Comparison, minimizing, and rationalizing are coping techniques for unspiritual people. They are not the weapons of spiritual warfare. Take up the full armor. Stop seeing the greater sins of others as your justification.
In his chapter introductions of Precious Remedies, Thomas Brooks often imagines what Satan says to us. Brooks characterizes Satan’s words based on what Scripture reveals of his personality, his tactics and schemes, his purposes and desires.
‘You are only a little …’
But notice something unique about this one: it is incomplete. The enemy uses four points of comparison between “you” and other sinners.
- You are only a little lustful.
- You are only a little deceitful.
- You only sit, chat, and sip a little with the drunkard.
- You are only a little proud.
With the first three observations, Satan explains how other sinners are much worse than you. But on the fourth, Brooks cuts him off. We don’t learn how much prouder others are. It is unnecessary. We can fill in the blank easily.
At this point, we know how proud we truly are – “in heart and habit, in looks and words.”
We don’t have to close our eyes to our own faults. We are born subjectively blind. This is why writers need editors, why construction companies need building inspectors, why the U.S. Congress needs the Supreme Court. We must rely on others to point out our flaws and shortcomings, to show us where we fail to meet our expressed ideals.
Personal comparisons are spiritually deadly. To pray “God, I thank you that I am not like …” shows we are in no position to thank God for anything. We haven’t yet truly understood the importance of repentance. But to say, “God, why aren’t I as good a Christian as …” is an equal fault. It is to be ignorant of our differing places along the path of sanctification, and to believe we can earn greater measures of God’s love by effort.
We must resist Satan‘s attempts to explain away our “trifling” sins by demonstrating how much worse off others are. If there is any real comparison to make, it’s that my sin may not have been exposed publicly to another’s degree.
Remedy 1: Become a stranger to yourself
The sharp reader will note that in an earlier post I advised knowing your true self. Good catch! But keep reading.
After a long weekend vacation in the Smoky Mountains, our family returned to our suburban home. Exiting our minivan to gather up our children and luggage, I heard a low but persistent noise. A din. It surprised me. Then I realized what it was.
“Has the interstate always been that loud?” I asked my wife. She paused, listened for herself, then nodded with a sigh.
We lived at the time less than a mile from Interstate 65. Groves of mature trees and buildings lie between us and that thoroughfare. But on a still night one cannot mistake the hum of tires and internal combustion.
After several days and nights in the utter stillness of the mountains, far from traffic, I had become attuned to peacefulness. Returning home, I heard the interstate with new ears.
Becoming a stranger to yourself means learning to see our own sinfulness afresh, to not be “blind at home.” Get close to Christians in your midst whom you admire, who share the same strengths and giftedness as you. Eventually, you will see them at their less-than-best. And then you will also likely see a reflection of yourself.
A good, theologically-minded friend told me he struggles with self-righteousness around his doctrinal precision. Wanting to be right is good. Insisting on being right all the time is not. In watching this friend reveal his sinful tendencies I found him exposing my own as well.
Remedy 2: Use the correct comparison
Apologist Ravi Zacharias often uses an apt illustration to explain the concept of a comparison. Imagine you are driving, and stopped at a traffic signal. While distracted you suddenly feel as though you are inching backward. You quickly apply the brakes! But as it turns out, it was the cars to your left and right that were inching forward.
Now imagine this same scenario. Except this time you look up to get your bearings, only to see that it is the buildings around the road that are moving! Your position in relation to other objects tells you the severity of the problem you face. Applying the brakes won’t help when the world’s foundations aren’t fixed.
Brooks in this section alludes to a passage in 2 Corinthians 3:
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (3:17-18, ESV).
What transforms us into the image of Christ is our beholding His glory, which we find most readily in God’s Word. Even Peter, who beheld the glorified Lord on the mountain, found God’s glory in the Scriptures. This is our right ruler.
Comparing ourselves to other Christians is a good way to get a false-positive reading. We can’t trust ourselves to use more mature believers as our measuring rod.
We can never measure up to the righteousness and perfection of Jesus. But we can trust that He faithfully makes us more like him each day.
Remedy 3: Less sin is still sin
“It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.”
What makes this statement from Miracle Max in The Princess Bride funny (apart from Billy Crystal’s matchless comedic abilities) is his mating of a term of degree with an absolute. It’s the same reason saying a woman is “very pregnant” seems odd. Either she’s pregnant or she isn’t.
In God’s economy, you’re either saved or condemned, a sheep or a goat, an adopted child or an estranged orphan. As a Christian, your duty is not to sin less than your brother or sister. It’s to sin less, period.
Look at some of the New Testament teachings that confirm this.
- “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11).
- “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).
- “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7).
Also, consider Jesus’ reframing of sinfulness in his sermon on the mount. “You have heard it said,” becomes “but I tell you.” His standards are much higher than mere men could conceive.
Comparison is the thief of joy
As it has been said, Jesus did not come to make bad people good. He came to make dead people live! Jesus didn’t send his Holy Spirit to teach us to sin less. He sent Him so that we might walk in the perfect righteousness with which he gifted us. We will not walk perfectly. But we cannot become comfortable with besetting sin.