Looking at my friend’s list of goals for the week, I started to feel rather unambitious. She and I are accountability partners, so we check in every week to report progress and set new goals. It’s a lovely arrangement, but last week she sent me her list that included seven items, many of them multi-faceted. My list had all of two things on it, both related to writing. I told her my goals looked completely lame in comparison, and she laughed and said, “I was thinking my goals were lame! You’re writing a book, and all I’m doing is finding people to fix stuff around our house!” Then she reminded me of a saying someone had once told her: “To compare is to despair.”
It’s so hard not to compare ourselves to those around us, especially when it comes to social media. I see pictures of other moms making adorable handmade Pinterest-worthy Valentines with their kids, while I get store-bought ones and make my kids do them on their own. Friends post professional family pictures, while our last pro picture is from six years ago, before our youngest was even born. Other people’s houses often look neater/classier/more homey than our own. It’s easy to feel discouraged when I compare myself to others. My own inner failings and shortcomings can never compare to someone else’s “highlight reel.”
What is it about human nature that we so often judge ourselves by unfair comparisons? Perhaps we hope to feel better about ourselves, but usually we end up feeling worse. We think other people have better jobs, better marriages, better-behaved children, better bodies, better time management, better ______. I find this especially holds true for people of similar vocations. I’m most tempted to compare myself to other writers, and I get jealous when fellow authors have better book sales, better reviews, more widely-read blogs… So instead of thinking I’m doing a great job with the talents and abilities God has given me, I am easily led to despair.
The comparison game is a dangerous one when we compare ourselves to the accomplishments of others, but there is one area where comparison is a good thing: when we measure ourselves against God’s Law. Make no mistake, it certainly holds true that to compare is to despair, but in this case, that’s a good thing. We must utterly despair of ourselves and our own abilities before God can work the healing balm of the Gospel in our hearts.
You might think you’re a pretty good person morally and religiously. You go to church every week, you do personal devotions every day, you haven’t committed any major crimes, you aren’t throwing wild parties like the neighbors down the street… This is one area where you actually feel pretty good about yourself.
But read what Jesus says in His Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22). Ouch. If that’s the case, I have committed murder in my heart against a great many people. (And let’s not even get into His definition of adultery a few verses later…)
The comparison of our sinfulness to God’s holiness led the psalmist to ask rhetorically, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3). The answer, of course, is no one. Not one of us could stand before the Lord with our sins. It’s like the message God sends King Belshazzar in Daniel 5:27: “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.”
That’s where Jesus steps in. Unlike you and me, Jesus didn’t fall short. He kept the Law perfectly in our place. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” He says in Matthew 5:17. “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus measured up to those impossibly high standards of the Law. And the incredible thing is that Jesus gives us the benefits of His obedience. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us.
So go ahead. Compare your thoughts, motives, and actions with the strict demands of God’s Law. Despair of earning God’s favor by your own strength. Repent of those sins and leave them at the foot of Jesus’ cross, knowing that He has taken them from you and clothed you in His robe of righteousness. When the devil tries to lead you to despair, pointing out all your sins, point him to Jesus, who took them from you. Thanks to Him, you don’t fall short after all.