This Sunday we walk through several scenes in Scripture and in life, and look at why it is that comparing myself to other people is such a miserable, toxic, anti-kingdom way to live. This is a huge problem, especially where we live in the Bay Area. Then we will look at how to be liberated from comparing.
Join us as learn how to live in the incomparable kingdom of God.
Full Sermon Script:
If we haven’t met yet, my name is Matt VanCleave. I’m one of the pastors at Blue Oaks.
This is week 2 of our series, “I’m Done With That” …where we’re learning how to be a bunch of quitters.
No… no one wants to be a quitter… but sometimes we have to be done with something in order to make space for what God wants for our lives.
Today we’re talking about being done with comparing.
I’m done with comparing
To start today, I want you to imagine something.
Imagine a Bay Area parent scheduling a meeting with their child’s teacher to ask, “How is my kid doing in school?”
And the teacher says, “About average. Your child is right in the middle of the pack.”
Then the parent goes to their child’s coach. “How is my child doing?”
And the coach says, “About average. Half of the kids on the team are better. Half are worse.”
Then the parent goes to their child’s tutor… who specializes in preparing 8-year-olds for the SATs — “How is my child doing?”
The tutor says, “I think you can expect your child to be right about the 50th percentile.”
What are the odds that a Bay Area parent would respond to that by saying, “Wow, that’s great! I have a normal child. My child is right in the sweet spot of God’s bell curve.”
It turns out when we ask that question — “How’s my child doing?” there’s always a little rider attached to that phrase — “Compared to the other kids.”
We have a way of measuring the performance, the identity, even the value and worth of our kids… compared to the other kids.
When I was in 1st grade, we got assigned to reading groups based on how well we could read… compared to the other kids in the class.
Now, they would never tell you this, but we could tell… because the groups were named for birds — there were the Eagles, the Robins, and the Pigeons.
If you were assigned to the Pigeon group, you knew you weren’t excelling in reading.
I can still remember… I think I was in the second grade, and we had taken this standardized test, and my teacher posted on the chalkboard the score my sister got a year earlier (I have a sister who’s a year older than me) and then my score, which was considerably lower, and asked me in front of the whole class, “Why did your sister did so much better than you?”
I got so mad.
But what’s interesting is I didn’t get mad at the teacher. Who did I get mad at?
My sister… like she had deliberately done well on that test just to make me look bad.
You see, there’s this strange thing — we have a way of identifying our worth, and our performance, and our value based on how we do… compared with other kids.
Malcolm Gladwell writes about this in his book David and Goliath. It’s a great book I would encourage parents to read.
This is what he wrote about a girl who excelled in Math and Science.
“Sacks sailed through high school at the top of her class. She took a political science course at a nearby college while she was still in high school, as well as a calculus course at the local community college. She got As in both, as well as an A in every class she took in high school. She got perfect scores on every one of her Advanced Placement pre-college courses.”
When it was time for her to select a college, she chose Brown University.
Only at Brown she wouldn’t be the top of the class.
She faced that stark reality in her organic chemistry class when she received the first B in her academic career.
This is what she said about the class:
“You memorize how a concept works, and then they give you a molecule you’ve never seen before, and they ask you to make another one you’ve never seen before, and you have to get from this thing to that thing.
“There are people who just think that way and in five minutes are done. They’re the curve busters. Then there are people who through an amazing amount of hard work trained themselves to think that way. I worked so hard and I never got it down.”
So after that experience she decided that maybe she shouldn’t pursue science any further.
And the tragic part was she loved science.
As she talked about her abandonment of her first love, she mourned all the courses she would have loved to take but now never would — physiology, infectious disease, biology, math.
Now, it shouldn’t have mattered how she did in organic chemistry. She never wanted to be an organic chemist. It was just a course. Lots of people find organic chemistry impossible.
This is what Gladwell writes:
“If you were to rank all the students in the world who are taking organic chemistry, Sacks would probably be in the 99th percentile.
“But the problem was, Sacks wasn’t comparing herself to all the students in the world taking Organic Chemistry. She was comparing herself to her fellow students at Brown.
“She was a Little Fish in one of the deepest and most competitive ponds in the country—and the experience of comparing herself to all the other brilliant fish shattered her confidence. It made her feel stupid, even though she isn’t stupid at all.”
That’s an example of the destructive power of comparison.
Now let me say this — comparing itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s an inevitable part of learning.
That’s how children figure out —
This circle is bigger than that circle
A rabbit runs faster than a turtle
I can get a better deal on jewelry for my wife’s birthday from Clairs than I can from Tiffany’s.
