Sunday, December 09, 2018

Praying to Be Free from Comparison

When we spend time comparing ourselves with other people this often produces the bitter twin fruits of self-obsession, which are: shame and pride. Shame is the feeling that I am no good, worth little or nothing, of no value. Pride is the feeling that I am more valuable than other people.

There is a "healthy pride." C.S. Lewis talks about it in his chapter "The Great Sin" in Mere Christianity. But self-obsessive pride and shame are punishers of the soul, rooted in comparing ourselves with others. Here are some things about comparison, sort of a phenomenology of comparison.

Comparison rank-orders people on an honor-shame hierarchy with its various manifestations (like: good-bad; beautiful-ugly; worthy-worthless; useful-useless; favored-despised). 

There are many kinds of honor-shame hierarchies. Compared to other people you and I are either: 1) better than they are; 2) worse than they are; or 3) the same as they are, in terms of some specific attribute, quality, or talent. You're not as beautiful as some; you are more beautiful than others. A whole lot of people are smarter than you; you are a whole lot smarter than a lot of people. If you can read this, you are ahead of the world's 20% of adults who cannot read. If you scored 50% on the ACT, then half of our nation's teens are smarter than you in terms of the material tested on.

Compared to others, you either measure up or measure down. If you measure up, then you look down; if you measure down, then you are looking up. 

The honor-shame hierarchy creates "haves" and "have nots," relative to a person's position on whatever honor-shame hierarchy we are considering. "Pride" looks down on others; "shame" looks up at others. In my experience many people are "pride-shame" people who are both looking down and looking up. For them, life is a ride on a never-ending roller coaster of emotions that simultaneously please and punish.

Hierarchization is the kingdom-of-darkness norm. For example, while I was in India traveling and speaking I discovered, firsthand, the brutal, hierarchizing caste system. Upper caste people are perceived as better people, having been better in their previous life, deserving greater favor, and promoted upwards on the honor-shame hierarchy in their current life. 

I was in several lower caste villages. One village leader in central India told me, "The government does not think of us." All the people in his village were lower caste. Their low social status was manifested in their impoverished social conditions. Not only were they economically poor, they were socially scorned. This is the double whammy of an honor-shame culture that hierarchizes people. While this may sound primitive, it's alive and well today in America..

We see it in the Bible, in the story of the blind man sitting outside the Temple. Jesus and his disciples leave the Temple area and see him. Jesus' disciples reason that, either he or his parents sinned, the man's blindness being due to someone's sin. 

Here's the double whammy: 1) the man is blind and cannot work but only beg; and 2) the man is morally and religiously unclean - he's a sinner that deserves to be blind. He is low, very low, on the totem pole. He's at the bottom of the pecking order, the deserving recipient of scorn. 

Jesus, in another one of his jaw-dropping a-cultural moments, tells his disciples that neither this man nor his parents are responsible for his blindness. Imagine the blind man hearing Jesus say this. Can it be true? At the moment he's still blind, but the comparative hierarchizing world of pride and shame is dissolving before his ears at the words of Jesus.

I'll never forget entering a village located on the Deccan Plateau in central India. There were 300-400 people in this village. There was no electricity, no running water, and tiny mud-brick houses. The entire village came out to greet me as I arrived in an all-terrain vehicle. They placed garlands of flowers around my neck, two men held umbrellas over my head to shade me from the sun, and I heard the sound of drums coming toward me. Three men slinging drums on their hips led as the parade began, with me as the center of attention. 

We processed to a small building that housed meetings of the local church. The room was packed, with people overflowing out the door and peeking through the windows. I was introduced, then spoke to them. Here was I, the rich white man from America, an "upper caste" person in the midst of lower caste no-name, nothing-people. 

I opened my Bible and read Galatians 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." I told them that Jesus came to remove the human-made caste system. They are free from being rank-ordered according to some honor-shame thing. God doesn't compare them with other people. Instead, God came down and rescued them from the hierarchizing world that enchains their hearts. Now, they are free to look only to God, who loves them and has come to make his home in them. (John 14:23)

In comparison with God, who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, our knowledge, power, and love are, relatively speaking, nothing. In that regard we are all the same. Comparison with one another is, therefore, logical nonsense. That God loves you and me should cause us to wonder and worship Him, rather than compete and compare with other finite people. 

The realization that the honor-shame hierarchy does not even apply in the kingdom of God releases us from striving to measure up to other people. Personally, this has been, and remains, good news for me.

Look to God.

You are sons and daughters of God.
You are loved because of this relationship, not because of any intrinsic abilities you have, which are nothing in comparison to God.
Be free from spending time comparing yourself to other people.
Set your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of your faith.

Pray to be free from comparison.

My two books are:

Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God