Comparing ourselves to others seems both natural and common, everyone does it instinctively from school yard competitiveness to grandparents fawning over the achievements of their grandchildren, we’re all at it. But even taking into consideration the great things achieved under the spur of competition this perpetual comparing of our achievement with others does us no good.
Let me try to explain with a couple of examples.
Tony feels a failure. His work colleague Gary always seems that one step ahead. His personal life is in better shape, his kids are in better schools, he gets a bigger bonus at Christmas and has just been accepted for a promotion ahead of Tony. Tony is a Christian but his feelings of failure carry over into church as well. He’s always the last to pick up the thread in housegroup and his Sunday School class definitely prefer the weeks he’s not on the rota.
Graham also feels a failure. Marriage has been difficult ever since the children arrived, work has been stressful and issues in the wider family have taken their toll on his emotional health. Feeling low and away on business with an attentive female colleague one thing led to another and Graham failed to honour his marriage vows, as he and his colleague shared the hotel room.
Now in pastoral conversations you’re trying to apply the gospel to both Tony and Graham. Both exhibit similar emotions, both are grieved at their failure, both earnest to hear what Christ says to their situations. Take Graham first, he’s there with his wife, weeping at his sin and the mess it’s made, but as you remind them of Christ’s work on the cross and as you reassure them that forgiveness is real and transformation possible they leave in better shape. They have lots to work through for sure but there’s a hope that wasn’t there before. Tony is a harder case. You remind him of the gospel that his standing before God is secure in Christ, that he can be no more righteous or loved or adopted than he is in Christ, yet still he leaves despondent, he desperately wanted Jesus to tell him that he was better than others but somehow despite the beauty of justification by faith alone it doesn’t answer his dilemma.
You see here’s the problem with the grief and failure that comes from perpetually comparing myself negatively to others; the gospel has no solution to it. Listen to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:10:
“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”
In the context Paul is referencing a previous stinging letter to the Corinthian church in which he called them on some sin. The letter made the church grieve, but positively with a grief that led to repentance and not a worldly grief which wallows in failure. In other words in Paul’s mind there are two kinds of grief which look very similar as they present but have very different ends.
That’s the nub of Tony’s problem, wallowing in feelings of failure resulting from negatively comparing himself to others is worldly grief that leads to death. The gospel has no direct answer for Tony’s comparative questions, instead it bids him to ask a different question a more important question because what really matters is not Tony’s relative performance but his standing before God. Tony’s identity, security, joy and life should flow from knowing that before God he stands as perfect as the Lord Jesus. Tony will only be helped when he is able to repent of trying to secure his joy and satisfaction in fleeting feelings of superiority rather than the gospel of grace upon grace in Christ.
So if you find yourself feeling a bit like Tony, remember that while your assessments of your relative success may leave you feeling a failure it’s not an assessment that really matters. The one that matters is secure in Christ.