My friend was one of the best jazz saxophonists in town. That is, until he moved to New York City. There is a saying among musicians that when you move to New York, you soon find out that “the subway buskers are better than you.” When my friend arrived in Jazz Mecca, he soon discovered that he wasn’t the best, or even close to being the best saxophone player in town. He was a little above average, and that shook him.
Whether it’s playing a better sax solo, scoring more goals, having “a better bod,” a bigger paycheck, a nicer home, better behaved children, or more Twitter followers — most of us find ourselves, sooner or later, stuck in the comparison trap. Even as I write this, my wife is telling me about an amazing sermon she heard yesterday from some other preacher, who is incredibly gifted. I hear the click of the trap, and I am caught again. What is the bait that lures me in every time? Pride.
C.S. Lewis said it well:
“Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man... It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.” (Mere Christianity)
Of course, there is a kind of comparison that is good. To return to the musical analogy, when you are surrounded by musicians who are better than you are, it serves to sharpen and challenge you to rise to a new level of excellence. It is the same in our Christian lives: we are called to “imitate the faith” of our spiritual leaders (Hebrews 13:7), and this requires comparing ourselves — at least in some sense — with those who are more advanced in godliness than we are.
However, all too often, the comparison we engage in is not for the purpose of growing in godliness but gloating in our own perceived superiority over others. This kind of comparison is a trap of pride. Or, to use another metaphor, it is like an unseen tapeworm that feeds on success and at the same time weakens its host. When we are doing better than others, we experience a counterfeit joy that is fleeting and fragile. When others are doing better than we are, we feel worthless. Either way, we are not free.
The biblical antidote to pride is, of course, humility. To quote C.S. Lewis again, “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less” (Mere Christianity). This is only possible when we have something — or Someone — to think about that is more interesting and compelling and wonderful than we are.
In the Gospel of John, there is a conversation between John the Baptist and his disciples that reveals the nature of true humility and how to escape the comparison trap. His disciples saw the crowds going to Jesus and were concerned about John’s dwindling ministry in comparison to Jesus’ growing popularity.
“And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness — look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him” (John 3:26)
Consider John’s response: “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (v. 27).
First, John recognized that his calling was a gift from the hand of a wise and sovereign God, and he was content with that, even if it meant that the crowds would eventually go elsewhere.
Second, he understood that his calling was about Jesus and not about him:
“You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete’” (v. 28-29).
Third, John understood that as the forerunner preparing the way for Christ, his ministry was destined to fade in its importance: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (v. 30). John could handle this, because his joy was not in his own popularity, but in pointing others to the glory of Jesus. This is the key to humility, and the key to breaking free from the trap of comparison. As we pursue excellence in our talents and abilities, our chief aim should be to draw attention God's goodness. Our calling isn’t to be the best. It’s to lift Jesus up as the greatest One of all.
Are you comparing your calling to others? This can cause you to feel either smug (thinking of yourself as more effective) or insecure (thinking that you are not as skilled or effective as others). If so, take these steps:
- Confess your pride to God.
- Thank God for the unique gifts and calling he has given you.
- Celebrate the unique gifts and callings he has given those around you.
- Spend some time praying and thanking God for those you might envy.