and only then will we be safe to offer wisdom and help to others. If we try to compare ourselves to others with a plank in our eye, our comparison might not be all that accurate. We might see them wrongly; we might see ourselves wrongly.
The three perils of comparison, envy, pride, boasting, are destructive to us in so many ways. But ultimately, it pulls at the threads that bind us together in relationship. When we allow ourselves to be envious, proud, or to boast, we are misjudging ourselves and others. And that is really sad. That way of thinking can make us be really hard on ourselves. I should be better than I am; I’m not worthy of anyone’s kindness; all kinds of ways we can feel cut down by comparing ourselves to others. But we also misjudge others. We assume we know them, without seeing all the things they struggle with, things they have experienced in life, and so on.
All you need is love!
So what’s the way out of these unhelpful comparisons? How do we avoid envy, boasting, and pride? You won’t be surprised by my answer: love. And we come back to Jesus for the most excellent formulation of love: love your God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. For me encapsulated here is the way out of the perils of comparing ourselves to others. It begins by pondering the God who is love. That means remembering that when God speaks to you, does things in your life, it is all coloured by love. God’s love is for you, whatever you think about yourself. God is on your side. When we can accept that we are accepted, we are on the journey away from envy, boasting, and pride, and towards a true knowledge of who I really am. Then we are invited to ask what loving our neighbour might look like. Instead of judging them by what we see, we are invited to become curious, to ask ourselves who our neighbour is, what kind of life-experiences have they been through, do they struggle with a sense of unworthiness, do they carry things that make their life difficult? By becoming curious in this way, we stop ourselves from being envious, or thinking we are better than others. Rather, we see their humanity, and offer love and grace instead of judgement and condemnation. Then, finally, we are called to love others from a place of loving ourselves. If we can be generous with others, perhaps we can be generous with ourselves. Perhaps we, like the tax collector, can go away from honest prayer truly knowing that we are forgiven and loved by God. Perhaps we can stop thinking that we’re not enough, that our value is found by being like other people. Perhaps we can love ourselves as we are, accept all our limitations and faults, and trust that God is at work making us more alive, more like Jesus every day.
Love is the glue that binds us together. It is the energy that makes our relationships grow and flourish. It is the balm that heals us when we’re hurt or when we hurt others. Love, when put into action, undoes the perils of comparison and brings us to somewhere much more healthy and joyous.
So, friends, let me invite you to a practice. When you notice yourself making comparisons, pause for a moment. Pay attention to what you feel and think. What stories are you telling yourself in that moment, about others and about yourself? Then think about love: God’s love for you, your calling to love your neighbour, and a love for yourself. How might love be asking you to respond differently? Can you pause and think of something life-giving to say or do? Can you give the other person the benefit of the doubt? If you can, then you might be setting yourself and them free from the perils of comparison.