We learn by comparing… but when I compare myself to another person, my ego gets involved, and my ego wants me to be exalted over another person.
My ego feels like, “I’m going to be diminished if another person is enhanced.”
My ego whispers to me about envy and jealousy and makes me competitive.
When I compare myself with other people, if I do better than them, then I feel superior and puffed up… and that kills love in me.
If I grade myself worse, then I feel inferior and unworthy… and that kills love in me.
We do this to ourselves. It’s not even teachers or parents doing it to us anymore. We do it to ourselves. We make ourselves miserable.
Because we don’t want any of this series to be just abstract or hypothetical, I want to invite you to reflect for a moment on yourself and whether you ever do this.
We’ll just do a mass confession. If you’ve ever compared yourself, I’m going to ask you to raise your hands.
If you’ve ever compared yourself to someone else on the basis of looks, like
He or she is better looking than me
or has better hair
or grades, GPA
If you’ve ever compared your career to someone else’s career
your house to someone else’s house
your car to someone else’s car
your girlfriend or boyfriend or spouse to someone else’s
how you’re doing as a parent
even your spiritual life
If you have ever in any way compared yourself to anyone else, raise your hand really high right now… mass confession.
That’s what I thought. It’s a sickness around here.
How many of you would say, “Yeah, I’ve done that, but I’m probably better at it than most people.”
It’s this thing that’s toxic where we live.
We all want to know, “Am I in the Eagles, Robins or Pigeons?”
This actually goes way back and runs all through the Bible… so what I want to do in this message is…
First of all, walk through several scenes in the Scripture (and in life) and look at why it is that comparing myself to other people is such a miserable, toxic, anti-kingdom way to live.
This is huge, especially where we are in the Bay Area.
Then we’ll look at how to get liberated from that. How can I live in the incomparable kingdom of God?
This sin, comparing myself to other people, is actually right at the root of the second sin in the Bible.
A lot of you will know the first sin — Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit from the tree.
The second sin involves two brothers, Cain and Abel.
This is what we’re told in Genesis.
In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Genesis 4:3-5
The first thing we wonder when we read through this story is why Abel’s offering was looked upon with favor and Cain’s was not.
Most likely it goes back to that word firstborn. Abel offered some of the firstborn.
We’ve talked about this when we talked about giving and generosity and even tithing — that we don’t GIVE God our tithes and offerings; we BRING our God our tithes and offerings… because they belong to God.
God loves it when we make generosity a priority… so he would teach his people to be generous with not just some, but the firstfruits of the harvest or the firstborn of the flock.
Right off the top, the first thing I do is say, “God, here’s the tithe. It’s yours. I want to make generosity a priority.”
Abel does that. Cain doesn’t. He just brings some.
The implication is — he’s doing it out of obligation… or with a reluctant heart… or because he thinks he has to.
Abel experiences what it is that generosity does in a heart — He trusts God and he loves God and he’s living in the reality of God’s favor and dependence on God, and God loves that.
God loves generosity… because God is a generous God.
Cain shuts himself off from that. Cain sees this joy in Abel, and it makes him angry.
It’s so interesting — Cain gets angry not at himself. He didn’t say, “Come on, Cain! You can do better.”
He doesn’t even get angry at God.
He gets mad at his brother Abel. He thinks, “If Abel wasn’t around, I wouldn’t feel this pain.”
This is comparison at work at the beginning of the Bible. It’s so interesting.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Genesis 4:6-7
It’s a fascinating story. God kind of plays therapist to Cain. There were no therapists in those days… so God is his therapist.
He asks him, “Why are you so angry? Why is your face so downcast? If you do what’s right, won’t you be accepted?”
But Cain will not respond to any of these questions.
What happens for Cain is he dehumanizes Abel and doesn’t see him as a brother; he just sees him as a problem.
The real question God is posing, and a really good one for you and me when we start comparing ourselves, is, “What do I really want?”
See, what Cain wanted in his best self, in his truest self, was to be a generous person.
He would want to trust God. He would want to love his brother and be a good brother himself, but Cain doesn’t want to deal with those questions.
We’re that way.
In our best selves, we would want what’s noble… but over time we quit looking at our best selves. We quit asking that question.
It is so fascinating. The text says God asked Cain these questions, but Cain does not respond back to God.
Here’s the next verse.
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” Genesis 4:8
There’s a world of hurt and sin in that statement.
