“Comparison is the thief of joy.” That was the maxim of Theodore Roosevelt, a good one at that.
But Comparison, I’m learning, is not a loud enemy. It sneaks; it is often a thief indeed, coming “in the night” so to speak. It is not the kind that busts out windows with guns blazing. It slowly steps into your space, trespassing without raising any noise or suspicion. We will address this foe’s relation to Joy shortly, but for now, let us expound on what Comparison is.
This thief Comparison comes most often in two main forms: comparisons of omission, and comparisons of commission, if you’d like. Comparisons of omission are times we compare ourselves to another because we realize that we lack something that they have. We often hear this expressed as jealousy, or covetousness. We crave the bank accounts, the lifestyles, the public prominence, the companionship another has. Comparisons of commission, on the other hand, are times we compare ourselves to another because we realize that we have something that they lack. We often hear this expressed as pride, or boastfulness. We flaunt the bank account, the lifestyle, the public prominence, the companionship we have.
What these share in common is how seemingly innocent these comparisons fester in our hearts. We’ve all made passing remarks about wishing we “had that kind of money.” We subconsciously try to gain the upper-hand of every story in conversation as a way of proving ourselves or distracting ourselves from our insecurities. Neither form of comparison is healthy; it is cancerous to our joy.
Where did such comparisons begin? Like all other vices, at the Garden of Eden. What stole Adam and Eve’s joy in God that fateful day? One could argue that Comparison did. Remember the serpent’s false promise in Genesis 3:5 – “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Eve began to compare in these moments. “God has something I don’t.” A comparison of omission. Her heart began to desire such wisdom, to crave to satisfy her feelings of comparison by eliminating the gap (3:6). The serpent deceived Eve into thinking that evening the playing field between her and God not only was attainable, but would bring her more joy. Eve once delighted in the law of God (3:2), but now, Comparison began to steal from her joy.
But don’t think that Eve was the only one victim to that joy-thieving robber. Adam fell in comparison of commission that day. As God visits these newly-minted sinners, he asks if they have indeed eaten of the forbidden tree. “The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate’” (Gen 3:12). Adam begins to compare himself in terms of guilt, both towards God and towards Eve. He essentially argues that God is more responsible than he for being influenced by Eve (“the woman whom you gave”), and that Eve is more responsible than he for eating the fruit (“she gave me fruit”). Adam carries with him a sense of superiority, of secondary blame. He is comparing himself, trying to locate himself as lesser guilty in this interrogation.
Nothing has changed since those days for humans; this vice still wars at our soul. We find Comparison hunched behind the shadows of the Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins, the two commandments on which all the law and prophets hang on. The serpent continues to whisper, “Compare.” And we do: ethnically, politically, materially, and worst of all perhaps, spiritually. Comparison-driven lives grope in the dark, joyless. I have seen it for myself, without seeing. I am merely the blind leading the blind within this room.
What robs joy of its joyfulness? I believe we have found a contender. So, how do we keep Comparison at bay in order to keep retain lasting Christian joy? I am no expert. I haven’t figured out how to stop sinfully comparing myself to others for good. But I have learned a critical lesson about Joy, and it helps me to strive in this area.
C.S. Lewis always seems to say what we’re thinking with the perfect language, and in his Surprised By Joy his observations carry important weight for our discussion today. Lewis says of joy that “it must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing…All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’”
Reread that, and think on it for a moment. Using Lewis, what I am getting at is this: True Christian joy realizes it is not having, yet has Christ – whereas comparison, as we’ve seen, must have, even at the expense of joy in Christ.
But isn’t longing for anything, by nature, a comparison? This “inconsolable longing” Lewis mentions is not quite the same as Eve’s desire for the forbidden fruit. The difference comes, I think, in what our longing is oriented toward. Want itself isn’t wrong; it’s what we want that’s key.
Consider Paul in Philippians 4:12. “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound in any and every circumstance. I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Paul is not presenting a life of apathy here; I am sure he longed for food when hungry, and healing when hurt. He was only human. And yet, his longing for food and healing could never compromise his inconsolable longing for Christ. His mantra was, “All things through Christ.” Paul had lasting joy, because even in temporal want, his eternal want was greater. He didn’t fall for joyless comparison. In fact, earlier in Philippians, Paul gives us an up-close view to his sense of how comparison and joy relate:
“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil 3:4-8)
Comparison never robbed Paul’s joy. May the same be said of us. Comparison will do its best to rob joy of its joyfulness by trying to convince us that we must have. It will try to tell us that true joy is in more wisdom, more money, more stuff, more getting what you want, more having what they don’t. And as it turns out, true joy is rooted only in Him. We may long in this world, we may not have, and yet, we will have everything we need, whose name is Jesus.