I recently listened to a three-part sermon series by Andy Stanley, the pastor for a bunch of the Atlanta megachurches, called “The Comparison Trap” (which is weirdly no longer available online). He talked about the very natural and very destructive habit we have as humans to compare ourselves to each other—what possessions we have, our jobs, our kids, our overall lives.
But while it may be human nature to do this, there’s absolutely no way to win by comparing ourselves to others. Or as Andy says, “there’s no ‘win’ in comparison”.
There are two sides to comparing ourselves to those around us—one is wanting what they have, while the other is using them to feel better about ourselves and our sins. Neither is okay. Comparison is the wide, easy path to both envy and self-righteousness.
“That should be me…” – the path to envy
“Better a handful with quietness [restfulness] than both hands full, together with toil [weariness, worry, travail] and grasping for the wind” (Eccl. 4:6)
In today’s society, the word envy has been softened, de-fanged. It isn’t used as often as it once was (we typically use “jealousy” instead), but we might say we’re envious of someone’s long eyelashes, or the gorgeous car they’re driving. We almost never use it in a negative way, but instead use it as a means to give someone a compliment. If we think about it in a biblical context, it’s often relegated in our minds to a list of “minor” sins like gossip or slander. However, envy (or jealousy) is frequently and direly warned against in the bible. Many terrible things happened as a result of people giving in to envy—Joseph being sold into slavery, Cain killing Abel, Saul trying to kill David, the Pharisees delivering Jesus to be killed. And the New Testament writers included it in many lists of sins, mixing it in there with murder, hate, disobedience, and unrighteousness (Rom. 1:28-34, Gal. 5:19-21, Tit. 3:3). Why would such attention be paid to this sin that, to us, occurs in our minds and doesn’t seem to be hurting anybody else?
Jealousy and envy tell me that God owes me. When we state that out loud, it sounds absurd. God doesn’t owe me anything. He’s provided a roof over my head, family and friends to love me, a way to make a living, food on the table. I owe my very existence to Him. But envy is that whisper in the back of our minds that makes us look at what our neighbor, our co-worker, our friend has and think, “I deserve to have that, I deserve to BE that.” And that’s why it’s so dangerous. Comparison undermines our ability to be thankful for what God has placed in our hands, and re-frames everything in our lives from a place of entitlement. Comparison kills joy, steals contentment, and leaves you empty.
Envy can be entwined with covetousness, though we often use the word “jealousy” to cover both meanings. There are some nuances between the two, but they’re certainly related. Covetousness is more about things or possessions, wanting a co-worker’s car or nice house. Envy focuses on the person themselves—it’s that sidelong glance at people we think are better than us or have more than us, often accompanied by thoughts that tear them down. Neither is good, but to me envy is the more dangerous of the two.
Why, you ask? In the New Testament, the word translated envy is phthonos, meaning jealousy, spite, or ill will. That’s a key thing to focus on—envy twists something in our minds and causes us to eventually have active ill will toward the person we’re jealous of. Envy is just a little seed in your mind initially, but as you keep focusing on what that person has that you don’t, thinking that they don’t deserve it, or maybe that they came by their blessings illegitimately, you continue to feed it and allow it to grow. If not rooted out and destroyed, eventually you’ll tear the person down so much in your mind (and sometimes in real life) that you consider them worthless and hate them. That is the growth cycle of envy, and that’s why Proverbs 14:30 says that envy rots the bones—it literally eats you from the inside out like a cancer, until your whole mind and body are consumed by it.
It’s interesting that the first part of Proverbs 14:30 offers “a sound [healthy or wholesome] heart” as the opposite of an envious one. Paul tells Timothy that part of what God’s spirit gives us is a sound mind (II Tim. 1:7). In Romans he expounds on this idea, saying, “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit…those who practice such things are deserving of death” (Rom. 1:28-29, 32). The malice produced by envy comes from a mind not being led by the spirit of God, and is a serious indication that we’ve strayed from following Him and are in danger of quenching His spirit.
