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The Comparison Game

At the moment I’m writing this, we only have 498 days left until the next Olympic Games.

I love the Olympics (like borderline-obsession-love), and I’m pretty sure you should too. The precision of skill and of execution on display is jaw-dropping.

An interesting phenomenon occurred in the most recent Olympic Games. Several runners and swimmers lost gold at the finish line because they broke form to see how their competition was doing. Meanwhile, those who focused on running or swimming their own race pulled ahead to victory.

I wonder how many pastors and planters suffer from a similar struggle: rather than focus on the race before them, they are consumed with comparison.


An Old Struggle

His soaking wet clothes did not cause him to shiver—nor did the morning breeze coming off the Sea of Tiberias; the same question asked a third time caused the uncomfortable chill to run up Peter’s spine.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” – John 21:17a

The sound of those words struck a chord deep in Peter’s heart, and the song it played was grief.

Peter was grieved because [Jesus] said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” – John 21:17b

Most of us stop here at the restoration and commission of Peter. Peter denied Jesus three times while sitting around a fire before the rooster-crow of dawn (Jn.18:15-27); Jesus restored Peter while sitting around a fire before the rooster-crow of dawn (Jn. 21:4, 9).

Forgiven! Commissioned! Beautiful! I can’t help but think that every morning Peter heard the rooster’s crow he was reminded not of his denial but of God’s redemption through his failure.

But that’s not the end of the conversation. Prophetically and bluntly, Jesus tells Peter about his future ministry.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” – John 21:18-19

What weighty words to hear! How will Peter respond? Will he plead with Jesus like Jesus, himself, pleaded with the Father to take away His own poisonous cup of death (Mt. 26:36-46)? Will Peter deny this difficult ministry like he denied Jesus? Peter’s response is surprising, but it shouldn’t surprise us.

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them… When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” – John 21:20-21

At the news of his impending death, Peter’s gut reacts with comparison. He wonders if John will have to suffer too.


Comparison—A Thief of Joy

Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” As Christians, our greatest joy and purpose in life is to “… glorify God, and enjoy Him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 1.). The ultimate purpose of every man and woman allows us to have joy in living or dying for Jesus.

Jesus shared this information with Peter “to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God” (Jn. 21:19). This moment provided a unique opportunity for Peter’s joy, yet Peter’s joy was overshadowed by looking at someone else’s story.

I wonder how many pastors are miserable in their ministries because they spend more time searching Facebook than seeking to glorify God. And let’s just cut to the chase, we would rather glorify God through growth than through grief.

We are all fine and good with glorifying God while our ministry thrives and life is easy. But when we’re reminded of the bloody cross on our back, we look around at other pastors while jealousy knocks at the door of our hearts.

There’s no joy in a comparison born out of personal frustration and shattered dreams. When we think “Ministry is not what I thought it would be,” we need to look to Jesus, not others. We need to shrink our world—take a break from Facebook and pray.

We need to be reminded of that Old Story—that when the night is darkest, the light is surest to dawn. And the light at the end of the tunnel is not ministry success; it’s beholding Jesus, the Light of the World (2 Cor. 4:6; Jn. 8:12).

Some of the deepest joys in ministry are not in the growing seasons but in the groaning seasons. There the Lord meets us, sustains us and uses us in our weakness to glorify Him. Jesus says, “Feed my sheep, and follow me” (Jn.21:17, 19). What a joy to live and die for Jesus!


Comparison—A Posture of Pride

In one simple sentence, Jesus cuts to the heart of comparison.

Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” – John 21:22

At the heart of comparison is a heart that resists Jesus’ will for one’s life and ministry. Comparison is a posture of pride—pride that says, “God, my way and my dreams for my life are better than Yours.”

When we’re disappointed in life and ministry, we believe the answer is to compare ourselves to others so that we can figure out where the wheels fell off. We may even think the answer is to emulate our heroes in order to get the same results.

Jesus knows there’s no life in this, so he challenges Peter (and us) to look to Him and His will. Jesus has a specific, unique plan for your life and ministry. He wants you to follow Him, and where He leads you is where you’re supposed to be.

We need humility to follow Jesus to the places we don’t want to go. This conversation altered Peter’s life. Later Peter would write, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you… And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pt. 5:2, 4).

The dual command to “Feed my sheep” and “Follow me” invited Peter to a new way of life—to stop comparing himself to other-fellow-shepherds and to start surrendering himself to the Chief Shepherd.


Comparison—A Chance to Celebrate

C.S. Lewis helps us here by describing the nature of unhealthy comparison as competition.

“Pride is essentially competitive… Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.”

If competition is at the heart of pride, then celebration must be at the heart of humility.

When we have the humility to feed Jesus’ sheep in whatever way glorifies God and when we have the humility to follow Jesus’ will no matter how we feel about it, we find freedom to celebrate others.

God’s glory and God’s will allow us to sit in the chaos of the church split while praising Jesus for doubling our friend’s church. God’s glory and God’s will enable us to trust Jesus in depression while rejoicing with our pastor friend who is happy about all God is doing.

Jesus has a unique plan for your life and ministry. He has set the boundaries on what you will do for Him. And what He has planned is enough. Celebrating others is evidence we believe this. Celebrating others is proof we care more about following Jesus than being a star for Jesus.

Don’t throw out the story Jesus is writing through your life for some simplistic pipe dream. Jesus is a better dreamer anyway. Feed the sheep. Follow Jesus. Trust His plan. Run your own race. And celebrate the amazing work Jesus is accomplishing in our world.

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