Now for the first time Cain has to deceive his brother. He has to say this like this is what brothers do. He has to teach his face and the tone of his voice and his body to deceive his brother.
While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Genesis 4:8
This theme of deception and falsehood and comparison runs all through the human race.
Neal Plantinga wrote a book called A Breviary of Sin.
He tells the story of these two young women in Iowa, Cindy and Sonya.
They were both lovely. They would sometimes compete in beauty pageants. Cindy was Miss Harvest Queen and Sonya was homecoming queen.
They both liked the same guy, a guy named Jim. Jim ultimately rejected Cindy and married Sonya, and it just festered. It killed Sonya.
She couldn’t stand to think of her rival getting what she wanted and being happy.
She took a leather belt, and one night Miss Harvest Queen strangled the homecoming queen… and the whole town was left devastated.
All through the human race and all through the Bible, this toxicity of, “How come you have what I want?” runs.
So two brothers, Isaac and Ishmael, are estranged from each other.
Then the next generation, two more brothers, Jacob and Esau, are estranged from each other.
This is what the writer of Scripture says about them.
Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. Genesis 25:27-28
There’s a world of hurt in those words.
Parents will do this weird kind of thing —
He’s the athletic one.
He’s the outdoorsy one.
He’s the indoor one.
Why would I craft one of my kids’ identity based on what their brother or sister happened to be like?
So then if you get a clumsy sibling, you’re the athletic one, but if you get a really coordinated one, then you’re not the athletic one.
Parents do this kind of thing all the time, and it kills them.
Then there’s Joseph and his brothers… and envy and rivalry there. This runs all through Scripture.
Another story involves Israel’s first king, Saul.
We’re told about Saul, that he was (another comparative phrase) —
Saul was as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else. 1 Samuel 9:2
He was the king. He names David to be a warrior, a general for him. They go out to battle, and the battle goes really well.
Here’s what happens next.
…the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres. As they danced, they sang: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. 1 Samuel 18:6-8
Why was Saul so angry?
Well, for one thing it was a dumb song. The lyrics are not very creative.
But that’s not the reason Saul is so angry. Here’s the reason:
“They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David. 1 Samuel 18:8-9
The Hebrew language would often express things very concretely, very physical. So Saul isn’t just jealous; he keeps a jealous eye.
Comparison is that way. When I start to get jealous, I look at you differently. I don’t see my brother. I don’t see someone I love. I just see the person who creates pain in me.
“Why are you so angry, Saul?”
“I’m afraid. What more could he have but my kingdom?” Something precious is at risk.
In the kingdom of God with Jesus, nothing precious is ever at risk… but where there’s comparison and envy, you’ll find fear.
“Why are you so angry, Saul?”
“I’m offended. They have credited David with tens of thousands but me with only thousands.”
“Are you kidding me, Saul? Who’s they?”
“Saul, what do you care what everyone thinks? You’re the king. You’re the man. David works for you. If he wins, you win.”
Saul is so consumed with envy that eventually he tries to kill David.
Of course, this is so often the way it works in life —
The very thing Saul fears most of all — the loss of his kingdom — is what ends up happening… precisely because of the grasping, clutching, jealous, comparative way in which Saul lives.
It’ll kill you. It does all the time.
But there is another way. There is a better way.
Lets turn to the New Testament now.
We’re told, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John the Baptist.”
He has a message — “Repent, for the kingdom of God is coming.”
Then one day John sees Jesus and says to people who see him: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
Then people begin going to Jesus.
Then the strangest thing happens. Some of John’s disciples come to him and say:
“Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” John 3:26
It’s very interesting.
John has disciples just like Jesus has disciples.
John is called “Rabbi” just as Jesus is called “Rabbi.”
John baptized people just as now Jesus’ followers are baptizing people.
John’s disciples say, “Hey, remember? We used to be number one. We were the most prominent. Everyone was coming to see us.
“Now Jesus, the guy you baptized, is becoming more popular than you are, and everyone is going to go see him.
“The more people who go to see you, the more important you are. We’re your disciples, so if you’re becoming less important, then we’re going to be less important. We don’t like this, so you’d better do something to recapture market share.”
This comparison deal goes on even in spiritual arenas, even in ministry.
A number of years ago, when we first started Blue Oaks, I was at a pastor’s conference, and during one of the breaks I was talking with a couple other pastors from other churches.
One of them said to the other one, “How’s your church going?”
For those of you who don’t know, that’s pastor talk for, “How many people attend your church?”
It’s pastor talk for, “How important are you? Will I get status if I hang out with you?”
