I have done it more often than I can count. Setting my house, my car, my education, my career, my life next to a neighbor’s, a friend’s or even an enemy’s. I then feel the discomfort when they don’t match. Occasionally I feel better than them. But most often I come out on the losing end. When I don’t have what the next guy possesses, I wonder what’s wrong with me. And it shapes how I see myself. Why have I found that I’m almost always comparing what I have and who I am with those around me?
Sometimes it’s a dark indulgence in envy (read post: Choosing to Resist Envy). I want what someone else has and my attitude sours toward those who have what I don’t. But other times I believe it’s something that runs deeper. I have often studied what others possess to determine the standard by which to judge my own worth. “Who am I and what is my value? Let me decide after watching what everyone else is doing.”
Many of us, I believe, fall into this trap of comparing ourselves with others to determine how we view ourselves. It doesn’t end well.
A Bible Story
Jesus told a parable that illustrates how letting others shape our identities affects our place in the Kingdom of Heaven. In Matthew 25:14-30 we learn of a man, the owner of an estate, who entrusted his money with three servants before going on a long trip. The first servant was given five talents, the second servant two talents and the third one talent. Bible footnotes inform us that a talent in Jesus’ day was worth about 20 years of a day laborer’s wage. Today, if we generalize a “day laborer” as making $15 an hour, 20 years worth would equal around $576,000! The man in this story was entrusting high levels of wealth into these servants’ hands. Why? The best I can tell is that He wanted to learn how reliable each of them were to handle even greater things he desired to give them.
The first thing I note here is that the servants were not equal in their external abilities. They were born with different skills, and the man in charge recognized this. He wasn’t concerned so much with their capacity to produce more wealth for him as much as he wanted to see what they would do with what they were given.
From the first time I heard this story, I felt sorry for and identified with Servant #3. Yes, $576,000 (one talent) is a lot of money. But his fellow servants were given so much more. On the surface, nothing about this looked nor felt fair. If I were him, I would have immediately questioned everything: the owner’s integrity and trustworthiness, the justice of the system, and my own worth and capabilities.
And it appears that the third servant was thinking just like me. Heavy with what I imagine to be confusion, fear, and shame, he went out and buried the money. Afterall, comparing himself to the other two, he would never be able to make as much as them. So why embarrass himself even more? His personal value had been set according to how he stacked up against the other servants. Obviously, his boss at worst hated him and at best thought very little of him and his humiliation. He was merely a “one-talent” man and would always be less than those around him. He might as well act like it. .
Giving an Account to the Man in Charge
The rest of the story shows us a bit more about the owner of the estate and his motives. When he returned from his trip and asked each servant to give an account of how they had used his money, he was interested in how he could promote them. Servant #1 announced that he had invested the man’s money and doubled it, earning nearly three-million more dollars! What did his boss say to this? “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!” (Matthew 25:21).
Such a response is understandable to such rich productivity. But it was the boss’s response to Servant #2 that made his desires clearer. The second servant announced that his investments earned an additional $1,152,000. That’s an impressive amount, but less than half of the $3,000,000 Servant #1 earned. Yet the estate owner gave precisely the same praise and promise to the second servant as he gave to the first. It’s clear then that it was not the amount that pleased him but the fact that the servant embraced what he had been given and did something with it. The second servant didn’t focus on the fact that he had been given less than half of what Servant #1 received. Instead, he accepted his unique assignment, trusted the boss, and did his best.
Blind to What He Had
The third servant, however, was not met with such encouragement. He didn’t hear “Well done.” After confessing that he had buried the money, he gushed self pity, lamented how scared he was of the boss, and pronounced how impossible it was to please the man. The estate owner then expressed his displeasure, clearly upset and disappointed that the servant had done nothing with the gift he had been given.
Surely Servant #3 would have heard the same praise and promise that the other two received if he had simply kept his eyes focused on what had been put into his hands. It wouldn’t have mattered how much he made in the end as long as had used it for what it was—a uniquely valuable treasure entrusted to him. But he couldn’t see that. He was blinded by comparison. All he could see was that he had been treated unfairly. He viewed himself not through what his master wanted him to see. His identity, instead, was wrapped up in matching and competing with those around him. That became his reality and he missed his destiny completely.
Servant #2 is the real hero of this story in my mind. He could have easily compared himself to Servant #1 and decided the effort wasn’t worth it. Instead he fixed his attention on what he had been given and ultimately received the full praise. He chose to view his gift through the eyes of the one who had given it to him. And he thus saw himself rightly.
Who Am I Focused On?
I must know my bottom-line motivation as a Jesus follower. He’s my Boss. My ambition is to take what I’ve been given in life, whether great or little and honor Jesus with it. I’m striving, ultimately, to hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” It’s the only stimulus that can carry any follower of Jesus through all the confusing ups, downs, joy and pain of this life. But such words will not be measured out according to those who have or do the most of anything. They’ll be spoken to the ones who have recognized that their true identity is found in what God says about them. And that will not be discovered looking over someone else’s shoulder.
Comparing my accomplishments, my opportunities, my treasures, or my abuse, pain and mistreatment to someone else will never lead me to a good place. In fact, such comparisons are guaranteed to take me to deceptive heights of pride or dark holes of despair. In either location, the good I was destined to accomplish gets buried, never to be fulfilled. Even the bad and hurtful things that I have carried in this life can be redeemed and invested under the forgiving and purifying gaze of my “Boss,” if I will only trust His words, His love and His wisdom.
There is so much for followers of Jesus to do. Don’t get bogged down in the self-pity that comes through comparing yourself with someone who seems to have more resources or more promise. Jesus has provided everything you need to accomplish great things according to His ability in you. You just have to keep your eyes on Him and not the person next to you.