Helpful Comparisons

Via Liva Jan on Twitter

I had a seminary professor, Howard Hendricks, who warned his students against the dangers of comparison. At Dallas Theological Seminary, everyone received feedback on their work through a campus mail system. Students gathered near the campus mailboxes, pulled their papers, and the game began.

“What’d you get?”

“How’d you do?”

Hendricks said that if we did it in schoolwork, we’d do it in ministry. We would look at people who were leading churches that are growing numerically or launching new ventures or preaching to large crowds and make one of two mistakes.

If we were leading a growing ministry, we’d be susceptible to pride and self-conceit, thinking that our success could be traced to ourselves. Rather than giving God the glory, remembering the fruit we bear is a sign of God’s presence and grace or that our gifts and abilities trace themselves to God’s favor, and crediting countless co-laborers for their contributions to shared work, we act as though we are the ones who made everything go, that we did it all for God and that God and others should worship and thank us for all of the wonderful things that have taken place.

Conversely, if we work among rocky soil and see little signs of progress, labor among a sleepy congregation that is in need of renewal, or if we’re placed in a small community hidden from the attention of the world, we think we’re failing. We mistakenly believe that God has forgotten us or that the work that we are doing is insignificant in God’s sight. We compare our work to the wrong standard. We do not consider if we’re being faithful with the “talent” God has entrusted to us. Our service is not done unto the Lord. The comparison game leads us to look to others for our sense of well-being in ministry and in faith. As a result, we miss what God is doing in and through us right where we are.

I’ll confess this has been a difficult lesson for me to learn. Like most everyone, I have ambitions and the desire to be successful in what I do. I’ve wanted to “do great things for God” or to be admired. Rather than thinking about my calling, my need for growth, and my next step in faith before God, I’ve compared myself to others and how they are doing rather than considering carefully how I am doing.

The Christian difference here is that I am not only measuring my growth against myself. I am measuring my growth against Christ, in whom I am called to maturity. Ephesians 4:14-16 puts it this way:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Note that Paul calls each member to grow up into Christ. But as we grow, we do so as part of the fellowship of faith. In fact, membership within the body helps us to become all we’ve been created and redeemed to be in Christ, nourished within a kingdom ecosystem that allows each to flourish and to bear fruit that has been appointed in service to the whole.

One last thought that enables us to free ourselves from comparison to others: as part of a redeemed community, we remember that all other members, like us, were sinners in need of God’s grace. Therefore, there is no superiority. But we also remember that those who are part of the Christian community have been claimed by God’s love. Jesus died to demonstrate for us the depths of the love of God for us. Therefore, there is no inferiority. Christ died once, for all.

Artistry and Doubt

I don’t think there’s an artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they’re doing.

– Francis Ford Coppola

This is reassuring. Or perhaps not! Maybe I should spend more time doubting what I’m doing!

The problem with any endeavor that is worth doing, artistic or otherwise, is that showing your work can be terrifying. One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in writing, speaking publicly, or in leadership has been the fear that my work will be rejected, that it won’t be received well, and that I’ll be labeled a flop or failure.

But paradoxically, that same fear has often led me to work harder, to pay greater attention to detail, to be open to correction and change, thus making sure my future efforts are of more value, not less. The result has been improvement and growth. Growth requires risk, vulnerability, boldness, daring, and courage. A little bit of doubt can foster humility. There’s always the chance that even your best efforts will fail. The odds are you have failed , and you will again. Keep going.

Your best work is still ahead.