The Trap of Comparison

This article was written by Steve Hoppe and published by BCC

 

It’s 10:30 pm—time for Erin to hop into bed and scroll through social media one last time. This evening, she lands on Instagram. For a half-hour, her fingers swipe through visually filtered images of beautiful women, families posing as best friends, picturesque plates of food, and houses far more elegant and expensive than hers. She dozes off feeling insecure, envious of her friends, and bitter about the cards she’s been dealt in life.

Meanwhile, her husband Tim lays by her side, engaging in a similar nightly ritual. His social media platform of choice? LinkedIn. He particularly likes tapping on the professional profiles of men he’s certain have not achieved, earned, or been promoted as much as he has. It makes him feel good about himself, and specifically his career. He retires for the night with an artificial boost of self-confidence.

Erin and Tim are entering a trap—the trap of comparison. As they peruse through their respective social media apps, they’re each placing one eye on themselves and one eye on others—in this case, others’ looks, relationships, lifestyles, possessions, and jobs. They’re noting and internalizing the differences, and they’re allowing these differences to shape their identities and dictate their emotions. In Erin’s case, she’s left feeling discouraged, jealous, and resentful. In Tim’s case, he nods off with a blanket of self-righteousness wrapped around him.

Neither, I’d argue, has joy.

Joylessness 

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, C.S. Lewis, and a host of others have been credited with the quote. Regardless of who said it, it’s true. Comparison robs us of joy. Why? First, let me define joy. Joy is deep, unshakable, soul-level contentment rooted in the love of God and one’s identity in Christ. It doesn’t depend on circumstances. It can’t be bought or sold. It can’t be found in the world, and certainly not in social media. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, given by God alone and grounded in God alone (Gal. 5:22).

Why does comparison rob us of joy? Because it takes our eyes off God, off His love, and off our identity in Christ. It places them on our circumstances and the frequently fictitious circumstances of others. And it yields only two possible outcomes. Either we feel inferior to the people of comparison—resulting in some combination of shame, covetousness, anger, anxiety, guilt, self-doubt, or self-hatred. Or we feel superior to the people of comparison—resulting in some combination of pride, smugness, and judgmentalism.

Either way, we’re left joyless.

A Long History of Joylessness

Scripture is full of people joylessly comparing themselves to others.

For example:

  • In the Garden of Eden, Eve is tempted by a piece of fruit that Satan promises will give her divine-level knowledge. With one eye, she looks at herself and her intellectual deficiencies. With her other eye, she looks at an imaginary Eve without such deficiencies. She (joylessly) covets being the latter and eats the fruit, bringing sin and death into a previously unfallen world (Gen. 3).
  • Cain places one eye on himself, his sacrificial offering, and God’s response to it. He places his other eye on Abel, his sacrificial offering, and God’s response to it. He becomes (joylessly) angry and murders his brother (Gen. 4).
  • Saul places one eye on himself and his reputation as a warrior in the eyes of Israel’s women. He places his other eye on David and his reputation in their eyes. He feels (joylessly) insecure and spends the rest of his life trying to kill David (1 Sam. 18).
  • A Pharisee places one eye on himself and his religious performance. He places his other eye on a tax collector and his record of sins. He feels (joylessly) proud and internally condemns the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).

Unfortunately, we’re no different from Eve, Cain, Saul, the Pharisee, or the dozens of other biblical characters who have been robbed of joy by comparing themselves to others. We all compare. And we’re all left joyless.

Joyful Alternatives to Comparison

How do we combat the temptation to compare ourselves to others? The answer lies in our eyes. If we place one eye on ourselves and one eye on others, we will instinctively enter the trap of comparison. Instead, we must be more strategic with our eye placement. On whom must we place our eyes if we are to experience joy?

  • We can place both eyes on God. When we pray, read His Word, and worship Him—when our eyes are glued to Him, His loving character, and His love for us—we experience joy (Ps. 5:11; 71:23; 1 Pet. 1:8).
  • We can place both eyes on others. When we soak in God’s love and pour it out to others through sacrificial service, we experience joy (Acts 20:35).
  • We can place one eye on ourselves and one eye on God. In other words, we can zero in on our identity in Christ and live out of this identity. Who are we in Christ? We are children of God—righteous, accepted, precious, holy, and loved by Him (Gal. 3:26; 1 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 15:7; Isa. 43:4; Eph. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:4). When we internalize this status as God’s children and live accordingly, we experience joy (Joel 2:23; Phil. 3:1).

Immediate Joy

You can experience joy right now. In 1 Thessalonians, the apostle Paul tells us so. He says to rejoice always (5:16). Note that this is a command, not a request. Paul is commanding us to rejoice. He wouldn’t command us to do something that we can’t do. You can feel joy at this very moment. You can experience deep, unshakable, soul-level contentment. But to do so, you must stop comparing yourself to others. So put down your smartphone, close your social media apps, and adjust your eyes.

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