My brother and I are thirteen months apart in age. I am the younger. This means that I have the dubious distinction of being ‘a middle child.’ Normally, I pay no mind to the many anecdotes regarding the stigma of the middle children. There is, however, one stereotype that I must confess fits me like a glove.
See, I have this tendency to compare myself with those who are around me. I base my performance, my skill, my intellect, and my success on the sliding scale of those I am in contact with. For example, I recently visited the website of a friend of mine from seminary. Instantaneously, noticing the size of his church, my mind was filled with questions like ‘is his church bigger than mine?’ ‘Is he more successful as a priest than I?’ I noticed pictures of the youth-group in his church and pondered if he had a larger population of young people in his church than I do in mine. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t idle curiosity here; underlying every question is an internal, nagging, criticism of myself and my abilities. In fact, truth be told, it rarely matters the particularities of what or who I compare myself with for it all leads to the same place. In these comparisons I always come up short. I am always left behind; always the incompetent, always the fraud.
This is why it saddens me when I see our culture endorsing an attitude of self-criticizing comparisons. Celebrity magazines compare red carpet dresses in spreads titled “Who wore it better?” (notice it is not the dress being compared but the wearer!) Toddlers battle for tiaras in pageants that do little more than lock them into a cycle of superficial comparison. Even the love interests of the rich and famous are set against the back-drop of past relationships. Example: Can we please stop talking about Jen and Brad?
These comparisons do very little to motivate us towards personal accomplishments and self mastery. The message is never ‘be the best you you can be’ but rather “be someone else.” What is more, the deceptive promise lobbed to those who long to be ‘good enough’ is that the only way to escape these self-criticizing comparisons is to be the person to which others compared themselves! If one is the standard of comparison, then clearly his or her ability, looks, or accomplishments can not be negated… right?
Yet, there is always something or someone that we can compare ourselves, isn’t there? There is always some criteria that we haven’t met, some dress we didn’t wear better; some crown we have not achieved. Is it any wonder that a culture so adept at comparing one with another is also a culture sick with and unhealthy images of beauty and shallow depictions of success?
This trend toward self-criticism isn’t just damaging on an emotional level, but also on a spiritual one. Each time we compare ourselves to others, and find ourselves incomplete, we disregard the uniqueness of the person God has created us to be. We declare that the ‘me’ that God has created is not ‘good enough.’ What is more, in doing so, are we not actually standing in judgment upon God and his work?
Comparison always moves us away from how things are in truth and reality. Instead of recognizing the presence and force of God in the moment, we busily adopt the attitude of ‘I should be like this’ or ‘when I am like this then God will be present.” Yet God has calls us nowhere beyond this present moment. Sure we can think about the future; we can ponder, we can dream; but at the end of it all we live in the here and now, and this is the very moment that God moves in our lives.
Perhaps then, the answer lies not in trying to move ourselves beyond this moment, into some faulty place of recognized achievement. Perhaps the answer to our comparisons is to embrace the reality of who we are now; to recognize that in this moment I am who I am (as coined by a famous theologian and sailor-man), and that this is the precise person God chooses to work with in this moment, in this place. The death of our comparisons is found in adopting the attitude that, even with all the incompleteness of who we are and what this moment is, God does not call us to be anybody else.
This is a freeing thought. Not only does it remove the burden of constantly feeling like we have not met some unknown criteria, but it holds the door open for the acknowledgment that God is continually at work within us. It reminds us of the fact that in the end, God is in control; and his purposes will reign. I can embrace the fact that on a deep level I am often insecure and afraid because this realization leads me to cling to Jesus all the more, knowing that his power working in me ‘can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.’ And, ultimately, who I am now is not who I will be in the next moment, or in the next year; for God is ever moving within me. I, you, we are constantly being worked and reworked; formed and reformed. God continually stretches us beyond the walls of our self-comparisons so that we may experience the freedom found through our identity in Christ.
I am a middle child. I can’t sing. I’m not very athletic. I often have an esteem issue. Also, there are many people smarter than me; more talented than me; more successful than me; with bigger churches, wider influences, and more Facebook friends. But none of that actually matters; for I am a child of God. I am a follower of Jesus, and in this moment, God uses me as I am; and if that seems good to Him it should be alright by me.