The Comparison Trap

Pastor Craig Carter

We just wrapped up our 40-day spiritual growth campaign based on Rick Warren’s bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life. In it, we tried to answer life’s most important question: What on Earth Am I Here For?

As we seek to live a purpose driven life, we need to be aware of two barriers that may hold us back in our spiritual growth and development. Rick Warren describes them as “traps” Christians can easily fall into and he devotes the final two chapters of this book to them.

These traps are envy and people-pleasing. Today we’ll look at the first one – which involves comparing ourselves to others. Then next week we’ll look at the other trap of trying to win the approval of others.

The poster child for the danger posed by the comparison trap is the Apostle Peter. You recall that in the hour of Christ’s greatest need, Peter denied Jesus three times. But since ours is the God of second chances, in one of His resurrection appearances, Christ confronted Peter beside the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus asked him, “Do you love me?,” Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you,” and Christ gave him the directive, “Then feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17 NIV)

By repeating this pattern three times, Peter’s three denials were canceled out, the slate was wiped clean, and he was given a fresh start. Jesus then continued the conversation, saying…

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (John 21:18-19 NIV)

After predicting how Peter’s life would end — a martyr’s death — the Lord made Peter’s redemption complete with the words, “Follow me!”

We would have expected Peter to have been ecstatic about being restored into the community of faith and re-established as its leader. But instead of responding affirmatively or simply keeping his mouth shut, Peter followed this course of action…

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:20-22 NIV)

Don’t you cringe as you watch Peter turn his attention to someone else and hear him speak those words, “Lord, what about him?”

If I’d have been there, I think I’d have run over and tackled Peter or put my hand over his mouth. But it’s his impertinence that makes Peter so attractive to most of us. We can readily identify with his innate ability to say the most inappropriate thing at the most inopportune time (a talent he displayed time and time again).

In this case, rather than crying out in praise and gratitude for Christ’s forgiveness, Peter is preoccupied with the fate of someone else.

Isn’t that often true for us as well?

Like Peter we spend a great deal of time comparing ourselves and our lot in life to others. This starts in childhood. Example: Two children receive a piece of cake, then one protests, “His is bigger!” And continues throughout life: A driver is stopped and ticketed for speeding, but instead of acknowledging his own guilt, he protests, “I was just going with the flow of traffic.”

Jesus’ reply to Peter may be helpful for all who dare to compare: “…What is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:22 NIV)

In other words, “Don’t worry about him, mind your own business!”

How many times have we heard that line from our parents, teachers, bosses, and friends? But despite their warnings, we continue to look at other people and compare our lives and situations to theirs.

Rick Warren claims this is a trap that can keep us from living a purpose driven life. He says comparing ourselves to others leads to one of two negative reactions: pride or envy (and both are sins).

When we think we’re better off than somebody else, we become prideful. When we think others are doing better than we are, we become envious. And here’s what Rick Warren says about envy: “Envy infects everything inside you and affects everything around you.”

When we think we don’t measure up to others, we experience frustration, fatigue, and a sense of failure. But those inward feelings always manifest themselves outwardly in destructive behaviors that result in competition, conflict, and confusion.

So comparing ourselves to others is indeed a trap…and a dangerous one at that. In the remainder of this message, I want to identify several ways that we are tempted to make comparisons and describe the inherent dangers associated with each one. They will reveal the value of Jesus’ admonition to keep our eyes off others and on Him so we can live the way He intends us to live

Here are some ways in which we are tempted to compare ourselves to others…

1) SIN

This tendency manifests itself in two primary ways.

On the one hand, we sometimes compare the abundance of sin in our own lives with the apparent lack of sin in others. This sort of comparison causes us to resist God’s call to ministry and mission because we feel unworthy. We say to ourselves, “When I get my life together like so-and-so, then I’ll help with the Children’s Ministry, serve as a greeter, or go on a mission trip.” This perspective ignores the reality that “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” (Romans 3:23 NLT)

While some of us have sins that are more readily visible, we are all sinful creatures – saved by grace. If God only called perfect people to serve Him, He’d have no one available to advance His purposes in the world.

On the other extreme, we more often compare the sin in our own lives with people who seemingly have more. We’ve all done that, haven’t we? We look at folks around us and conclude, “Compared to so-and-so, I’m not that bad.” So we figure we might just get into heaven on the basis of not being as bad as other people. That’s a dangerous perspective to have because the Bible tells us, “The wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23a NLT)

Notice no degrees of sin are mentioned (i.e. serious vs. petty; major vs. minor). Nor does amount matter (i.e. a little vs. a lot). The consequences of all sin is eternal separation from God.

I once heard someone say to another person, “You’re so far behind, you think you’re in first place, don’t you?” That applies to how many of us view our spiritual condition, doesn’t it?

As we run the race of life, we need to stop comparing our sins (few or many, great or small) to those of others, and look to Jesus instead.

“The free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23 NLT)

Jesus is the only One who can take away our sins, so we need to follow Him.