Where does envy eventually take us? The gospels tell us that the priests delivered Jesus up for envy (Matt. 27:18, Mark 15:10). They saw how people followed Jesus, heard of the miracles He did, tried to best Him in public and failed, and they envied Him the power and influence He was gaining. These were the spiritual leaders of their day and they paid His friend to betray Him, and then falsely accused Him and had Him put to death out of plain envy. While this seems like an extreme example, it’s the natural end result of allowing these thoughts and feelings to fester in our minds. Paul writes that “we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another” (Tit. 3:3). Resentment and malice are very powerful negative emotions, and they affect not only the person having them, but everyone around them as well. They will ultimately be our undoing—“wrath [or resentment] kills a foolish man, and envy slays a simple one” (Job 5:2).
Thankfulness is a natural barrier to envy, preventing the seed from taking root in the mind. I’m starting to sound like a broken record on the subject of thankfulness vs. ingratitude, but it seems like every subject I’ve studied recently comes back to that. I saw a quote the other day that pretty much sums up: “thankfulness is the soil in which joy thrives”. Envy is the enemy of joy, a lens that when looked through highlights what we lack rather than focusing on what God’s abundant blessings have provided.
“Not that I speak with regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-12)
“Well, compared to her I’m doing pretty good…” – the path to self-righteousness
Luke relays a parable that Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee, a spiritual leader in the community, acknowledged how often he fasted and how much he tithed, and prayed “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector!” The tax collector he was pointing at, a man despised as a traitor to his people, stood a ways off, bowed his head, acknowledged that he was a sinner and asked for God’s mercy. Jesus tells us that the humble tax collector went home justified rather than the Pharisee. To Jesus’s audience this would have been an astonishing statement. Pharisees were well-respected, considered the righteous standard to live up to, while tax collectors were considered sinners, someone you would never even acknowledge on the street. But Jesus was trying to convey a critical truth about comparison and self-righteousness.
At the opposite end from envy on the comparison spectrum is using others to feel better about ourselves. All of us sometimes use someone or something as a mirror, a reference point to tell us that we’re doing okay. Are you looking at a friend? A coworker? How much money you make? What title you have at your job? These are all funhouse mirrors, warped and deceiving. Christ is the only mirror that can give us a true reflection of where and what we are.
It is only by comparing ourselves to other people that allows self-righteousness to develop. There is no way to measure ourselves against Christ and come out feeling smug. And He is not a comfortable mirror to look into. Paul cautioned the Corinthians about this, telling them, “For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves among themselves, are not wise…But ‘he who glories, let him glory in the Lord’. For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends” (II Cor. 10:12, 17).
Paul tells the Galatians, “If anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For each one shall bear his own load” (Gal. 6:3-5). Self-righteousness blinds us, making us unable to see things as they really are. Rather than holding up the bible as our yardstick for success, we look to the left and the right, trying to justify ourselves by finding others who don’t measure up to whatever standard we’ve decided is right.
In doing so, we cut ourselves off from grace, relying on our own goodness and works for justification rather than seeking God and His spirit for spiritual sustenance and acknowledging that we can only be justified through Him. If we’re justifying ourselves and our own actions, we will see no need for repentance and His grace. And if we continue on this path and are cut off from His grace for very long, we will eventually no longer be in relationship with Him, and ultimately jeopardize our chance at eternal life.
This is the punchline to Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector—“for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). The antidote to self-righteousness is humility. Humility cures the blindness caused by self-righteousness and allows us to see clearly our sins and the need to repent and draw near to God. David prayed that God would “cleanse me from secret faults, keep back your servant from presumptuous sins” (Ps. 19:13). The word translated “presumptuous” in this verse is set up as a counterpart to the hidden sins referenced, and indicates proud or arrogant sins. In other words, those we know are wrong but we do them anyway because we’ve found a way to justify ourselves—often by looking around at friends and neighbors and deciding that we’re still better than what they’re doing.
“Draw near to God”
When you’re looking to the left or the right to see how you measure up to other people—whether good or bad—you have an inability to see what God is doing for you. In the case of both envy and self-righteousness, the answer is found in looking to God—being thankful for what He has given you (including the opportunity for eternal life) and using Him as the standard for righteousness, which can only produce humility since we fall so woefully short.
“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you…humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up” (Heb. 4:7, 10).