“Well, that’s a familiar sight.”
I pull into the parking space and start to get out of my car, and notice, not at all for the first time, I’m being watched. No, not by some creepy stalker, but by the parking space vigilantes, the placard police, as I like to think of them.
When they see me pulling into the handicap accessible space, they’re not quite sure what I’m doing there. From the shoulders and above view of me they get while I’m pulling in, I certainly don’t look feeble enough to need the space.
Then, I get out.
As I begin my very obvious Cerebral-Palsy-induced wobble to the store, I can see them looking at me. As soon as they see my peculiar walk, they usually realize they were mistaken. When I make eye contact and give them a friendly smile, they usually look embarrassed and then look away.
You might think I would never behave that way, myself — making a snap judgment about someone else’s need for help or physical capabilities — but, you’d be wrong. If I pull into the lot and can’t find one of those precious reserved parking spaces available, I tend to wonder if all those people parked there really need the space as much as I do.
And there it is: does that other person deserve the parking space (or the promotion at work, or the blessing from God, or the whatever-it-is) that I think I should have? Maybe they need it more.
We can easily make a full-time profession out of comparing ourselves to one another, and we can do it for every reason imaginable. We’re especially good at it in the Church. We wonder if we can ever hope to measure up to the pillars of the Church, or we thank God we’re not as bad off as “them”, whoever “they” happen to be.
Oh, both kinds of comparisons, the ones where we think we don’t measure up, and the ones where we think someone else doesn’t, can actually start with the very best of intentions.
When we attempt to model the spiritual maturity we see in admirable folks around us, we can be engaging in a healthy comparison. The Apostle Paul encourages his readers to “follow me as I follow Christ”, after all. How are we supposed to follow Christ if we never examine how we don’t measure up. I try to emulate parents, pastors, and teachers I know and respect — and I hope you have such good influences in your life, as well.
There are a few snares waiting to trap us when we make those kinds of comparisons, though. Let me share a few of them with you.
Sadly, we can be let down when those we admire make mistakes — and they will. Only one person, Jesus Christ, ever lived a life completely devoid of screw ups… everyone else falls short, sometimes. We need to recognize when our heroes do stumble, forgive them, help them up, and not make the same mistakes.
We can also set ourselves up for frustration when we try to be someone we’re not. That icon we look up to may never struggle with the issues that hound us because they are not us. We might find they would struggle as much as we do, if not more if they were in our shoes. But, because they aren’t us, we can set an unrealistic standard for ourselves. We can wear ourselves out trying to be them when God has uniquely equipped us to be us, instead.
Not only can we get tripped up when our examples falter and when we assume we ought to be able to handle everything as well as they do, but we also run the risk of following them too closely. Just because someone I deeply respect and admire focuses their life on ministering one particular way does not mean God has that same path in mind for me. Maybe my path is going to run close to theirs for a while, but no story is exactly the same. I can’t hijack their path — at some point, God will steer me to something different, if I don’t allow myself to become fixated on doing it exactly the same way as someone else.
Yes, comparing myself to Godly examples can be helpful, but not if we carry the comparison too far.
What about the other kind of comparison: you know, the kind where we size up the other guy and come to the conclusion we’re the ones out front? I know that sounds judgmental, but it doesn’t have to start that way.
At first, we’re truly trying to help, and the Bible does tell the more mature to instruct the less, so there’s definitely a scriptural precedent for providing Godly counsel; and there are times when each of us really does need a little correction, but there’s a fine line between counseling and criticism. Our tendency to try to help one another can quickly become judgmental in nature.
Those Judaizers, the group Paul was dealing with in Galatians 5, fell into this trap of thinking their way of doing things was superior. Even if they meant to help, and I am not sure they did, the result was predictable. One group decided the other group was somehow “lesser than” because of their “holiness” checklist. Judgment and confusion crept in.
As we mentioned last time, God didn’t call us to follow a new and better list of do’s and don’ts; but, we often revert to one — ours — and we start the comparisons. We think we’re comparing others to Him when we’re really comparing them to some imaginary version of ourselves that “has it all together.”
Appearances can be deceiving. Like evaluating my physical disability before I’ve gotten out of the car — not all struggles are obvious. This is especially true when we get to spiritual, emotional, mental, or moral struggles. We tend to think of others in terms of ourselves, but they’re not us.
We might not be so much better, and they might not be so much worse. Our evaluations about others are flawed, limited by an external view of the other person. Our opinion of ourselves can also be very flawed. We might never know just how far someone else has already come in their struggles when we make our snap judgments and quick comments — which have the power to crush as much as help. Such was the case with the group demanding the Gentiles needed to “get right”. Turns out, they were the ones in the wrong!
So, how do we avoid the traps that arise when we start comparing ourselves to others?
I find it helpful to realize that God wants to work in me as much as He wants to work in them. If He hasn’t finished with me, yet, maybe I shouldn’t expect Him to already be done working on them. We are all a work in progress, and I don’t know about you, but I suspect my time would be better spent figuring out how I can be more like Jesus than worrying about how someone else needs to improve.