The Trap of Comparison

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When is the last time you compared yourself to another person? If you’re at all like me, it’s probably hard to pin point it; not because it has been a long time, but because I do it so often that I’ve stopped noticing it altogether. Scrolling through my Instagram feed, spending time with my friends, and even walking past strangers on the street, assessing other women’s bodies, styles, and habits and comparing them to my own comes embarrassingly easy to me. And although it might sometimes feel like it, I know I’m not the only one caught in the trap of thinking this way.

So What’s the Problem?

The Bible has a lot to say about comparison, often with the assumption that we think more highly of ourselves than others. In Matthew 7, for example, Jesus tells us not to point out the speck in our brother’s eye before addressing the log in our own. What I find interesting about most women, however, is that we are not only aware of the “logs in our eyes” so to speak, but we are so intimately acquainted with them that at times, they blind us to the “specks” in those around us. When we compare ourselves to others, I would argue that the result is more often insecurity than it is a bolstering of our pride.

At face value, that doesn’t sound like such a negative thing. Romans 12:2 tells us,

“not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

Verses like this one – not to mention the countless warnings given by God throughout the Old and New Testaments toward those who are proud and boastful – might lead us to believe that our self-critiquing attitudes are well in line with God’s will for us. After all, if humility is a spiritual virtue and our habits of comparison are routinely stripping us of our pride, then what’s the problem? Are we not effectively guarding ourselves against the greatest pitfall of comparison?

This is the point at which I’d acknowledge just how crafty our spiritual adversary can be. He is more than happy to lead us to believe that we are embracing a virtue of Christ – in this case, humility – when what we’re actually doing is missing the bigger picture of what God wants for us. Because we forget that the fruit of walking in God’s will brings about genuine, heart-satisfying joy and peace, we embrace cheap imitations of these virtues without much resistance.

What we end up with instead is a plethora of negative effects that come out of our insecurities. Jealousy, judgment, isolation, anger, pessimism, and gossip – to name a few – each result in damaging outcomes for our relationships and personal emotional and mental health. For as long as our habits of comparison are breeding these attitudes in our hearts and minds, we can be sure that we haven’t yet dodged the danger associated with the comparison disease, much less attained God’s ideal for Christ-like humility.

Differences Aren’t the Enemy

There has been a real push across social media platforms over the past few years to unite women on the common ground of our imperfections. In a lot of ways, this movement has been a huge breath of fresh air. We’ve learned and been reminded that even the most beautiful, athletic, and talented among us have insecurities and private struggles. We’ve seen and participated in campaigns like the No Makeup Selfie Challenge, which strive to challenge the standard of perfection that has long plagued our perceptions of true womanhood. We’ve applauded stretch marks and women not caring about their beach bodies with the hopes that more women will be encouraged to embrace their flaws as part of what makes them who they are. I personally believe that we’re excited by these things because it is time that we agreed on a real and attainable standard of beauty, broadening the parameters of what we consider to be admirable and praise-worthy in ourselves and others. In all of this, it seems that we’re finally learning to embrace our physical differences without losing our common ground as women.

There is a problem, though, if our inward similarities are the only avenue through which we are willing to stand in solidarity with one another. The reality is that God never intended for His daughters to be seen as one in the same. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, we see His very deliberate plan to diversify the body of Christ:

“But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body” (verses 18-20).

The main emphasis of this analogy is that our differences are more than just the ways that our physical beauty is manifested. To appreciate God’s design, we must acknowledge that we have functional differences that run deeper than our appearances.

If this realization makes you feel vulnerable, I can understand why. In our experience, differences breed comparison, and comparison leads to competition, and in competition among women, it’s rare that anyone emerges a winner. But God has an answer for these anxieties just a few verses later:

“If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body… the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honourable we bestow the greater honour” // 1 Corinthians 12:15, 22-23.

God rightly predicts that we will try to discredit our value to the body by comparing ourselves to others, and He is also well aware of our tendency to rank our abilities in terms of their perceived strength and honour (aka. value). It is so important here that we believe what God has said in response: you are a part of the body, and you are necessary and valuable to it. This truth is not subject to evaluation by comparison or competition. Neither your feelings about the role you’ve been designed to fulfill, nor any arbitrary assessment of the magnitude of your strengths can change your importance to God and the entirety of His bride, the Church.

So What is the Goal?

