We have all heard the expression ‘comparisons are odious’, but it is not the act of comparing that stinks, but what we actually compare.
The phrase itself comes from the early 15th century but it was Shakespeare who popularised it when he adopted and modified it as ‘comparisons are odorous’ in his play ‘Much ado about nothing’. However, we all compare different things and usually find it a productive exercise. If I want to buy a new car, computer, or guitar, then I will go to a lot of trouble researching and comparing the different available options. Companies compare their products and processes with competitive offerings to see where they can improve. Descriptions of Best Practice often include benchmarks to assist practitioners to compare what they do against the best in the field. These types of comparisons are not odious.
The problem comes when we try to compare who we are, and not what we do, against others. Now this can be odious. If we compare ourselves with someone who we regard as ‘inferior’ then we could be setting ourselves up for a superiority complex, or condescending attitude, and those are odorous conditions. If we compare ourselves to someone ‘superior’ then we run the risk of experiencing feelings of worthlessness, anger, or even despair.
Paul wrote; ‘We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise’ (2 Corinthians 10:12).
In order to avoid these noxious attitudes, we have to separate our awareness of who we are from a self-evaluation of what we do. I am not what I can or cannot do; I am uniquely who I am. I can learn to do more or less or something different, but who I am is… well ‘who I am’. When I was still in pastoral ministry people, usually those leaving the church, sometimes told me that they appreciated my teachings. This used to irritate me a little because I am not simply a knowledge base or a competent teacher. So, I have tried to make a habit of saying to people I want to affirm, “I appreciate you” or “I value you”.
When I retired a few years ago, I had to recognise another aspect of this vital distinction. Church leaders, more than any other types of leaders, tend to merge their sense of identity with that of the church they pastor. When I retired, this identity conflation was no longer supportable (not that it ever was supportable). Who was I now? How was I valued? What was I living for? All very silly in hindsight, but anyone who has retired will understand. But my identity has never been ‘pastor’ but ‘child of God’.
‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!’ (1 John 3:1)
Another very unhealthy and unhelpful form of comparison concerns neither what we do, nor who we are, but what we receive. Here is a typical example:
You have been working for years for the same boss and have always given your very best. The volume of work gets too much for one person (Mainly, you think, because you have been doing so well) and so your manager hires someone else to work alongside you. You have no problem with this until you notice that the newbie talks a good talk but slacks off whenever the boss is not around. This annoys you, but annoyance escalates to anger, offence, de-motivation, and emotional pain when you learn that little-miss/mr-last-in is earning more than you earn.
Fortunately, the Lord Jesus had something to say about this sort of situation. Matthew 20:1-15 records His parable of the landowner who hires workers throughout the day but pays them all the same although some work the whole day and others just one hour. The ones he hired first complained, and this is what the boss-man said; “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Jesus ended his parable with the words, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”… so we trust that the last-in-first-out principle of stock clearance will apply to the newbie in my example. But, even if it doesn’t, just remember that ‘each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgement on one another’ (Romans 14:12-13). Hmmm.
Let me end with a somewhat fatuous home-grown proverb:
‘He who compares himself to another is as unwise as another who compares himself to him’ Huh?