I’m a big football fan. And by football, I mean European/South American/Latin American/African/everywhere-else-in-the-world football. For Americans’ sake, let’s just call it soccer.
Every summer and every January, professional soccer clubs around the world scour the available market for new players. Fans and the media make comparisons on which players to acquire, which players to spend millions of dollars/pounds/Euros/other-monetary-units on to improve their teams.
Or, they compare possible prospects with teams’ current options in the same position. Example: Arsenal, my favorite team, recently signed Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech (from the Czech Republic, pronounced Pet-er Check). For weeks, media outlets made comparisons between Cech and Arsenal’s current ‘keeper options David Ospina (from Columbia, pronouned Dah-vid Osh-pee-na) and Wojciech Szczesny (from Poland, pronounced Wvoy-check Sh-shez-knee). Yeah, that last pronunciation is rough. Here’s a visual of one of those comparisons:
Journalists analyze stats and intangibles and just about everything under the sun to try to figure out who’s better.
Often we run into this kind of comparison in Christian culture when we look at church growth. Which churches are the “fastest-growing in America”? How many people are coming? How many are making decisions? How much money is being raised for missions? What percentage of your budget is giving to overseas missions? How many kids show up weekly to your youth group?
Sometimes there’s a numbers fetish in the church. It’s not always bad. I love what Perry Noble says about numbers. His church does a lot of things with numbers, particularly with people. He says something to the effect of, “Every number has a name, and every name has a story, and every story matters to Jesus.” I love that. I think he’s spot-on.
The difficulty – and I know I’m being a little persnickety here – is when the numbers become a primary identity of the church. That often leads to comparisons, and lists like the fastest-growing churches in America. Sometimes an unintended consequence of this is a “my church is better than yours.” I’ve even seen this in my own heart when it comes to comparing the church I go to at home to the church I went to during college.
The comparisons don’t have to be numbers. It can also be the intangibles. Which theology more lines up with mine? Which pastor is funnier/more eloquent/more hipster/theologically deeper/better dressed? Which kids’ program is more fun? Whose coffee tastes more like Starbucks? Whose coffee is Starbucks?
Basically, we make comparisons all the time in the Christian world. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s something everyone does. The danger comes when it reaches our hearts and we begin to compare ourselves to the Christians around us.
I did this a lot in college. I had a friend named Jimmy. Real name. Loved the guy. Still love the guy. Super outgoing, super passionate. Funny as I’ll get out. Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY, loved him. He had a real heart for people and a real heart for the Gospel. He lived, and still does live, as if the Gospel was daily changing him and daily working on his heart. He was friends with everyone and was always having spiritual conversations with people, always reaching out to non-believers, befriending them. But it wasn’t in a “I’ve-got-to-do-this-because-I-need-to-save-souls” kind of way. His attitude was, “I love these people, and I love them so much I want them to know Jesus the way I do.”
He would have stories about guys he was sharing the Gospel with, people to pray for, opportunities to hang out. He was an Energizer Bunny kind of guy, always on the go, always full of energy. And I would look at him and feel super inadequate and super non-Christian. It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t lord it over me or anyone. He was just being himself. And I felt super ineffective because I barely shared the Gospel with anybody, didn’t like making new friends and just didn’t have the same drive or passion.
I learned two things while thinking about how I compared myself to Jimmy. And they’re two things that are key to dealing with the comparison culture we live in.
We’re not all “Jimmys.”
I’m not an evangelist-type who goes around and has Gospel-sharing on his mind all the time. I’m just trying to survive the day most of the time. For a while, I thought that I was a defective Christian because of that. I thought I wasn’t the Christian I should have been. I was burdened for people, in a sense, but not like Jimmy was. It wasn’t his fault.
Not everybody has the same spiritual gifts and callings and talents. If we only had evangelists, who would support the believers when they’re not out sharing the Gospel? If we only had encouragers, who would share the Gospel with unbelievers? If we only had teachers, who would be learning? If we only had doers and executers, who would be doing the administrating and background work?
If you, who like me are not particularly gifted in evangelism and not drawn to that kind of work, spend your time comparing your spiritual usefulness to people like Jimmy, of course you’re going to be discouraged. On the other side, if you’re like Jimmy and spend all your time genuinely loving people and sharing the Gospel, you might be tempted to look at people like me and feel proud of yourself because you’re doing a lot of work for the Kingdom.
Comparison lends itself to discouragement or pride. It’s rare you find the middle ground.
Romans 12:4-5 shares this: “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” We’re not all called to the same exact function within the body of Christ.
In a more general sense, the Gospel renders comparisons moot and unnecessary.
The only comparison that really matters is how we compare to Christ. And everyone compares unfavorably. Everyone who matches themselves up with Jesus, if they’re being honest, must say, “I don’t look good here.”
That’s where the grace of the Gospel steps in and says that we don’t need to make comparisons. Jesus overlooks how we compare to Him and says He’ll die for us anyways. While we were still sinners, Romans 5 says, Christ died for the ungodly. While we were rejecting God, while we were disobedient and rebellious, Christ gave His life for us. There’s no need for comparison to find worth. The worth is found at the foot of the cross, where Jesus gave His life. What 2 Corinthians 5:21 – For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God – means is that Jesus gave us His righteousness at the cross. We’re seen as righteous and holy apart from our works.
Rant warning. I hate when popular Christian leaders prop up some old theologian as this great faith figure that we should read everything they wrote, we should live by their resolutions, we should celebrate what they did. I hate it because it makes me feel like poop that I’m not like that and never will be. What tends to happen is we forget they sinned too. In his book on Martin Luther, John Piper fails to mention that, near the end of his life, Luther hated Jews and wrote scathing criticisms of them that would never fly in today’s society. The Nazis even used it as propaganda against the Jews. And we’re going to sit back and be all, “Oh Martin Luther was so fantastic!”
Guess what? All those people sinned. Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Edwards, Owen – you name them, they sinned. And to compare ourselves to them is a fool’s errand because it’s not even the right comparison. And to prop them up as heroes is also destructive to the church. The only hero that’s ever existed in the history of history is Jesus. He was the only one who was perfect. He was the only one who ever did good every single word He spoke, every single thought He thought, every single action He took.
Can we be inspired by those people? Can we take comfort and confidence that mere men did the things they did? Sure. But how dare we place them on the level of Christ. Maybe I’m over-reacting or over-reaching or reading too much into it. If I am, I’m sorry. But my point remains the same: Scripture demands we make one comparison alone, and we fall short every time. That’s why we need Jesus.
So if you make comparisons to other people and feel discouraged: Jesus loves you despite of how poorly you may compare to other people by worldly standards, even if those worldly standards are wrapped around spiritual things. What’s required of you? The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14 speaks quite beautifully to this:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”