The final two sentences of our passage say this:

“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.” // 1 Corinthians 12:24-26

I believe these verses give us a standard of unity within diversity that is both profoundly beautiful and impossibly difficult. The first expectation – that we suffer with those in the body who suffer – is challenging enough in its own right, but the concept most at odds with my inner sin nature is that of rejoicing together with those who are honoured.

Imagine having a love so genuine and selfless that your knee-jerk response to your sister’s success was heartfelt rejoicing. Or in other words, imagine scrolling across a friend’s post about her ultra-healthy homemade dinner and feeling no stab of guilt or resentment for the ten pounds you’ve long been intending to lose. Or imagine hearing about your former classmate’s graduation and not immediately questioning your own decision to take a gap year, pause your degree to have kids, or change your major so late in the game that your four-year degree has turned into five or six. Imagine looking through your best friend’s engagement photos with a joy that wasn’t even slightly tainted by your own longing for a husband or discontentment with the relationship that you’re currently in. These are precisely the freedoms that our comparison robs from us: the freedom to claim the admiration, success, and joy of our sisters as our own.

The goal is to achieve the Bible’s standard of selfless, love-soaked community: to think of ourselves less as individuals and more as members of a body. If you’ve been following us at The Well, you will have seen this quote that we shared from Mother Teresa: “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot, together we can do great things.” If we truly believe this, we cannot continue to fight comparison by downplaying our differences, but instead, we must learn to see how much better off we are with each unique attribute our sister in Christ brings to the whole. Where I see weaknesses in myself, I ought to seek those strengths in another and praise God for knitting us together in Christ in such a way that her strengths become my own. We are so much better together than we could ever be apart, and that is exactly the way that God has intended for it to be.

Doing the Impossibly Difficult

As beautiful of an ideal as this kind of community is, I know that in my own heart I am incapable of maintaining the kind of attitude necessary for it to be a reality. If you are at all like me, and we are to have any hope of accomplishing something as impossible as this, we’re going to need to enlist the help of someone for whom nothing is impossible.

Of course, that someone is our God, who has not only proven that He is capable of the kind of love that He has called us to, but who has provided everything that we need to love in that way ourselves. Consider these truths that come straight out of God’s Word:

1. God has given us life in Jesus.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved” // Ephesians 2:4-5

2. When we accept Jesus by faith, we receive the Holy Spirit.

“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…” // Ephesians 1:13

3. Through the Holy Spirit, we are given the love of God.

“…God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” // Romans 5:5

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love…” // Galatians 5:22

4. The love of God is incompatible with envy.

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast…” // 1 Corinthians 13:4

Remarkably, the path that leads from our being dead in our sins to loving with jealousy-free love has been laid entirely by God. The most that we contribute at any point in the process is recognition of our need, surrender of our sin, and willingness to be transformed by the power of God. Let me repeat: everything that needs to be done in order for you to love with the pure love of God has already been done.

This is not to say that we don’t have the responsibility to participate with the Spirit in exercising our gifts. In Romans 12:6-8, Paul writes,

“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”

But as we carry out these acts of love, it is crucial that we remember who both the source and sustainer of these gifts truly is. Who we are and how we serve must not become a reflection of our own inherent abilities; we must always recognize that it is evidence of the goodness and sufficiency of God’s power within us.

If we are able to centre our perspective on these two truths – that love itself comes from the Spirit and that the abilities we have to prove and share that love with others are a gift given to us from God – the effects will be enormous. On the one hand, we will know where to go for daily access to the selfless love that we so desperately need. We will come to God in prayer, and He will bring about in us the fruit of His Spirit. On the other hand, we will be protected from the belief that our worth is dependent on the specifics of our strengths and weaknesses, because we know that who we are originates in the intentional purposes of God. With more confidence in the providence of God and more contentment in our God-given purpose, I believe that we have hope of seeing communities of women overcome the plague of comparison to thrive in genuinely joyful, mutually upbuilding communities for the glory of the God who made us.

To Sum Up

To all of us who compare, we are all too familiar with it’s plethora of toxic effects. At times we may feel the temptation to do away with our differences altogether in the fight against comparison, but let’s not forget that our differing strengths and weaknesses are a product of God’s wisdom and design. The ultimate casualty of comparison and our traditional methods of combatting it is community in its most beautiful form. My prayer is that we would all come to recognize our Heavenly Father as the abundantly overflowing, eagerly available well of goodness that He is so that we can begin to avail ourselves of His power to love selflessly and serve joyfully in true freedom from every bond of comparison.

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