Better Than You
- Written by Jody Vickery Jody Vickery
- Published: 17 March 2017 17 March 2017
My friends in the counseling business tell me about a thing called social comparison theory. It’s where we figure out our social standing, competency or worth by comparing ourselves to other people. Depending on how you keep score, you can focus on just about anything; wealth, weight, height, looks, accomplishments, possessions, position .
. . you name it. Frankly, if you take one look at social media, they can stop calling it a theory. It’s a fact.
One of the domains where we frequently play this game is religion. For some of us, it’s all about the rules. The more consistently we live by The Book, the better we feel about ourselves. Especially when we compare ourselves to people who are to morals, ethics and orthodoxy what the Hindenburg was to the future of the airship industry. If you avoid the standard violations (chemical substances, criminal activity and sexual sins), attend services regularly – especially Wednesday nights – if you embrace only sound doctrine – then you are rocking the faith and you win the comparison game.
For others, it’s not about the rituals, rites or rules at all. It’s about justice – making things right. If you are a warrior for justice – if you check your privilege and practice tolerance – if you pray for equality, minimize your micro-aggressions and support sanctuary cities – if you are so inclusive and ecologically woke that you have a coexist bumper sticker on your Prius, then you win the gold medal for godliness.
Or maybe you look at the rule keepers and resistance fighters and think, how sad, then return again to reading Thomas Merton or maybe Julian of Norwich. For you, the internal disciplines are where it’s at. You fast and pray and practice solitude. You confess and live simply and meditate. You’d love to tell others how redemptive spiritual formation can be, but alas, you are currently living under a vow of silence.
Of course, you could rise above all that unbecoming religious oneupmanship and write a blog that gently chides rule keepers, justice warriors and contemplatives for missing the point. Then you’d really be on top. See how easy it is to play the game?
Here’s what God says about all our spiritual competitiveness – There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not . . . even . . . one. (Romans 3:10 – 11)
That sounds pretty harsh. I mean, carefully observing the rules is a good thing. It is! It’s a way of submitting yourself to a higher authority. Pursuing justice is very much a Jesus kind of thing to do. Working on those internal spiritual disciplines is what people who love God have done for centuries. So why does God say that there is no one who is righteous? Why does he say that in the spiritual comparison game, we are all losers?
Partly because comparing yourself to others is an unreliable source of feedback. Say I fancy myself somewhat the artist. If I compare my painting of a horse to Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches, mine looks like the work of a blindfolded four-year-old using a fat crayon. In the rain. That’s called comparing up. And it leads to despair and envy.
On the other hand, if I compare my horse drawing to that of a four-year-old, I look like Leonardo Da Vinci. That’s comparing down. We pick out someone we think is less spiritually competent than we perceive ourselves to be and, by comparison, we look really good. Like the Pharisee in that story Jesus told – “God I thank thee that I am not like this sinner.” Comparing down leads to arrogance and a false sense of security.
But the central reason God dismisses all of our effort is because the standard we’re trying to meet is not based on ritual observance, obedience to rules, moral purity, the practice of justice or spiritual discipline. It’s certainly not benchmarked to any human being. The standard is the Holy God. And I’m sorry, but that means that being good, however you or I define good, is not and never will be good enough.
And that’s why Jesus came. So that the rule followers and justice warriors and spiritual contemplatives and bloggers with a past could see what righteous living actually looks like. And so we’d finally, maybe, stop pretending to be better than each other and put our confidence in what he did on the cross instead of what we do.