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The Comparison Game

The Comparison Game

Epic Family, we are moving back indoors in 3 weeks on June 20th. We are thankful that things have been moving in the right direction in regards to this pandemic -- vaccinations are up; cases are down. And as we ramp up to relaunch our full Sunday gatherings with kids programming and production, there is a role for you to play. Sign-up today for one of three teams: Epic Kids, Host Team, and Production. This is one way we can live out Jesus' command to serve one another. So be sure to sign-up today at epicsf.com/teams

Today I have the privilege of closing out our series, When Shame Moves Out. And I want to do that by first talking about self-esteem. Here is the definition for self-esteem - confidence in one's own worth or abilities. Your self-esteem has to do with how you view your value. And this topic of self-esteem is important in the discussion of shame because shame attacks your value. Because of things you’ve done, or things that have been done to you, it can make you feel worthless. Or, strangely enough, because of our coping mechanisms and all that we use to hide and cover ourselves, we can actually have an inflated view of ourselves. And both are equally destructive and take us away from God’s intentions for us.

I want you to think of self-esteem as a gauge -- as a meter. If I were to ask you where your self esteem is typically, on the average day, what would you say? Do you have low self esteem or high self esteem? On a scale from 1 to 10 what number would you give yourself? Here’s a more important question: What is determining your esteem? What are you allowing to determine your worth and value? What are you allowing to move the needle? This is important because if you use the wrong metric, or the wrong input, you will always miscalculate your true value.

A good friend of mine growing up, Ty, took a trip with another buddy of his to Canada. His friend was from there. So they drove from Florida so that this buddy could visit his family. Ty had never been to Canada. He reached the border during his leg of driving. It was really late at night, very few cars were on the road, and his friend was sleeping. Once he gets through the checkpoint he notices that the speed limit changed. And so he floors it. He’s driving so fast, and the car is revving so loud, that his buddy wakes up and asks, What are you doing? Ty says, Bro, the speed limit is 100! (He’s amazed by it!) His friend says, Yeah, that’s kilometers!

Thankfully they didn’t get pulled over or into an accident. But the story illustrates how using the wrong measuring system, the wrong filter, can be dangerous -- you always end up in the wrong place; you always end up with the wrong conclusion. 

In life, for whatever reason, we are constantly wondering how we measure up. We are constantly trying to gauge our value and our worth. And here’s one way, and the primary way that we do that: we compare ourselves to others. We do it at work. For those of us who are parents we do it at the playground with our kids. We do it on social media. We can even do it at church and with spirituality. Take a look at this parable from Jesus.

Luke 18:9-14

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

With this discussion on shame and self-esteem, on one end you have pride. On the other end you have, not humility, but you have insecurity. But right in the middle is humility -- and that’s where we want to be. We will talk about how comparison can drive us to the extremes of pride or insecurity. But God’s valuation and opinion of us is what brings us truly to a humble state. 

Let’s start with pride and the Pharisee. We would say that the Pharisee in this story had high self-esteem. He felt valuable; he felt worthy. But what was the basis for his high evaluation of himself? It was based on his comparison of himself to robbers, evildoers, adulterers—and even to the tax collector that was at the temple too. He was thankful that he was nothing like them. He was BETTER.

C.S. Lewis, in writing about pride, says this: Pride is essentially competitive—Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. (C.S. Lewis)

The Pharisee asked himself the question that all of us ask ourselves: Do I measure up? And he concluded that he did because he was more religious than the tax collector. He found security in that. 

Where is your security? Where is your safety and value? Are you finding safety and value in that you have more than the next man or woman, in that you’ve achieved more, in that your marriage has lasted longer, or your kids are better behaved?

Let me ask another question, but along the same lines: Where is your confidence? Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else…” (Luke 18:9a) The gospel message is that if our confidence is in anything else but Jesus and his righteousness then it is a misplaced confidence -- it is a faulty and weak foundation. The point of Jesus’ parable is to warn those of us who might believe that our perceived goodness, or the fact that we might be better than others in certain areas, doesn’t justify us. Those valuations, even if you end up on the positive side, don’t make you right. They don’t make you good. 

So we shouldn’t think much of ourselves because we feel that others are beneath us (even though most of us would never use or admit to that language); but we are to heed Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians (2:3, CEV): “Don't be jealous or proud, but be humble and consider others more important than yourselves.” Now that’s the challenge. Only a secure person can do that -- one who isn’t tossed or swayed by the critiques of shame or the promotions of pride. 

Now let’s talk about the downside of comparison which can lead to insecurity. I don’t know about you, but I always seem to come across someone that is better than me in every area. And when that happens -- and it happens to all of us -- the message of shame is that you don’t measure up. It takes advantage to tell you that You are not enough. This is the double-edged sword of comparison: yes, our self-esteem can improve when we compare ourselves to others who might be trailing behind in some category, but it plummets when we realize the distance those ahead of us have gained. 

