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The Comparison Game

Comparing ourselves to others has dangerous consequences.

Editor’s note: The following article is by Rob Ketterling, Assemblies of God North Central Area executive presbyter. It is part of an ongoing series of articles by AG executive leaders.

When I was overweight, I didn’t have a flashing sign on my forehead showing my current level of cholesterol, and I avoided the scales to check my actual weight. As long as I remained ignorant of the hard realities, I felt confident. I had no idea that I was a ticking time bomb!

A lot of people in debt don’t look at their bank balance or their credit card statements, and people in conflict just avoid any interactions with the other person. Or more commonly, people in strained or abusive relationships insist “everything is just fine” because shining a light on the problem will only make matters worse, at least in the short term. A common statement counselors make is, “What you resist persists.” Forbes senior contributor Kathy Caprino lists several reasons people refuse to face hard realities, including: They minimize—“It’s not that bad.” They deflect—“It’s not fair. Why do I have to be the one who has to change?” They excuse—“He couldn’t help it. That’s just the way he is.” And they use magical thinking—“It’ll get better. I just know it.” These are tried and true excuses to keep from addressing real problems.

In addition, comparison is a deadly game . . . even if we win! It’s easy to justify our behavior by looking around at people who are worse so we can proudly say, “Well, at least I’m not like him (or her)!” We compare ourselves to the jerk in the next office or the caustic neighbor, and we feel pretty good about ourselves. But that jerk and that neighbor compare themselves to someone worse so they can be self-satisfied, and that person indulges in the next layer of comparison and pride. Jesus told a parable that perfectly illustrates this kind of self-delusion:

Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income’” (Luke 18:9-12, NLT).

Tax collectors were Jews who collaborated with the Romans to get taxes (and some extra for themselves). They were considered traitors. So, in this story, the Pharisee compared himself to a guy who was like Benedict Arnold, and he came out looking good! But Jesus wasn’t finished with the story:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:13,14, NLT).

When I read this story, I wonder if the two guys overheard each other. If they did, I can imagine that the Pharisee’s self-satisfaction was heightened by the tax collector’s humble confession, and the tax collector probably didn’t have warm and fuzzy feelings about the self-righteous Pharisee! The Pharisee’s comparison would drive them even further apart . . . and that’s what happens in our relationships when we compare ourselves either positively, resulting in pride, or negatively, resulting in shame.

I would say, “Don’t do it!” but the fact is that we all do it. Comparison has been a part of human dysfunction since the beginning of the human race. In the first chapters of the Bible, we read the tragic story of two brothers, Cain and Abel. Cain was jealous and murdered his brother. Not exactly a great beginning for family relationships! Now, with the Internet and social media, we compare ourselves with people all over the world! Here’s my go-to perspective: I’m not trying to be better than you. I’m trying to look more like Jesus and be the best me I can be. When He is the focus, instead of our failures or successes, He remains in His rightful place, and when we focus on being more like His image, we will have a much more humble and joyful life. On that brings Jesus glory instead of ourself!

An excerpt, adapted from Keep The Change, by Rob Ketterling. Releasing 2023.

Rob Ketterling

Rob Ketterling has served as North Central area executive presbyter since 2017. He is the founding and lead pastor of River Valley Church, a vibrant and generous church committed to leveraging the strength of a local church for the sake of global Church empowerment. With 10,000 people attending each weekend at more than 24 worship experiences at 9 campuses across the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, River Valley is a local church discovering new avenues to equip and expand the Kingdom of God around the world. Launched in 1995, River Valley Church gives more than $5 million annually to missions. The River Valley Network strengthens 475 churches with leadership and worship resources, children’s and youth curriculum, and an annual conference.

Ketterling has a “connect-the-dots” teaching style, allowing his audience to take practical steps in their journey no matter where they are. He is a compelling visionary, inspiring people to live an authentic, life changing relationship with Jesus. His ministry journey over the last 30 years has equipped him to challenge and encourage leaders to take their influence to the next level.

Through his unique and practical preaching style, vision casting, and gifts of leadership, Ketterling encourages people to live out River Valley’s mission of cultivating an authentic, life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ.

He is the author of several books including Change Before You Have To, Fix it!, and Front-Row Leadership. Ketterling currently serves on several organizational boards including the Lead Team of the Church Multiplication Network (CMN) and Association of Related Churches (ARC) as well as the board of Regents for North Central University and as the Chair of the Global University India College of Ministry Founders Board and on the Board of Catalyst.