“But godliness with contentment is great gain”
– 1 Timothy 6:6 (NIV)
The title of today’s post is a quotation attributed to American president Theodore Roosevelt. The truth of this statement is so blinding, I am partly tempted to let it stand on its own. If I did that, though, you might think I was being lazy. So here goes.
Equal time for comparison
I am a believer in competition. A good-natured rivalry can motivate you to elevate your performance in nearly any arena, and can help you stave off complacency. This is why fitness trainers and management consultants alike recommend keeping records and charting your progress toward your goals. Engaging a friend or two to pursue the same goal builds in even more accountability, and makes it more difficult to punt your workout. All of this is beneficial, as it brings out the best in each of us.
The dark side
Where this goes sideways is when we begin looking at what people around us have while disparaging our own resources or circumstances. We don’t feel that we are getting the reward we deserve while others — seen by us as less worthy — are getting far more than they deserve. Sound familiar?
Why do we compare?
I think this unhealthy wish to measure ourselves against others is first a byproduct of living in a fallen world. We are all fallible and deep down we know it. We long for justice in the face of wrongdoing — just as long as we can escape our due punishment. At the same time, we fear being exposed, so we seek to lessen the sting by identifying all those over whom we can claim superiority.
For most of us, this isn’t conscious behavior. If it were, I think it would be less common. Instead it exists from preschool play yards to corporate boardrooms. It seems to be latent animal behavior, akin to the pecking order among chickens, or establishing of dominance in a dog pack. If you’re tempted to think that because we see this in the animal kingdom, that it’s a feature of our world, and not a bug, note that this observation doesn’t negate the fallenness of our world. Besides, dogs drink from the toilet.
Even so, little boys compare to see whose is biggest, migrating to boasts about whose dad could beat whose, eventually escalating to the acquisition of temporary status symbols — car, career, condo, concubine — lather, rinse, repeat. Social media just amplifies the effect. As Chuck Palahniuk wrote in Fight Club, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
It seems to me that a man who has his question answered, who has his purpose figured out and is about his mission is less susceptible to seeking comfort by comparing himself to others.
It’s nobody’s business
When I was thirteen, I wanted to buy a road bike. Braswell’s Cycle Shop had a chestnut metallic Schwinn Varsity ten-speed. It was beautiful, and cost far more than I had. My grandfather owned an industrial supply company in our town, so I went to see him. When I told him I wanted to buy a bicycle but I didn’t have the money, he asked me if I’d be willing to work for the company.
I agreed on the spot. Next, I went down the street to get a Social Security number and a work permit and showed up the next morning at 8:00. As an inventory clerk it was my job to count roller chain, sprockets, roofing sealant, and drill bits that were so fine I wonder if I could even see them now. This was my introduction to the 40-hour work week.
When payday came, my grandfather took me aside and, as he handed my check to me, he told me that what he paid me was between him and me — it was nobody else’s business. Likewise what he paid others in the company was between him and them — and that was none of my business. A few people asked what I was making, and I never told them. And I have followed my grandfather’s advice ever since.
I enjoyed riding that bike — and wearing the clothes I was able to buy with money I had earned — and was untroubled by what others were getting. I had my job and I had agreed to the rate of pay when I hired on. So that was that.
But why is comparison a thief?
The simplest answer is that when you’re focused on something other than what is yours, you fail to appreciate it. It’s like dancing with a pretty girl while looking over her shoulder for someone prettier. I’ve seen men blow up their families because they failed to appreciate the treasure that was theirs. This is that old “grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” Most of these men simply exchanged one set of problems for another set — most often at a higher cost.
Ultimately comparison robs us of contentment when we feel powerless to change our situation. This is a close cousin to worry and its ugly sister, despair. These are all forms of pride — the master sin. Pride alleges that we know better than God what we need, rather than trusting Him for what we need in its time. So how do we fix this?
Be thankful for what you got
Gratitude is the best place to begin. Start by giving thanks for the most basic of your blessings and expand from there like ripples in a pond. Thank God for your life, your health, your home, your relationships — even if they are far from ideal. Don’t just halfheartedly lob your thanks in God’s general direction — make time to consciously sit in His presence and offer what the Bible calls a “sacrifice of praise.” If it costs you nothing, it isn’t a sacrifice.
Recognize that with God’s help, all things are possible. Hang your hat on that and don’t let your circumstances tell you otherwise. Persevere and look to God to work the current suck into a great story of redemption.
Eyes on your own work
Marketers make their living exploiting the ones who’ve fallen into what Dr. David Chadwick calls “the snare to compare.” Unless you’re in the market for a new car and you have the money to buy one, you’re better off avoiding the ads and the lots. Similarly, if you’re married, you’re far better off investing your attention to your wife than to other women — real or imagined.
As Romans 14:4 says, “A man stands or falls before his own master.” That’s the only measurement that counts.