Comparison Is Not the Thief of Joy
Comparison isn’t the thief of joy.
Helping my seven-year-old write a compare-and-contrast essay on puppies and kittens is like a jaunt into the human psyche. We educate our kids so that they’re really good at articulating what’s the same and what’s different. We make sure they can evaluate all the ways a puppy measures up to a kitten. But when they notice a child in a wheelchair or a figure skating man who’s acting like a girl, we clam up and wish they hadn’t noticed any of it. And once they start drawing comparisons with themselves, we do more than clam up; we call it sin.
If Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim is true, that “comparison is the thief of joy,” then it seems we’re all comparing and contrasting our happiness away.
Roosevelt is clearly onto something. Head over to Pinterest or Instagram or Facebook, and you’ll see a thousand posts memorializing his proverb. Listen to Christian talks, sermons, and podcasts, and you will start to think that this little saying is God’s — all that’s missing is chapter and verse. The solution seems plain then: stop doing that. Stop measuring yourself up against others. Stop noticing the discrepancies; it will only lead to misery.
The problem is that we can’t stop comparing. Comparison is a fundamental part of being human, because it’s how we acquaint ourselves with reality. The very first thing Adam did when he saw Eve was to write his own brief compare and contrast essay. “She’s like me! Only different!”
Not only is it impossible to opt out of comparing, but God actually wants us to do it.
Comparing Is Necessary
Comparing is how we discover what holiness is. It’s how we see what is set apart as distinct from us. It’s also how we know what we ought to be like. To abandon comparing is to abandon our understanding of God, and of ourselves. What we need to do is train ourselves how to compare properly, not cut ourselves off from the necessity of comparison.
If we took all the measuring — the comparing and contrasting — out of the Bible, we wouldn’t have much of a book left. God’s laws and instructions fundamentally help us to see what we are and are not, what we should and shouldn’t be. They also help us see how we measure up to others, so that we can either imitate them or do the opposite of them. This is not sin — it is essential to growth, and health, as Christians.
My concern is that, far from letting comparison fuel our growth in godliness, we actually have trained Christians that it’s good to ignore the ways someone else might be doing something well, so that they can spare themselves the discomfort of how they might not measure up. With this logic, bad feelings about my situation or sin problem are the real issue — that’s what must be avoided. When we admonish ourselves or others to stop comparing, we may actually be insulating ourselves from reality.
Of course, we have to evaluate if the comparisons we’re making are real or not. We shouldn’t compare our real life (the house with actual people in it and sticky faces and hair-raising smells) with the fake life of someone we’ve never met on Instagram (the tasteless, odorless, iocane-powder version). That’s a false comparison. Remember, our goal is figuring out what’s real and true, not inoculating ourselves to it through make-believe images.
Make Comparisons Fuel Joy
What if, rather than pretending not to notice that our friend is excelling in homemaking and parenting (while we’re scraping by), we honored her by giving thanks to God for her obedience, her diligence, and her example of Christ that we can follow? What if we started observing her more closely, making more comparisons rather than less, so that we could tease out the principles of godliness present in her life and do likewise?
What if, rather than smugly disdaining the mom who can’t get her act together, we offered her a better way? What if we actually said with Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” not because we think we’re better than she is, but because God has really done something profound in us and we’re confident he can do it in her, too (1 Corinthians 11:1)?
Leading our comparisons in the right direction — away from envy, pride, covetousness, and self-pity, and toward Christlike imitation and the fear of God — will turn us into better parents, mentors, and friends.
Parenting Children Through Comparison
Faithful parenting means discipling our children into reality. Many parents balk when their kids make observations about themselves and their siblings like, “I’m not good at school. Eliza’s good at school.” We rush in to say, “Oh no, honey! You are good at school!” But, are they? Does it even matter to us as parents if what they’ve said is accurate or not? It should.
If our child is doing poorly in school and their sibling is doing great, we shouldn’t pretend like that’s not the case. If we do that, we will be training them to ignore what’s real. We will be training them that true speech is too scary or too difficult for us to handle and, therefore, too difficult for them to handle. We will give them the impression that what’s different about them is so scary and hard to deal with that it’s unspeakable. We shove reality out of the picture so that we can coddle them — while really we’re coddling ourselves. We ignore deficiencies as if they were too much to bear.
But what if we acknowledged that what they’re saying is true, at least in part? Their sister is doing well in school and they are struggling. Then, we can shepherd them to give thanks to God for how he’s made their sister, and ask God for the discipline and grace to help them do better. And while they struggle, we can teach them to ask God for the contentment in the areas that are hard for them, and give thanks for the particular strengths he’s given them that are different than how he’s gifted their sibling.
We won’t be able to do any of that if we haven’t asked God for the thick gospel-skin that helps us live in a world of differences and similarities, without making it all about a narcissistic insecurity that someone, somewhere has more than me, or is working harder than me, or is doing better than me. That is a sickly way for Christians to live! In Christ, we have it all — we dare not dishonor him by our self-pity (Romans 8:32).
Differences Are God’s Design
The Bible assumes some will have more faith, and some less. Some will have this gift and another that gift. Some will be rich and some will be poor. Some beautiful, some homely. Some with lovely homes, some with drab. There will be children with disabilities and children without. There are Gentiles and Jews, tribes and tongues, men and women.
The Bible even assumes that some will be more Christlike and mature than others. Noticing these things isn’t a sin, but a gift, and it need not lead to the evaporation of our joy, but can be the water for its growth.
Holy imitation isn’t about cramming ourselves into another’s mold. It’s about recognizing the Christlike principles another has applied to their life and figuring out how to apply them to ours. It’s not about making all of our voices sound the same, but getting us all to learn the same song of the Lamb who was slain. It’s not about making us all identical, but about training all of us, amid our diversity, to walk together in the light of Christ.
Originally written by Abigail Dodds for Desiring God. Used with permission.