Freedom From Comparison
WORDS BY ANN SWINDELL // IMAGE BY EASTLYN BRIGHT TOLLE
I was in elementary school when one of my classmates—another female—told me that I had “big thighs.” And life was never the same.
I’m not being dramatic; up until that moment, I had never considered the size of my thighs. I knew that I had a body and that other people had bodies, but I didn’t consider how my body looked compared to theirs. I just knew that my legs worked well and that they helped me jump when I played basketball—that was all I cared about. But when my classmate told me that she thought my thighs were big, I started looking at the size of my legs in light of the size of other girls’ legs. Were my thighs as big as Francie’s? Or smaller than Lisa’s?
Enslavement to Worldly Standards
For me, what started that day was the ugly game of comparison. That game set me on a path of discontentment with my body—because I started comparing myself to others and to women I saw in the media. And, as I got older, I let comparison seep into other areas of my mind. I compared myself to other women—was I smarter than them? Prettier than them? Or was I less interesting than them? Less successful? Without realizing it, I began living my life out of a place of comparison and, therefore, slavery. I was doing exactly the opposite of the exhortation in scripture written by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5. He writes, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Gal. 5:25–26).
Because I could look at some women in my life and think, whew, I’m thinner than them, or prettier than them, or smarter than them, I found myself becoming conceited. But the flip side is that I could always look at other women and think, wow, I weigh so much more than she does, or I don’t have as many friends as she does, and I found myself being envious.
Living like this is exhausting. And it’s sinful.
Both sides of comparison—conceit and envy—created boundary lines in my life that God never gave to me. I looked to others for boundary lines regarding what was considered beautiful and successful and lovely. And these false boundary lines kept me in chains by whispering that I weighed too much or that I needed different clothes or that I needed to study harder or make more friends.
Comparison, whether it is to build ourselves up or push others down, is a chosen form of enslavement to standards that are ours—not God’s standards. It is choosing friendship with the world by choosing the world’s standards for beauty, happiness, success, and wealth rather than looking to God. The Apostle James writes about this very temptation:
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:1–4).
I wanted the wrong things when I set up my own standards for beauty and success—and I was looking for acceptance from the world. And in doing so, I had been partnering with the world rather than with God.
A Higher Goal
Then I experienced unmerited grace in the form of a jersey: I made the volleyball team in high school. Although I couldn’t see it at the time, this was one of the richest ways that God set me free from comparison, because for me, volleyball changed my understanding of my body. I was training—growing muscle and gaining weight in order to become a stronger athlete—and because of that, I was no longer comparing myself to the images I saw in magazines or to other girls I saw in the hallways. I started embracing who I was for a bigger purpose in my life—volleyball. It meant that my body wouldn’t look like everyone else’s. But I had a purpose I was aiming for—playing on the varsity squad—and so I stopped caring about the size of my thighs and the numbers on the scale. For me, volleyball became a microscopic picture of what God wanted to do in the rest of my life. He wanted to free me from comparison.
This, I have learned, is one of the ways that comparison is defeated. I only knew it in a small way through volleyball, but I started to taste the kind of freedom that came through having a goal bigger than myself. My goal was that I wanted to play on the varsity team. In the grand scheme of things, that goal was a very, very small one. But it got my eyes off of my own life and helped me to aim for something higher than my reflection in a mirror.
Freedom from Comparison
From an eternal perspective, comparison is defeated when we have a goal bigger than our own lives: when we have the higher goal of glorifying God and furthering his kingdom on earth, we are better able to embrace the purposes of God in our lives—in our bodies, in our marriages, in our jobs, in our friendships. You might not struggle with body image, as I did. You might be temped to compare your marriage to the marriages of those around you, or to compare your job to the one you think you “should” have, or to compare your season of life to someone else’s. But when we ask God to help us live our lives for his purposes—rather than our own—our attention moves away from our insecurities and onto him. This brings freedom.
Comparison is also defeated when we accept the truth of who God says we are and allow that to define our lives, rather than look to who the world says we should be. Ephesians 2:10 says that we are God’s masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus to do good works. Psalm 139 tells us that he formed us and knit us together. He made me for a distinct purpose on this earth. He made you for a distinct purpose on this earth. In many ways, comparison is a lack of trust in who God is. It is a lack of trust in whom he has made us to be and why he has made us that way—and that he has made us the way he made us because he loves us. He gave you your particular body and your particular calling and your particular children because he loves you—it is all a gift from him. We can trust that he knows what is best for us.
There is one more way to defeat comparison in our lives, and it means making one last comparison: comparison with Christ. Because true comparison shows—if we’re going by God’s standards—that we all fail, miserably and horribly. We are completely unable to be holy enough, pure enough, or good enough to be with God (Romans 3:23). But—there is good news! God made the way for us to know him through Jesus. Jesus has taken us out of that comparison cycle. He eradicated any comparison by taking the demands of perfection on himself. Because when we are compared to God, we cannot measure up. But Jesus filled that gap through his life, death, and resurrection (Romans 5:8). Now, we can not only be saved by God, but also we can know him and have friendship with him (John 15:14). And in his love, we can walk free from the enslavement of comparison and into his purposes for our lives.
Regardless of the comparisons you are making in your own life and whether your comparisons fall on the side of conceit or envy, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11–12)
Comparison is all around us—it is the lifeblood that our culture feeds on. Advertisements are often based on the comparison of one product to another, or on the comparison of our current life to whatever the company is trying to sell us—beauty and sex and pleasure and wealth. Because when we compare our lives to glossy magazine spreads or television commercials—or even to the woman ahead of us at the check-out line—it’s easy to start feeling like we don’t measure up to some impossible standard.
When it comes down to it, comparison is not only enslavement to standards that aren’t God’s, but also it is judgment against either ourselves or our neighbor.
When we become conceited or envious, we are making a judgment call on value or worth or beauty or purpose. And that judgment isn’t ours to give.
I am no one to judge my neighbor, whether it is to be conceited in my comparison against her, or to envy her for what I do not have. I am not the judge; I am only the recipient of grace. I am the recipient of the grace of God in my life—of the purpose of God in my life.
I think, often, that comparison is a lack of trust in who God is. It is a lack of trust in whom he has made us to be and why he has made us that way—and that he has made us the way he made us because he loves us.
I couldn’t have named what started that day as a ten-year-old in grade school, but the truth is that I’ve been fighting to be free from comparison for the last two decades.
What could be the vision of a community of women free from comparison? What if we spurred one another on to live out our full callings without being envious or conceited? What if we looked at one another with eyes of love and grace—and looked at ourselves with eyes of love and grace—without comparison and competition? I think we would become women who are free.
This article was originally published in Deeply Rooted Magazine Issue 5: Life.