Paul told the Galatians that once they had tested themselves they were free from the comparison game. Knowing who God created us to be and then living that out is the most freeing thing we can do. God has gifted each of us in unique ways. When we discover our unique makeup and live within those boundaries we are energized.
When we compete against ourselves we are free to become who God created us to be. The problem with comparing ourselves with others is that we let them dictate who we become. Growing up we all let peer pressure shape our lives. We find our sense of value and worth by comparing ourselves to others. I am a better athlete than she is. I am a better student than he is. I am more attractive than they are. Instead of discovering our unique qualities we strive to prove ourselves against some external standard.
Growing up in the church being a missionary was held up as the highest form of service to God. If you were an exceptional Christian you became a missionary. If you were a good Christian you went into some kind of “full-time ministry” like being a pastor. If you were just an average Christian you showed up on Sunday and supported those who were really committed. This message was never overtly stated in this way, but it was definitely communicated to an impressionable young boy. When I felt the call of God on my life I automatically assumed it meant missionary service. Without confiding this information in anyone else I set my sights on becoming a missionary. I determined that I would do this by becoming a Medical Technician and working in a hospital in Haiti. I spent six years of my life actively pursuing that goal. Along the way God kept whispering in my ear that maybe my gifts were in a different area. I pushed those promptings aside because I was going to be a missionary with a capital “M”. It wasn’t until I was in seminary that God finally broke through and redirected my course. I finally began to accept the person God created me to be instead of trying to be the person I thought others expected me to be. My journey turned from duty to delight.
Fully accepting the gifts, talents and interests that God has hard-wired into us is the first step to true freedom. As you journey through life you will encounter people who are more gifted than you are and less gifted than you are. Your value as a person is not dependent upon how you compare to those people. Your value is measured by the person God created you to be. Instead of seeing others as the competition, view them as fellow travelers on the same journey. You are free to celebrate their gifts as well as your own. When we stop comparing ourselves to others then we are truly free to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and to mourn with those who mourn”.
There is another benefit to competing with ourselves rather than others. We are free to ask for help from others. One of the greatest fears people have today is to be viewed as weak or powerless. To admit a need makes us feel vulnerable. That can be a very scary place to be. Consequently we guard ourselves against showing any weakness. Instead of asking for help we adopt a “do-it-yourself” mentality.
There was a severe car accident on a bridge over a river. A car had crashed through the railing and was hanging over the edge. The driver of the car, a young woman, was pinned in the front seat. A truck driver rushed to the car, attached a toe-rope to the frame and secured it to the other side of the bridge. Soon the emergency people arrived but they were unable to reach the young woman. They had to call for a crane to come and lift the car back unto the bridge deck. Finally, with the use of the Jaws of Life, they freed the woman from the car. Afterward one of the emergency workers commented, “It was the strangest thing. The whole time we are working to rescue that woman she kept repeating I can do it myself.”
The Bible tells us that we cannot do it ourselves. The journey of life is not a solo journey but a community adventure. Each of us needs the other to be successful along the way. All of us need help from time to time. If we are secure in our identity in Christ we are free to ask for the help we need. James 5:16 tells us, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
Finally when we compete against ourselves we are free to offer help to others. My major in college was biology. Most of my classmates were “pre-med”. That meant that they had their sights set on going to medical school. Getting into medical school is very competitive. Only about 40% of applicants are accepted each year. Because of the very competitive nature of medical school acceptance many of my classmates were reluctant to help other students who were struggling. They were not free to help others succeed. They were afraid someone else’s success would threaten their own.
This competitive spirit is alive and well within the church. Churches compete against other churches for pride of place. Believers compete against other believers to prove how spiritual they are. Some are reluctant to help others to develop their spiritual gifts and talents because it might threaten their place within the spiritual community. They give lip service to encouraging one another while they let others struggle and fail. Thankfully this is not always the case. Many successful churches have realized that they have a responsibility to help other churches succeed. Many mature believers willingly give of their time and wisdom to help young believers grow in their faith.
The root cause of a negative, competitive spirit is pride. By nature we like to compare ourselves to those who are “not as good” as we are. This makes us feel better about who we are. But it is a false sense of well-being. Pride is a trap that sets us up to fail. Proverbs 16:18 makes that very clear. “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Paul talks about a different kind of pride: pride born not out of comparison to others but born out of a realistic understanding of ourselves. The more secure I am with the gifts and talents that God has given me the freer I am to extend help to others. When I help others use their gifts to their fullest potential the whole body of Christ benefits. I am not threatened by their success, I am energized by it. By helping others grow in their faith my faith is strengthened. Unlike in the world of medical school there is room for everyone to succeed on this journey of faith.
At least on the surface it looks like we live in a world where it is ok to just get by. Many people are willing to settle for something less than their best as long as they can maintain their position in the race. Two men were backpacking in the wilderness when they came upon a grizzly bear. Upon seeing the two hikers the bear rose up on his hind legs and roared. One of the hikers quickly took off his pack and pulled out a pair of tennis shoes. As he frantically tore off his heavy boots the other hiker declared, you will never outrun that bear. I don’t have to outrun the bear, he replied. I just have to outrun you. That is the way many people view life. There is a better way.
In the race of life the only measure that matters is the progress I am making toward becoming more like Christ. I am running against myself and no one else. When I get to the finish line it will not matter how I did compared to the other runners. What will matter is if my master declares, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”