2) SUFFERING

Whenever pain and disappointments arise in our lives, the first question we inevitably ask is, “Why me?” The second inquiry closely follows, “Why not so-and-so?”

Suffering causes us to look at others, especially those who are enjoying smooth sailing, and wonder, “Why can’t I be like them?”

If we’ve lost a parent, we only see those who have theirs. If we are sick, we focus on those who are healthy. If we are lonely or depressed, we compare our miserable life with those who are happy and blessed. The truth is: suffering is universal and we usually don’t see the whole picture.

No matter when and how we are suffering, there are always those who are better off and those who are worse off…but that is not what is important. Instead of comparing our situation to that of others, we need to mind our own business and look to Jesus. We are then reminded of the horrendous things He endured – all on our behalf.

Then, we can take Peter’s words to heart: “Be very glad, for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory revealed…” (1 Peter 4:13 NLT)

Our own suffering becomes a means of following Jesus and sharing in His life. Suffering helps us achieve our primary goal of becoming like Christ.

How you and I respond to suffering is ultimately a matter of trust. Comparing our lot in life to others is the symptom, but doubting God is the disease. If life seems unfair, it’s because of sin, not because of God.

Think of Jesus on the Cross: it wasn’t fair for Him to have to die for my sins and yours, but He did! When we compare our suffering to His, it pales in comparison and we learn to trust the Lord no matter what.

3) SUCCESS

This is the kind of comparison that most commonly finds its way into our lives. That’s because we live in a society that attempts to place everyone on a certain rung of the ladder of success.

Perhaps more than any other type of comparison, this is the most dangerous one. For one, it ignores our uniqueness as human beings. We are all “masterpieces,” made exactly as God has desired us to be; He determines our gifts and talents, not us. To compare our lot in life with others calls into question God’s judgment.

Another reason this form of comparison is dangerous is because it keeps us from enjoying the blessings we have been given. There is always someone who lives in a bigger house, drives a fancier car, and has a higher paying job…but there are plenty of folks who have less!

Instead of always looking up the ladder of success, sometimes we need to take a glance downward. That change in perspective will cause us to become thankful and content.

The writer of Ecclesiastes was right when he said, “It is better to enjoy what we have than to always want something else.” (Ecclesiastes 6:9 CEV)

Instead of asking, “Why don’t I get what they have?,” we should be asking, “Why do I get what I do have?” Life is all grace and a gift from God from beginning to end. Comparing ourselves to others leads to envy and the antidote is to enjoy the successes of others.

As Paul suggests, “Rejoice with those who rejoice!” (Romans 12:15 NIV) If we are only happy when good things happen to us, we are going to be unhappy much of our lives. But if we learn to enjoy others’ victories too, we’ll always have something to be happy about.

Instead of looking at where others are, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I following Jesus?” If I am, comparisons are not needed because there is no greater success than being obedient to Christ.

4) SPIRITUAL Experiences

Many Christians spend an inordinate amount of time and energy comparing their spiritual experiences, along with their growth and development, with other believers. “Why does she talk about hearing from God, and I never do? Why are his prayers answered, and mine aren’t? Why has the Lord set her free, but I’m still addicted?”

Those sort of comparisons call God’s sovereignty into question. They are really insults and suggest the Lord doesn’t know what He’s doing. We’re essentially saying, “God, I’d do a better job than you, I’d get it right!”

Instead, we simply need to follow Jesus where He leads us…trusting that He knows the correct path for us to take to get to where He wants us to be. Remember: We aren’t all given the same “race” to run. Where He takes anyone else really isn’t any of our business, is it?

5) SACRIFICE

This was the type of comparison made by Peter in His encounter with the Risen Christ. When told that his life would be required for the sake of the gospel, he wanted to know, “What about John? Is he going to be martyred also?” But Jesus made it clear that wasn’t important for Peter, only his faithfulness was.

For most of us, this type of comparison is not a temptation because the whole concept of sacrifice is foreign to us. We know little about it and have experienced little of it. But the way of Christianity is the way of the Cross, or sacrifice.

Jesus stated it simply, “If anyone wants to follow me, they must give up the things they want. They must be willing even to give up their lives to follow me.” (Matthew 16:24 EXB)

If we’re not making sacrifices for Christ, we’re probably not following Christ.

While the same level of sacrifice is not required of every believer, some level is. We discover what it is for us, not by looking at others but by keeping our attention focused on Christ and listening to His voice.

You and I cannot follow Jesus in trust and obedience with our eyes on others.

All types of human comparison must be avoided because they are a trap that is a real and present danger to us as God’s people. They divert our attention away from Jesus and place it elsewhere.

As Rick Warren points out, they can be thought of as “detours” that always lead to “dead ends.” So it is essential that we heed Jesus’ words, “…what is that to you? As for you, follow me” (John 20:22 NLT)

Jesus points to each of us as His would-be followers and says, “I want you…I want you!”

He also instructs us today as He did Peter long ago, “Mind your own business and don’t worry about anybody else.” Don’t compare, but dare to follow Jesus…wherever He leads because Christ and Christ alone enables us to live a purpose driven life