Someone asked me a few days ago about Joy.
She had just accepted Christ into her life, and was wondering if it was possible that the Joy she felt in the aftermath of that single decision could last for ever.
I wished with all my heart that I could tell her it would. There’s nothing worse than having to tell a new believer that this walk is not all rainbows and sunshine. In my mind I am inclined to spin it – to come up with creative ways to bypass the truth that the path we walk is a narrow one. But instead I told her the truth: in this life you will have to choose Joy. You will come to several crossroads where pain and fear and doubt and worry seem like the obvious choices – and you will have to choose Joy.
After answering, I began to reflect on all the times I had to choose Joy – and as I thought back, the times when it was hardest to be joyful were the times when I was living in comparison to others.
Let’s do a quick experiment:
Jump on your Instagram feed. Or your Facebook feed. Anywhere where you have an aerial view of someone’s life.
Now count the number of times you find yourself stopping to admire something of someone’s… and wishing you had it too.
Her waistline, or hair, or passport stamps.
His washboard abs, or apparent charm, or hot girlfriend.
Or maybe that bag. Or degree. Or family. Or job.
Don’t cheat yourself – I’m not going to ask for your tally. This is for your own reflection. But if you are as human as I think you are, you probably counted quite a few times. It is in our nature to size others up, and measure ourselves against them. And in a culture where people make their lives so public and visible, it’s almost possible not to do.
I’ve been blogging for two years now, and I have received all sorts of questions and comments anonymously. The one that made me saddest though, was a girl who wrote to me and told me that looking at my Instagram and how I was always surrounded by friends made her jealous of me – she too wanted friends to do life with. It hurt me even more because I had lived a long time with almost no friends to speak of. My feed two years ago was filled solely with selfies, because there was never anyone around to take the pictures. But that question made me all the more aware of how easy it is to idolize people’s lives when you’re looking from the outside in. We see their beautiful weddings, and trips all over the world, and their amazing careers, and not only do we begin to covet what they have, we begin to question what we don’t.
We fall into depression because we are nowhere near where our mates are career-wise, even though we started out ahead.
We stress over not having found a man to love us when others only have to bat an eyelid to get noticed.
Doors others seem to walk through with ease, we’ve spent years trying to knock down to no avail.
And let’s not even factor in that even in our faithfulness to the One Who Owns the Cattle On a Thousand Hills, we always seem to come up short, especially when measuring up to people who seem to have no regard for God or for His tenets.
No matter where we turn, there is always someone who has what we want, or is doing what we think we should have, or is where we wish we could be. And that constant barrage of comparison is exactly the kind of thing that will steal your Joy. It will cause you to worry about who you are not, instead of seeking out and reveling in who God created you to be. It will having you longing for what you don’t have, instead of looking down to see what you do. It will ruin your relationships and friendships, and create walls where there should be open doors, because comparison untreated breeds jealousy.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been talking about Freedom – and I think in a generation like ours where everyone thinks they are special and feels entitled to everything good in the world, overcoming comparison is a major key to truly becoming free. But how do you overcome comparison? How do you look at someone and what they have and not fall into the trap of starting a mental list of all the ways you fall short?
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Understand that its just a picture. Aerial views, no matter how clear, are only one-dimensional. Whether on Instagram or on Facebook or in real life, what you see is only ever a snapshot of the whole story. And this is not to say that everyone who is successful and rocking designer shoes is miserable when they go home – I actually detest that assumption. Maybe people are as happy as the photo of them prancing around the Louvre says they are. But you don’t know what it took for them to get there. Maybe they worked their butts off and had a lot of doors shut in their face. Maybe they overcame depression and fear and chased their dreams. Maybe they spent years in obscurity, planning and strategizing to get to where they wanted to be. Maybe they saved up for two years working a second job to afford that trip around the world. You don’t know someone’s journey, so don’t compare their highlight reels to your backstage. Don’t compare where they are in their journey to where you are, no matter how loudly they shout about how amazing theirs is.
Swallow your pride. We seem to assume that everyone who attained great heights was simply whisked there on a magic carpet. While that might be true for a few people, it isn’t for the majority. People, mostly, work for their success – and this means that there is a lot you can learn from them… if only you’ll swallow your pride and ask. Fearing weakness and vulnerability will keep you in obscurity and away from your desires more than a lack of opportunity ever will. If you see someone who is where you want to be, reach out and find out how they got there, and what advice they have for you. Chances are that learning from them will not only help you achieve your goals, but help you bypass all the mistakes they made on their journey. And when you accept that it’s OK to admit that someone knows more about something than you do, and to make yourself available to learn from them, the spirit of comparison dies.
Figure out your territory. You cannot measure your worth by looking at where someone else is vis-a-vis you, because the mountains on which they’re standing may not be for you. Paul speaks to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 10 telling them:
Oh, don’t worry; we wouldn’t dare say that we are as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are! But they are only comparing themselves with each other, using themselves as the standard of measurement. How ignorant! We will not boast about things done outside our area of authority. We will boast only about what has happened within the boundaries of the work God has given us…
It’s no coincidence that when God promised the Israelites a new home, He set boundaries for the land that was to be called theirs. They could only have what was already theirs. You cannot spend your life longing after territory that is not yours, no matter how attractive it may seem. God has uniquely created you and set you apart to take charge over a specific territory, and unless you figure out what that is, you will spend your entire life trying to encroach on someone else’s unsuccessfully. You might spend your whole life praying for God to move the wrong mountains, or cause the wrong walls to fall. Part of freedom is knowing who you are, and you cannot know who you are if you don’t know what you’ve been called to – your purpose. Ask God to show you the territory He’s already prepared for you to take hold of instead of coveting after someone else’s. He promises to give you every inch of the land you set your foot on in it, and even to enlarge it.