The first pastor said, “A thousand people, something like that. How’s your church?”
The second guy said, “Twelve hundred people.”
I knew what was coming next. We had just started Blue Oaks so we were a church of about 250 people.
My immediate thought was, “I’m going to say we’re like 300 people, because that will sound much more impressive than 250 people.”
Then you know how your mind works in a moment like that? I thought to myself, “Really? I don’t even know these guys. I’m never going to see them again. Do I want to give up my integrity (which is all I have really) for the sake of status gained by 50 lousy people?”
So I said, “We’re at about 2,000.”
I figured if I’m going to sacrifice my integrity I might as well make it worthwhile.
I remember in a denomination, there were a bunch of churches, kind of older churches but they were larger than other churches in their denomination… they would gather together… and they called themselves the “tall steeple churches.”
Has anyone noticed there are not a lot of steeples being built in the US these days?
It would be hard to combine grandiosity and irrelevance more succinctly in a single phrase.
John the Baptist’s disciples say, “We used to be a tall-steeple ministry, and now everyone is going to him.”
John’s response is unbelievable. Look what John says.
To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.” John 3:27-30
This has kingdom written all over it.
You know, don’t worry about who’s in the Eagles and who’s in the Robins and who’s in the Pigeons.
He says, “I know who I am, and that begins with who I’m not. I’m not the Messiah. It’s not me.”
That’s a really good place to start, by the way.
Turn to the person next to you and say to them, “I am not the Messiah,” or you can say, “You are not the Messiah,” whichever would be the most helpful.
Knowing that’s not who I am… Then John talks about who he is. He uses this remarkable picture.
He says, “I told you, I’m not the bridegroom; I’m the friend of the groom.”
He’s using an image here from Hebrew weddings.
There would be a character who had an official role, something like a best man in our weddings. The Hebrew word for this was called the Shoshben — friend of the groom.
He would provide a lot of the ceremonial functions that a best man would, but then the final task of the Shoshben was he would stand in front of the bridal tent where the bride would be inside at the end of the day’s festivities. He would stand guard there so no one could go to the bride until the bridegroom came.
It would be dark, so he would hear the sound of the groom’s voice.
When he heard the sound of the groom’s voice, his final task was to step aside so the groom could go into the tent to be with the bride.
Then he would have the joy of knowing, “I did my job. I helped my friend, and now the groom and the bride are together.”
John says, “That’s me. I’m not the groom. The bride belongs to him. The church belongs to Jesus. She’s not mine. The people aren’t mine. If I try to grab for the joy that belongs to him, I will not get his joy… and I will lose my joy.
“So don’t think that when other people are going to Jesus instead of me that it’s causing me to lose my joy. My joy is fulfilled. I’m the friend of the groom, and I’m so glad the groom is here.”
By the way, as a church, we want to reach every single person for Jesus Christ that we can, but not only that…
Someone was talking to me about other churches and said something about the competition.
Other churches are not our competition.
Thank God for every church in the Bay Area that preaches Jesus. The more God breathes life into his church, whatever church, wherever that church is, the better it is.
Then John has this amazing statement:
He must become greater; I must become less. John 3:30
In other words, “My life is not centered in me.”
This is an important thing to understand about the way life works.
The more my ego is at the center of my life purposes, the more miserable I will be.
The more God is at the center of my life — it’s this strange paradox — when I die to my ego, when I put God in the center of my life, the greater my life, the bigger my world.
“I must become less; he must become greater.” That’s the kingdom. That’s life.
By way of contrast, there was a movie (some of you might have seen it) a decade or two ago called Amadeus.
It’s this amazing story of a court musician by the name of Salieri.
He’s very gifted and competent, but he recognizes that Mozart is a genius.
Mozart is this obnoxious character, and it grates at him that God made Mozart the genius and not him.
He’s convinced God has done him wrong, because he cannot be happy while Mozart is in the world.
This is what he says to God:
“From now on, we are enemies, you and I. Because you chose for your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and gave me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation, because you are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block you, I swear it.”
The reality is Salieri had amazing gifts that put him in the top one-tenth of 1 percent, an amazing privilege.
He also could have been given the gift of recognizing the greatness in Mozart and he could have said:
“What a great thing it is to live in a world where there’s a Mozart and have the whole world listen to and love that music.”
But all he could see was, “I’m not Mozart. God has done me wrong.”
The idea that he might find joy in humbling himself and being able to applaud the greatness of someone else never occurred to him.
