The human ability to detect differences is astounding! In an instant, we can discern how a person feels by the slightest fall of their eyebrow or upward curve of their lip. We can distinguish between thousands of colors. We can feel the smallest scratch on that smart phone we just paid too much for.
When used correctly our ability to notice what is different protects us from danger and can inspire us to tremendous growth (1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Pet. 5:3; 1 Tim. 4:12; Heb. 13:7; 1 Cor. 16:15-18). However, our ability to see differences has a dark side. It can drag us into the comparison trap.
Today, we can compare ourselves to others more than ever! Various forms of media confront us with the looks, skills, experiences and possessions of people around the world that are unattainable to most of us. These constant comparisons can lead to a deep sense of despair. Others exploit the platforms of comparison to show others how great they are. As a result, comparing ourselves to others can be more than a trap, it can become our prison.
The problem is we slip into the comparison trap without even knowing it. This happened one day to king Saul. David, his newly appointed commander, returned home from a successful campaign against the Philistines. The people poured into the streets to sing songs of joy to the king. However, the lyrics of their anthem struck a dissonant cord with Saul’s self-esteem. They sang,
“Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” … this refrain galled him.” (1 Sam. 18:7).
Saul didn’t think about the security of the nation, the skill or David or the kindness of the women. Every good thing was hidden behind the thick cloud of comparison. So, the next day Saul tried to pin David to the wall with a spear.
Harmful comparison has a way of spoiling relationships, because envy sneaks in. Comparison becomes the sin of envy when we cannot appreciate the beauty, happiness or success of another person without immediately connecting it to us. Then resentment seeps in and anger begins to boil until our relationship is cooked!
In addition, comparisons can cause us to be obsessed with our limitations. Maybe David was a better solider than Saul. So what? There will always be someone thinner, richer, smarter and better looking that you. Get used to it! If someone is good, that doesn’t make you bad. Don’t allow comparisons to cause you to focus on your limitations. God wonderfully gifted you to do what only you can do. So, do the best with what you have (Matt. 25:14-30). Otherwise the comparison trap will drive you into a fruitless life of bitter seclusion.
The problem of comparison starts early in the story of Saul. The people said, “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations” (1 Sam. 8:19-20). Later, Samuel calls this request a “rejection of God” (1 Sam. 10:19). They wanted to be like the other nations rather than God’s nation. This exposes another problem with making comparisons. It often leads to sinful compromise!
We compare ourselves to what others have and we compromise our commitment to God to get it. How constant and subtle is this temptation!? We crave what others possess and slip into greed. We love what someone wears and fall into sensuality. We long for the fun others experience and drop into hedonism.
We remove the bait of the comparison trap when we see the danger of evaluating things by external appearances. God is not so impressed with the wrapping paper as we are. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
The next time you are so impressed with someone stop and ask, “Why do I find this so appealing?” If the answer reveals a fleshly appeal, say to yourself, “I value the condition of the heart, the destiny of my soul, and the pleasure of my Lord.” Then the temptation to compromise will begin to melt away.
The most dangerous aspect of the comparison trap is it makes us arrogant. One of the first things Saul did as king was, “set up a monument to his own honor” (1 Sam. 15:12). Saul carefully crafted his “news feed” to show that he was a little better than you (1 Sam. 15:30).
We fall into the comparison trap when we gain our self-worth by thinking we are better than others. We brag, boast and post to be known and admired. The comparison game can cause us to be over-impressed with ourselves and blind to our defects.
Jesus told a story about a man who arrogantly compared himself to others and thought, “I’m really something special” (Luke 18:11). But another man compared himself to God and prayed, “Have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). When we compare ourselves to others, we are tempted to be proud. When we compare ourselves to God, we see ourselves more clearly.
The next time you are tempted to think, “I’m better than them,” remind yourself, “God knows the real me; the selfish, ugly, hurtful me. Thank you, God for your mercy. Help me share with to others.”
Defining our self-image by comparing ourselves to others is a dangerous game. It is a path filled with despair, deception and pride. It’s time to get out of the comparison game and find your identity in Christ. In him, you’ll find a love beyond comparison.
“Let all that you do be done in love.” (1 Cor. 16:14)
Jonathan: Another Response to Comparison
Saul’s son, Jonathan presents us with an alternative to harmful comparison (see 1 Samuel 18:1-5). Jonathan saw David’s good qualities, and instead of becoming envious and pushing David away, like this father. He celebrated David’s skill and pulled him close as a friend. Jonathan was the rightful heir to the throne, but he gave David his robes, sword, bow and belt. He humbly and happily said, “Surely you are God’s king. I gladly give up my place to you.” The path out of harmful comparisons is to rejoice in the good God does in others and support them in the good they do.
By the way, like Jonathan, we have seen Gods’ choice to be King, Jesus. We humbly and happily yield the throne of our lives to him saying, “Jesus, you are worthy to be my King.”
Comparison in Corinth
The comparison trap ambushed the unity of the church in Corinth. God gave the church several spiritual gifts to reveal and confirm the message from God.
The Arrogant. However, some gifts were more prized than others. Those who had the highly prized gifts felt like they were better than others (1 Cor. 12:21-26).
The Envious. The church sailed on the winds of their greatness. Others did not have the highly prized gifts and felt they didn’t matter (1 Cor. 12:15-20). “Who cares if I’m there. I don’t matter.”
Paul’s solution to the comparison trap was empathy, “there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:25-26). If we did more caring and less comparing, we’d have more community.
Comparison, the Tool of False Teachers
Paul wrote, “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12). Paul was writing about the nature of false teachers who “pat themselves on the back.” Who give each other “likes.” They think that since they have so many fans, they must be significant. Paul says, “That is foolish! They are self-deceived! Our true “measure” comes from God, not others.
“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal. 1:10).