Do You Measure Yourself Against Others?
WHO of us has not met a person who is better looking than we are, seems to be more popular, grasps things faster, or gets better grades in school? Maybe others have better health or a more gratifying job, are more successful, or seem to have more friends. They may have more possessions, more money, a newer car, or they may just seem to be happier. In noting such things, do we measure ourselves against others? Are comparisons inevitable? Why might a Christian want to avoid them? And how can we be content without comparing ourselves with anyone?
Why and When We May Compare
One concept of why people may compare themselves with others is that this serves to maintain or enhance their self-esteem. People are often satisfied to find that they are as successful as their peers. Another idea is that comparisons are attempts to reduce uncertainty about ourselves, to understand what we are capable of doing and what our limits are. We observe what others have achieved. If they are like us in many respects and have reached certain objectives, we might feel that we can reach similar goals.
Comparisons are most often made between people who resemble one another—who are of the same sex, of a similar age, and at a similar social level and who know one another. We are less likely to measure ourselves against someone else if the perceived disparity is great. Put another way, the average teenage girl is less likely to compare herself with a top model than with her schoolmates, and the model is unlikely to compare herself with the teenager.
In what areas do comparisons take place? Any possession or attribute considered of value in a community—be it intelligence, beauty, wealth, clothes—may be the basis for comparison. However, we tend to draw comparisons about things that interest us. We will probably not envy the size of the stamp collection of one of our acquaintances, for example, unless we are particularly interested in collecting stamps.
Comparisons elicit a whole spectrum of reactions, ranging from contentment to depression, from admiration and a desire for emulation to uneasiness or antagonism. Some of these emotions are harmful, and they are incompatible with Christian qualities.
Many who strive to come off “winners” in comparisons display a competitive spirit. They want to be better than others, and they are not content until they feel that they are. It is not pleasant to be around such individuals. Friendships with them are strained, relationships tense. Not only do such people lack humility but they usually fail to apply the Bible’s counsel about loving their fellowman, since their attitude can easily arouse in others feelings of inferiority and humiliation.—Matthew 18:1-5; John 13:34, 35.
Making people feel that they are “losers” injures them in a sense. According to one writer, “our failures are all the more painful when it appears that people who are in the same situation as we are have procured the possessions that we want.” A competitive spirit thus provokes envy, resentment, and displeasure toward someone because of his belongings, prosperity, position, reputation, advantages, and so on. This leads to more competition—a vicious circle. The Bible condemns “stirring up competition.”—Galatians 5:26.
By degrading the achievements of rivals, envious ones attempt to save their own injured self-esteem. Such reactions may seem petty, but if not recognized and checked, they can lead to malicious wrongdoing. Consider two Bible accounts in which envy was a factor.
During his residence among the Philistines, Isaac was blessed with “flocks of sheep and herds of cattle and a large body of servants, so that the Philistines began to envy him.” They reacted by stopping up the wells dug by Isaac’s father, Abraham, and their king asked Isaac to leave the area. (Genesis 26:1-3, 12-16) Their envy was spiteful and destructive. They just could not bear Isaac’s enjoyment of prosperity in their midst any longer.
Centuries later, David distinguished himself on the battlefield. His feats were celebrated by the women of Israel, who sang: “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Though he was receiving a measure of praise, Saul considered that comparison to be demeaning, and envy stirred in his heart. From then on, he nurtured ill will toward David. He soon made the first of several attempts to kill David. What wickedness can spring from envy!—1 Samuel 18:6-11.
So if measuring ourselves against others—their feats or advantages—stimulates feelings akin to envy or competitiveness, beware! These are negative emotions, incompatible with God’s thinking. But before examining how such attitudes can be resisted, let us consider something else that generates comparisons.
Self-Evaluation and Contentment
‘Am I intelligent, attractive, competent, in good physical shape, authoritative, lovable? And to what extent?’ We rarely stand in front of a mirror asking things like these. Yet, according to one writer, “implicitly, such questions often cross our mind and tacitly elicit answers that are more or less satisfying.” A person who is not sure of what he can achieve might muse about these things without any competitive urge or tinge of envy. He is simply evaluating himself. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that. The right way to do this, however, is not by comparing ourselves with others.
