As of 2023, the world’s population is 7.9 billion. Being one of those 7.9 billion people, it is easy to believe that each of our times here on this planet will be notably unique and different, and that’s true. And yet, we all have a commonality – what some call the “shared human experience,” a term that describes the intangible aspects of human existence. Things like: the physical, the social, and the emotional. We will all engage with those aspects of existence on some level during our lives.
We should also add that we are all fallen beings — we are broken in how we view the world and how we experience it. One of the ways that this manifests is through our instinctual bent toward comparison. To compare ourselves with others is part of the human experience. Consider all the silly ways we keep score: education level, relationship status, career satisfaction, physical abilities, clothing styles, house size, social media highlights, how much we suffer, grades in school, and what our W-2s say at tax time.
To be caught in these cycles of comparison never leads to anything good. As the old saying goes, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” After some mindless scrolling on social media, what might begin as a pretty benign thought of, “What a fun trip! I’m genuinely happy for them” devolves into “They always seem to travel, I wish I could have those experiences,” and from there bottoming out at, “Gosh, what a life they live. Why can’t I live such a life? I wish I had more money and time to do all the things.” During these cycles, there are feelings and emotions that lead to a hard and cold heart.
We see some of these emotions emerge in Scripture as well. In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain kills Abel because God was pleased with Abel’s offering and not his. A few chapters later, we see another family feud take place between Joseph and his brothers because of their father’s seemingly biased love. Later, King Saul is jealous of David because he’s being praised for his military success. In Luke 15, the older brother compares his dad’s love for him and his younger brother and gets angry because of it. The list goes on.
The emotions displayed in these passages are so intense and so severe that one person takes the life of another, or at least wants to, which is just as bad.
Digging deeper, we often find the culprit underneath the surface – pride — this ancient and unavoidable inner brokenness that pits us against others and makes competitions out of the most menial of things. Pride says, “I know best. I am the best. I am capable. I deserve the best.” But it doesn’t always lead to outright boastfulness. It can crush us too when we realize that others have more than us or have accomplished more than us.
When it comes to spirituality we might say, “Thank God that I don’t deal with that sin like that other poor, less mature person is,” or we might say, “Why do I struggle with this thing that my friend never seems to deal with? Why am I such a terrible person?”
Anyone else having moments of yuck yet?
Take a moment to consider the emotions you might feel when playing these comparison games. I often experience envy, jealousy, resentment, and anxiety — all of these mixed with sadness because these are not emotions that I want to be experiencing. When I feel them building up within me, I feel stuck. I feel shame because it’s hard to admit it out loud when I’m feeling them. I want to hide and not share with others.
Proverbs 14:30 says, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” Envy produces a visceral response. Turns out comparison isn’t just the thief of joy, it’s the thief of any and all positive emotions.
Yet, it’s right at that moment, right when we think all is lost and that we feel that all has been taken from us, right when we realize how hard it is to have a tranquil heart, that the gospel speaks a better word: Jesus died for our present reality, not our ideal.
The law says, “Do these things to obtain the ideal. By completing these things, you will reach fulfillment.” But, the law was only a shadow, a placeholder that showed us that the solution would never come from within, but from without. Christ came to fulfill the law; he was its finish line. And the word of his blood is that he saw us in the reality of our sin and said, “I choose you, the reality you’re in. It’s not the ideal you that I died for, it’s you in the ‘right now.’ The one who is broken — you are who I want, who I desire to know and love.”
Comparison will always be part of our shared story as broken people. God knew that and still chose us. He died for us, impartially, apart from what we’ve done and what life has dealt us, so that we can rest in him, come what may. Comparison is the thief of joy, and in this life we’ll never be truly free from its grasp, but thanks be to God: grace is the thief of comparison.