When I was a kid I used to love watching Sesame Street. This was back in the day, long before Elmo was ever conceived of. One might say this was when Sesame Street was at its height of glory. Of the many different songs and adventures the characters went through one song has always stuck out to me. The screen would split into four boxes, each showing a different kid. Three of the kids would be jumping rope (or some similar activity) and one kid would be just sitting on a box or reading a book. The song would start up, “One of these kids is doing his own thing, three of these kids are kinda the same…”
It was an early lesson in comparing, sorting and determining differences. And it was important for young ones to learn this skill. The problem is that just like any good thing, we have this propensity as humans to take it to the extreme and turn a good and useful thing into something less than good.
In life it seems we have taken something as benign as this helpful skill and turned it into a lifestyle. We are always comparing, always evaluating our own experiences and possessions and status up against all the other people around us. And we tend to spend a lot of time pointing out the one kid doing his own thing; the one that just doesn’t seem to match up with everyone else. Of course, when we are the one kid, we tend to feel as though we’ve been dealt a raw deal.
It’s frustrating to see this behavior in the world, but when it also invades the church we have ourselves a real tragedy. We—as Jesus followers—aren’t any better than the world, but we have been given life abundant, life through Christ, and our lives should look very different.
So why is it that the church is sometimes the worst place for people comparing themselves to one another? Please understand, I’m not talking about comparing our behavior to one another and to the Bible and seeing where we don’t live up to the standards that have been given. I’m not talking about the gentle restoring that needs to take place when one “kid” is off doing his own thing apart from the ways we are called to live as believers.
What I am talking about is the “keeping up with the Jonses’” mentality that we often fall in to. Where we look at what our brother or sister has and wonder why God won’t give us just as much as he’s blessed them with. The temptation to look at another brother or sister and feel that we have come so much farther and learned so much more than they—and so are “better” followers of Jesus than they are. (Not that we would ever say that out loud, but we definitely battle the temptation of feeling superior).
Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct. Galatians 6:4-5
Paul calls us to stop the comparing. To focus on what we have been given to do and accomplish. To set our eyes on the things God is challenging us to deal with, the places he is convicting us to repent from.
It can be easy, when feeling God push me to repentance, to look at others and say with Peter, “But what about him?” To which Jesus will likely reply as he did to Peter, “What is that to you?” In other words: mind your own business. When the issue isn’t sin, just differences along the journey; and when the experiences I go through differ from that of others, the call of Paul, and Jesus is to focus on what God is doing in me, not why he is doing it differently than he does with others.
This is confusing at times, given the fact that we are called to walk this road together. The community aspect of our faith can lend to this tendency to compare. But somehow, the mystery of God’s glory again steps in and calls us to walk this road together, to share the journey, and yet somehow still gives each of us a unique experience within the narrow way. He won’t always work on me as he’s working on you. He won’t always give to you what he’s giving to me.
This is the mystery that keeps us ever reminded that God is greater than us and meets each of us where we are. Let us embrace that and not become like the Pharisee who thought that so long as he was doing better than those around him we was better.
Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: `I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, `O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14
We’re not all in the same place. We’re not all given the same experiences. God loves us too much and too personally to use such broad strokes in engaging us and drawing us to himself.