Continuing off Paul’s admonition in 2 Corinthians 10, Know who your standard is. I have found – for myself at least – that comparison is sometimes less about what I think about myself in relation to others, and more about what I think others think about me in relation to others (it’s OK, it took me a while to figure out what I was trying to say too lol). It’s almost as if we decide where we should be by some arbitrary standards set by the world, then measure ourselves against others based on those same standards. For instance, because your culture says that being single at 28 means there’s something wrong with you, every time you meet a classmate who is married, you start to ask yourself what they have that you don’t that has granted them that privilege. But all you’re doing in that regard is measuring yourself up against the wrong standards. If the world didn’t have you thinking you were on a schedule, you probably wouldn’t care as much that your friends were popping out babies, or that you weren’t making six figures yet. Paul says in Galatians 1:10:
Am I [trying] to win the approval of people or God? Am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be Christ’s servant.
You’re life isn’t meant to be for the pleasure of anyone but God. The standard we live by is Christ, and his will for our lives, not arbitrary figures or accolades. When you know Christ to be the standard, and live solely for what he has called you to, you won’t worry about what others are doing – only about fulfilling your purpose.
Know that what you’re carrying is not a puppy. I woke up recently to a text from one of my best friends that said, “What you’re carrying is not a puppy.” I was a little confused before I opened the picture that accompanied it. It told the story of dog and an elephant that got pregnant at the same time. The dog gave birth 3 months later to a dozen puppies. Six months later, it got pregnant again, and had another dozen puppies 3 months later. This continued. On the eighteenth month, the dog approached the elephant and said, “I gave birth three times to a dozen puppies each, and half of them are grown – yet here you are, still pregnant. What’s your deal?” The elephant replied,
“You need to understand that what I’m carrying is not a puppy, but an elephant. I only give birth once in two years, but when my baby hits the ground, the earth feels it… what I carry draws attention. It is mighty and great.”
What I’m carrying is not a puppy. It is a reminder that I will carry with me every day. What God is trying to produce in us is not just a successful life, but one that oozes the fruits of the Spirit, impacts the world, and reeks of Him. And that takes time to develop. You cannot compare what you’re carrying to what others are.
Pray on it. It might seem weird, but as much as I find it hard to bring my failures before God, I find it equally as difficult to bring Him my desires. So many ‘what if’s arise: What if that isn’t what He wants for me? What if He doesn’t do it? What if I’m meant to stay in this space forever? The possible answers to these questions scare us out of asking them. And so we get tired and exhausted in the waiting because we don’t ever know if what we are waiting for is even for us.
Romans 8 says this:
Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.
God sees your desires and all the things He has put into you, and wants to keep you close to Him in your pregnant condition – to His goodness and His peace and His voice – so that you do not become overwhelmed in the waiting, and fall into the comparison trap.
Learn to celebrate others. Have you ever done that thing where you look at someone else’s victory, and start to mentally point out to yourself – and perhaps to others – everything wrong with them? You drudge up their past and point out all their flaws just so you can feel like you still have a leg up over them? If your answer is no, then congratulations – you are a better person than I lol. The comparison trap will cause you to find celebrating the wins of others while you wait for your own, difficult – sometimes near impossible. But celebrate them anyway. Learn to be genuinely happy for people, and even to go so far as to propel others to their mountaintops. It is in celebrating and serving others that God begins to propel our own dreams and desires towards completion.
Know yourself. If you cannot yet look at your Instagram feed without coveting the lives or belongings of others, get off Instagram. Unfollow the people who trigger you to desire and covet after things that are out of your reach currently. There is nothing to be ashamed of. I unfollowed all the fitness accounts I followed on Instagram because they were only worsening my issues with my own body image. And yes, people might unfollow you – but better to lose some followers than to lose your Joy.
Learn to be content. This is THE Major Key (word to Khaled). Philippians 4 says:
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 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.
Hebrews 13 says:
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
I know it seems like contentment is one of those things that people talk a lot about, but never really manage to live out – and it’s because we’ve never really understood how to activate it. How do you be content in a world that tells you you need everything, and that you’re nothing without it? Lucky for you, I found the answer:
You practice thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the key to contentment.
Have you ever thought back to where you were 2 or 3 years ago? And to all the things you prayed and hoped for? And then looked at where you are and what you have now? Chances are, you got a lot of what you needed – maybe more. And in hindsight, not getting what you thought you needed back then was probably a blessing in disguise. But you’ll never recognize those changes or see how far you’ve come and grown until you stop to reflect and thank God. And not just for the big things like the degrees or the jobs – the little things too. The new friends. The free meals. The kind words of a stranger – or even the fact that you had a bed to sleep in last night. Thankfulness not only gives you freedom from comparison, but it ushers God’s presence and goodness in your life.
But be careful with this: thankfulness is not comparing yourself to others less fortunate than you and seeing yourself as blessed in comparison to them, or saying, ‘thank you I am not them and I don’t have to deal with what they do.’ You could become ‘them’ any day. And mind you, they have plenty to be thankful for too. Thankfulness is expressed in humility, and in reference to where we stand not with our fellow man, but with God: unworthy, and yet still completely loved and deeply cared for.