Compare and contrast… or not

Donald Miller says that we humans have a condition: we need someone else to tell us who we are. This needn’t be a problem if we would listen to what God says about us. The trouble is that we don’t; instead we look at each other to find ourselves; that’s where problems arise.

One big problem is that when I look at you in order to find (or define) myself, I don’t have much of a chance of actually seeing you! This is really ugly, because it means I’m using you for my own purposes — I’m not loving you as Jesus commanded.

Another problem, or maybe it’s just a corollary of the other, is that we compare ourselves with each other. You do it, I do it. We all do it sometimes. Do you do it as often as I do? Let’s not go there.

If you compare yourself to me, you might feel superior if you compare IQ or fashion sense, but what does that get you? Does feeling superior make you kinder, more patient, more loving or joyful? Smugness doesn’t do anything good for you! And if you find yourself lacking in comparison with someone else — you’re not as smart or good-looking or whatever — what benefit do you get by thinking about that? Does it help you to be more gentle or sober-minded or peaceful or generous?

Me neither. So why do we do it? Because we’re silly. Jeremiah talked about it like this:

Do not run until your feet are bare
    and your throat is dry.
But you said, “It’s no use!
    I love foreign gods,
    and I must go after them.”

Foreign gods? Well foreign or not, if I build my identity on the basis of some comparison with you, then I’m treating you as a kind of god. The Apostle Paul talks about the folly of comparisons: When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise (2 Corinthians 10:12).

OK, that was rather a church-y explanation. What’s really behind our comparison syndrome? Here’s my take on it: If I really appreciate how much God loves me, then others’ opinions of me (or where I stand relative to others’ financial or intellectual or social assets) become matters of profound indifference–at least as far as my identity or self-worth are concerned.

What’s lacking in our appreciation of God’s great and awesome love for us? In the 1980 film Ordinary People,  teenager Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) has this conversation with therapist Berger (Judd Hirsch):

Dr. Berger: Well, your dad likes you.
Conrad Jarrett: Yeah, but he likes everybody.
Dr. Berger: Oh, so that’s it, is it? He likes you but he’s got no taste!

(from memory)

Some of us think of God that way: he loves me, but he’s got no taste. I mean, he loves everybody! Doesn’t the Bible say God loves the whole world?

Here’s a point we sometimes miss: we think that “God loves you!” means he loves us even though we are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked–or whatever. I mean, he does love us in spite of our wretchedness, but his love isn’t just a passive thing; it transforms us into something worthy of his love.

But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. […] And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

[T]he Lord Jesus Christ… will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

As we turn to the Lord, as we offer ourselves to him, as we put our hope in him, he changes us — transforms us into his likeness, renews our minds, etc. He wants to make us worthy of his love; even better, The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

And if that’s in our future, why do we compare cars or clothes? It’s like we’re caterpillars, comparing our crawling skills or counting each other’s segments, oblivious that we’ll soon be butterflies. Soon we won’t be inching; soon we won’t have segments. So let’s give our hearts to the heavenly things, not to the passing things of earth (Colossians 3:2, Phillips); let’s look at the unseen things that are eternal rather than the passing things that are visible (2 Corinthians 4:18).

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2 Comments on “Compare and contrast… or not”


  1. Economist Robert H. Frank has a name for goods whose value derive primarily or only from relative comparisons — positional goods. In *The Economic Naturalist* he explains how many of our formal and informal institutions were created and evolved to bring about a cease fire in accumulation of such goods.

    For me, it’s always sobering to reflect on how many of our activities and things derive their value from such comparisons. I think of Jesus’ description of the kingdom of heaven as a place and time where institutions are no longer necessary to ensure cease fire. In the Kingdom of Heaven, we give up our desire for relative status in exchange for the glory of being a member of His body.

  2. Sara Says:

    this is really amazing (and convicting). i especially like the part where you’re talking about how yes, God does love us in spite of how we’re just not good enough, but that love changes us into something worthy of it–and that’s what we should be living out of it.


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