The end of that movie is just chilling, if you ever see it. Salieri is with a priest, and he’s making this accusation against God. He’s convinced in his mind that it is unanswerable, that he is right and God has done him wrong.
He says to the priest, “You are a mediocrity, but don’t worry; I am your champion. I am the patron saint of mediocrities.”
Then he’s wheeled out in this asylum for the insane saying, “I absolve you of your mediocrity.”
We live in this crazy world. I have to compare myself. I have to be in the Eagles.
So how do I live in another way?
Here are a couple of questions to take home.
One is, “Who am I comparing myself to?” I just invite you to think about this one.
I probably won’t compare myself financially to Jeff Bezos or someone like that. It’ll be a classmate or the person in the next office or down the street — someone close by.
Just be really honest about that.
Ask the questions God asked of Cain.
Why am I angry?
What is it I really want?
Who would my best self be?
What’s the joy God has for me?
What are the gifts God has given to me?
What’s the task God has assigned me?
God hasn’t asked me to be someone else. I don’t have to be Mozart or David or Saul. I just have to be me.
God is just calling you to be you.
I promise you there’s joy in loving the people around you… and doing the things God has called you to do… and giving the gifts God has called you to give… and stretching the gifts God has given you to stretch. I promise you there’s joy.
Then if you want a little extra credit work… Anyone want some extra credit work?
Take that person you’re most prone to envy, most prone to compare yourself to, and pray that God would cause them to succeed this week like never before.
Just say, “God, would you let that person soar? Would you unleash their gifts in unprecedented ways?”
And, of course, you won’t be able to do this on your own power. We don’t do this on our own strength. We have to ask Jesus, “Would you help me with this?”
I ask him all the time.
Every time I’m tempted to compare myself to someone else, that should become a little prompt for me to say a prayer.
By the way, Jesus knows all about envy. You may have never noticed this tiny little phrase here. This is from the story of Jesus.
For he (Pilate) knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. Matthew 27:18
Envy is what killed Jesus.
“Everyone is going to him. That means they’re not going to us. They’re not cheering us on. We have to kill him.”
It’s the story of the human race.
Here’s the last story I’ll share today. I love this story. It’s kind of funny.
There’s great hope and a great call to it.
It’s at the very end of the gospel of John.
Jesus is restoring Peter. Peter is so human. He has messed up in every way possible.
Jesus is kind of re-commissioning him and tells him, “Feed my sheep.”
Then at the very end, he tells Peter the kind of death Peter is going to die.
Peter is going to suffer. It’s going to be very hard, but he’s going to glorify God with it, and there’s an eternity of joy that lies before him.
Jesus tells Peter about this.
Then this weird thing happens — Peter sees John going by.
When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” John 21:21
Now there’s a little dynamic going on with Peter and John that you have to know about.
John in this gospel is called “the disciple Jesus loved.” Peter is not.
At the Last Supper, we’re told that John reclined next to Jesus at the table. He’s in the seat of honor.
At the resurrection, we’re told John and Peter race each other to the tomb. We’re actually told (someone kept track of this) John got there first. They’re having a race — who can make it to the tomb first? John outruns Peter.
After the resurrection, when they’re going to go out fishing, this figure comes to them, and John says to Peter, “It’s the Lord.” In other words, Peter doesn’t recognize who it is. John recognizes and says to Peter, “Hey Peter, I know who it is.”
Over and over and over again — John, John, John.
Peter sees him after being told this.
“Lord, what about him? John, John, John. It’s always John. He’s your favorite. He’s the disciple you love. If you’re so crazy about John, why don’t you make him pope?” It’s that kind of thing.
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” John 21:22
“If you keep your eyes on him, you’ll be miserable. If you keep your eyes on me, you’ll be filled with joy.”
Follow Jesus — that leads to life. That’s how you’ll be done with comparing.
Alright, let’s pray.
I would invite you to take a moment of self-examination. Doing really honest self-examination is a very important part of spiritual life and spiritual growth and often neglected in our day.
So just take a moment, real honest, just you and God.
Who are you likely to compare yourself to?
It could be someone who seems more successful, more attractive, has a better family.
Take a moment and tell your heavenly Father about that. God already knows. That’s not going to surprise God. Then ask God for his help.
God, you know how that little worm gets inside me and eats away at my soul. I know it keeps me from love and joy and gratitude.
God, would you liberate me and free me and deliver me?
Especially, God, thank you for Jesus. Our prayer is that he would grow greater while we grow less, that you would more and more be at the center of our lives and that ego and sin would just die.
We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.