the shape of leadership

Comparison Isn’t the Real Trap We Need to Avoid

Where things can go sideways

John Davidson on August 2, 2019


It doesn’t matter how secure a person may be. We all know what it’s like to compare ourselves to others, come up short, and feel bad about it. Christian leaders are no exception.

We make comparisons based on possessions, income, church size, spouse, job, opportunities, platform, skills, talents and influence. And if we don’t process that comparison in a healthy way, it can result in insecurity, frustration and even depression.

Sometimes it seems we can’t stop ourselves from comparing. Yet every time I see an article or hear a talk about comparison, the message is clear: Just stop it! I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the phrase “comparison trap” or heard someone describe comparison as a pitfall. But is it true? Is comparison a danger to avoid?

I’m going to say something that may seem surprising. Comparison isn’t dangerous; it’s natural.

In the 1950s, psychologist Leon Festinger proposed his social comparison theory. He argued that it’s impossible for people to figure out who they are by themselves. The most natural way we come to know who we are is by comparing ourselves to others.

Did you catch that? It’s human nature for us to compare ourselves to people around us. We do this constantly throughout the day. Most of the time it happens subconsciously. Our minds are constantly evaluating our surroundings to see where we stand.

We compare ourselves physically, verbally, emotionally and in every other way. For example, are you short or tall? How do you know? The only way to know for sure is by comparing your stature to height averages of other human beings. We make these kinds of comparisons all the time. And typically, it’s no problem.

Noticing differences is sometimes even helpful for us because comparisons inform how we relate to and interact with others.

And now we have more channels than ever from which to draw our comparisons. The 24-hour news cycle. Magazines. Social media. Constant connectedness that allows us to see what everyone else is doing.

But here’s where comparison can go sideways. Sometimes we focus too much on a difference between ourselves and others. It gets stuck in our minds like a splinter that becomes infected and festered. It’s a constant irritation we can’t seem to get past. It begins to dominate our thoughts. And that’s when we move beyond simple comparison to a very dangerous, biblical concept we rarely talk about: envy.

Envy is an inappropriate desire to have what others have. It can even make us wish they didn’t have it.

The late author Dorothy Sayers said of envy, “It begins by asking, plausibly, ‘Why should I not enjoy what others enjoy?’ and it ends by demanding, ‘Why should others enjoy what I may not?’”

So the progression goes like this: We experience the natural feeling of comparing ourselves to others (all good). That comparison leads to feelings of liking or appreciating what someone else has (still no problem). But if we don’t handle that in a healthy way, it progresses to offense (“God, why do You treat that person better than You treat me?”). Then it moves to envy (“If I can’t have it, they shouldn’t have it either”). It’s very insidious. Very dark. And it can happen quickly.

The Problem With Envy

It’s easy and non-threatening to talk about the dangers of comparison. On the surface, it seems simple enough for us just to tell people not to compare. Much harder is realizing where misdirected comparison leads and what the Bible teaches about it.

The Bible doesn’t say much about comparison, but it has a lot to say about envy. That’s why we’d rather talk about comparison. Talking about envy is uncomfortable.

The Bible doesn’t say much about comparison, but it has a lot to say about envy.

Scripture lists envy along with the worst sins we can think of. Envy is like a cancer, eating us up on the inside (Proverbs 14:30). Envy comes from the depths of our hearts and defiles us (Mark 7:21-22). Jesus knew envy was the reason the chief priests sent Him to Pilate for execution (Mark 15:10, ESV). Envy will keep us from inheriting the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

Some scholars believe the Tenth Commandment prohibits envy because it is the reason we violate the first nine. Envy isn’t innocent or painless. It starts by victimizing the envier and quickly victimizes the envied.

In his social comparison theory, Festinger pointed out that the more similar we are to another person in some way we think is important, the more we tend to compare ourselves to that person. That means we’re more likely to compare ourselves to someone who’s a lot like us.

So it doesn’t bother us that a pastor we don’t know in another state has a thriving church, but it does bother us when a young, local pastor starts a church that experiences rapid growth. It doesn’t bother us that a successful leader receives an invitation to speak at a conference, but it stings when an old college roommate gets the invitation instead of us.

The closer we are to someone in age, stage of life, level of education, occupation, family situation, etc., the more we’ll compare ourselves to that person. And when we don’t handle that comparison the right way, these are the people we’ll envy.

If these statements describe your condition, you might be struggling with envy:

  • You feel inadequate when you look at others.
  • You feel God is being more generous with others than He is with you.
  • You feel like you’re always competing with others.
  • In your effort to keep up with others, you find yourself striving for things you never wanted before.
  • You find it hard to appreciate your own successes and opportunities because they don’t look like the successes and opportunities of others.

The Antidote to Envy

If you recognize there is envy in your life, take these four steps to overcome it:

Confront it. Admit that what you feel is more than comparison; it’s envy. Repent to God, and confess to someone who loves you.

Celebrate others. Turn your comparison of others into celebration of them. Celebrate what Christ has done in and through them. Celebrate the blessing of God on their lives. Celebrate in their presence, in the presence of others, and in the presence of the Lord. Celebrating others is a healthy response to understanding our comparative differences.

Compare yourself to yourself. A 2015 study at Cambridge and Essex universities suggested that as people get older, they compare themselves more to their past selves and less to others, leading to greater happiness. So set goals for your growth, not based on what others are doing, but based on where you want to be in relation to where you’ve been.

Catch God’s vision. Remember that your identity is in Christ. Submit to Him, and follow where He leads. Acknowledge that His plan for you won’t look exactly like His plan for someone else. Evaluate and celebrate your gifts, because those are the areas in which God likely wants to use you.

Comparison really can happen in a healthy, biblical way. When we compare ourselves now to the people we once were and see how much God has transformed us, it inspires worship (1 Corinthians 6:11). When we compare ourselves to others to see whose godly example we want to emulate, it inspires growth (11:1). When we compare ourselves to people we don’t want to be like, it inspires wisdom (Proverbs 26:11-13). When we compare ourselves to the disenfranchised to see how we can meet their needs, it inspires service (James 5:14-16).

If your problem were obesity, you wouldn’t stop eating altogether. You’d eat a well-balanced diet. If your problem is envy, don’t stop comparing altogether. Compare in a healthy, biblical way that leads you to celebrate others and thrive in your calling.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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