We have different abilities, depending on a variety of factors. There will always be some who seem to be doing better than we are. Hence, rather than observing them enviously, we should gauge our performance in relation to God’s righteous standards, which provide a sure guide of what is right and good. Jehovah is interested in what we are individually. He does not need to compare us with anybody. The apostle Paul advises us: “Let each one prove what his own work is, and then he will have cause for exultation in regard to himself alone, and not in comparison with the other person.”—Galatians 6:4.
Because all humans are imperfect, vigorous and protracted efforts may be necessary to combat envy. It is one thing to know that the Scriptures tell us: “In showing honor to one another take the lead,” but it is quite another to do it. Paul recognized his own inclination toward sin. To fight it, he had to “pummel [his] body and lead it as a slave.” (Romans 12:10; 1 Corinthians 9:27) For us, that may mean resisting competitive thoughts, replacing them with positive ones. We need to pray, asking Jehovah to help us “not to think more of [ourselves] than it is necessary to think.”—Romans 12:3.
Bible study and meditation also help. Think, for instance, of the future Paradise God promises. Then all will have peace, good health, abundant food, comfortable homes, and satisfying work. (Psalm 46:8, 9; 72:7, 8, 16; Isaiah 65:21-23) Will anyone feel the urge to compete? Hardly. There will be no reason for doing so. True, Jehovah has not provided every detail of what life will be like then, but we may reasonably suppose that all will be able to pursue interests and skills that appeal to them. One may study astronomy, another design beautiful fabrics. Why would one envy the other? The activities of our fellows will be a stimulus, not a cause for resentment. Such feelings will be things of the past.
If that is the life we desire, should we not strive to nurture the same attitude now? We already enjoy a spiritual paradise, free from many problems of the world around us. Since there will be no competitive spirit in God’s new world, there really is reason to avoid it now.
Is it wrong, then, to compare ourselves with others? Or are there times when that may be appropriate?
Many comparisons have led to bitter or depressive reactions, but they need not always do so. In this connection, note the apostle Paul’s advice: “Be imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” (Hebrews 6:12) Striving to cultivate qualities like those of Jehovah’s faithful servants of ancient times can be productive. Granted, that may involve some comparisons. Yet, it can help us to see examples that we can emulate and areas where we need to improve.
Consider Jonathan. In a sense, he had reason to be envious. As the eldest son of King Saul of Israel, Jonathan may once have expected to become king, but Jehovah chose a man some 30 years his junior, young David. Instead of harboring a grudge, Jonathan distinguished himself in unselfish friendship and support for David as Jehovah’s king-designate. Jonathan was a truly spiritual man. (1 Samuel 19:1-4) Unlike his father, who saw David as a rival, Jonathan recognized Jehovah’s hand in matters and submitted to His will; he did not compare himself with David, asking, “Why David and not me?”
Among fellow Christians, we should never feel threatened, as if others are trying to outdo us or take our place. Rivalry is inappropriate. Mature Christians are characterized by cooperation, unity, and love, not competition. “Love is envy’s great enemy,” says sociologist Francesco Alberoni. “If we love someone, we want what is good for him, and we are happy when he is successful and happy.” So if someone else in the Christian congregation is chosen for a certain privilege, the loving thing would be to be content with that. That is the way Jonathan was. Like him, we will be blessed if we support those faithfully serving in responsible positions in Jehovah’s organization.
The excellent example set by fellow Christians may properly be admired. Balanced comparisons with them can spur us on to healthy imitation of their faith. (Hebrews 13:7) But if we are not careful, emulation can turn into competition. If we feel outdone by someone whom we admire and we try to denigrate or criticize him, emulation would be degraded to envy.
No imperfect human offers an ideal model. Thus, the Scriptures say: “Become imitators of God, as beloved children.” Also, “Christ suffered for you, leaving you a model for you to follow his steps closely.” (Ephesians 5:1, 2; 1 Peter 2:21) The attributes of Jehovah and Jesus—their love, warmth, empathy, and humility—should be what we strive to imitate. We should take time to measure ourselves against their qualities, purposes, and ways of doing things. Such comparison can enrich our lives, providing sure direction, stability, and security, and can help us to attain to the stature of mature Christian men and women. (Ephesians 4:13) If we concentrate on doing our best to imitate their perfect example, we will surely be less inclined to compare ourselves with fellow humans.
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King Saul grew envious of David
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Jonathan never viewed the younger David as a rival