Comparison comes as naturally to us as eating, breathing, laughing, weeping. From our youngest days we begin to compare ourselves to others and quickly find the old adage to be true: Comparison is the enemy of joy. Though we so readily compare ourselves with others, we discover that this fosters a deep unhappiness. What promises joy actually delivers misery.
The reason is that comparison is intrinsically competitive, so that we don’t really want to be merely pretty, but prettier than the other person; we don’t really want to be merely wealthy, but wealthier than he is; we don’t really want to be merely successful, but more successful than the other person. No follower count is high enough until it is higher than hers, no church big enough until it is bigger than his. If we fail to get the things our hearts desire we grow in envy, but if we do get them we grow in pride. Our comparison is never rewarded with contentment.
Even in our Christian lives we can be prone to comparison. We can judge ourselves righteous by comparing ourselves to others’ depravity, we can judge ourselves faithful by comparing ourselves to others’ sinfulness, we can judge ourselves committed by comparing ourselves to others’ apathy. We can become like the Pharisee Jesus introduced in a parable—the one who went to the temple to pray and said, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men”—especially like that traitorous tax collector who stood nearby. With such an attitude it is little wonder that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”
Yet if comparison is most naturally the enemy of joy, it can supernaturally become its ally. However, comparison can only become an ally when we use it to compare ourselves to the right standard and if we do so for the right reason. It can only become an ally when we compare ourselves to Jesus out of a longing to be more like him. The way to grow in holiness is not to compare ourselves to other people, but to compare ourselves to the Savior.
If you are at a theme park and want to ride the rollercoasters, you need to be a certain height. It doesn’t matter if you’re taller than anyone else—all that matters is if your head comes up to the top of their measuring tape. The Pharisee fell into the universal temptation of judging himself a good man by comparing himself to people he considered worse. But that’s like trying to ride the coasters by saying “I’m taller than this other person!” That doesn’t matter because that’s not the right measure. What matters is if you come up to the mark.
Similarly, we love to compare ourselves to other people because it’s a comparison we can easily win. We only need to look around long enough to find someone who is worse, and that’s never hard to do. But it doesn’t matter if we are holier than the person who is next to us or the person who is on the TV screen. What matters is if we are as holy as Jesus, for he is the one who perfectly demonstrated how to live an unblemished life, how to love the Lord with his whole heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love his neighbor as himself. When we compare ourselves to him we will always be confronted and challenged—we will see our shortcomings, we will repent of them, and we will take up the challenge to be more and more conformed to his image. It’s a comparison we will always lose, yet instead of growing in envy and pride, we will only ever grow in humility and the godliness that it fosters.