Sometimes we are not even aware that we are playing the comparison game. But that doesn’t stop it from wreaking havoc in our lives. One day this past December, I had this pit in my stomach. The feeling was not foreign. Quite common, in fact. But I couldn’t pinpoint where it originated. Typically, when I feel that way it’s because of stress or a perceived poor performance. But this seemed to be coming out of nowhere. I felt good about where things were. I was looking forward to the upcoming week’s message that I was going to teach. But as I started to question myself, I realized that at the root of what I was experiencing was this sense of “not enough”. I had this overwhelming feeling that I wasn’t enough -- that I wasn’t measuring up. And I can’t even tell you why.

But this feeling began creeping up in my life about 8-10 years ago. You might ask, what happened around that time? Well, I moved here. I have felt more inadequate in this city than in any other place where I have lived. Why? Because most of my life I have been playing the comparison game without even knowing it. And for the most part, I’ve done fairly well. It didn’t bother me in Jersey where I excelled in school and skipped a grade; and I stayed away from the trouble of drugs and jail, unlike my cousins. I didn’t have issues with it in Florida where I got some attention from girls, and had influence amongst my friends and then eventually at church. But then I moved here. And no longer are the majority of the people behind me but they’re all in front of me (or at least that’s how I perceived it). In any environment I no longer was the smartest person in the room or the one doing the best financially or in my career. Shame takes advantage when you are no longer the best or doing better than most. The comparison game is all about superlatives. When you play the comparison and recognize that you are losing -- when you are no longer the best or better -- it can lead to a debilitating insecurity. 

The fastest way to ruin something special is to compare it to something else. If I’m insecure I give up on bringing what I have to the table because I can’t bring what you have. But God has not called you or me to be like anyone else. He has made you special and unique so that you can be you. 

This is like what happened to Saul when he returned from battle and the women began to sing and celebrate “Saul has killed his thousands and David his ten thousands.” (1 Samuel 18:7) Even though the women sang this song as a way to show honor to Saul the song enraged him and from that day forward he was jealous of and hated David. He couldn’t celebrate how God was using him because he was jealous of how he was using David. Again, Philippians 2:3 (CEV): “Don't be jealous or proud, but be humble and consider others more important than yourselves.”

Here’s another thing I want you to commit to memory: Comparison kills contentment. We need to stop looking around to see who is ahead of us or behind us. But we need to be thankful for the place that God has us and for the provision that he has made in our lives. You can’t be grateful and you can’t be content if you look at what everyone else has compared to what you have. Too many of us view success as doing better than others. But I once heard Lecrae say this in an interview and it has stuck with me: Success is not defined by comparing myself to the world. But it's comparing what I have done with what God has given me to do. (Lecrae) That is success. We need to give up the lie that once we achieve worldly success then we will have value and worth. Tim Keller writes, There is this illusion that the more success you have the less insecure you’ll be. If it were only that easy. Success never fully satisfies insecurity. (Tim Keller) He goes on to liken success to a 5-hour energy drink: it helps for a little but then it quickly fades away.

So let’s talk about the solution. If the comparison game only leads to pride or insecurity then we need to be done with that. But we also need to do away completely with self-esteem. Self-esteem is the wrong measuring system for your value and worth. By the way, shame researchers are coming to the same conclusion. People like Brene Brown, who has repopularized the topic of shame, write about how self-esteem keeps us in the rat race, which leads to burnout, exhaustion, and a divided-self. So they propose a shift from self-esteem to self-compassion. But as followers of Jesus, knowing that we have a maker, a creator, a Father, Jesus tells us that We have to move from self-esteem to acceptance. 

This is what the tax collector did. He prayed and sought God from a place of acceptance. He accepted that he was a sinner and that he had limitations. Pride doesn’t let you do that. We all know and have seen in others how pride blinds you to your weaknesses. And the tax collector also accepted that he was dependent and in need of God. Pride would never admit to that. As we discussed, pride exalts itself above others; and even dares to make itself equal to God. Do you realize that not even Jesus did that? Check out what Philippians 2:5-8 says about Jesus: 5In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Jesus, though an equal, humbled himself. We are to have the same mindset. 

And this applies whether we are doing well or we are struggling. You are accepted by God as you are when you place your life in his hands. I love that when Jesus was baptized, and a voice from heaven was heard saying “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.”, that he had not yet performed a miracle or started his earthly ministry. He was not an earthly success by any standard; but he was accepted by God. I love that Jesus says that the tax collector who was beating his chest, who couldn’t even look up to heaven, and was declaring himself a sinner is the one who left justified. Not the religious leader who fasted twice a week and gave a tenth of all that he owned. 

I’m here to tell you that your value and your worth doesn’t have to fluctuate based on how good or bad you are, based on what anyone says about you, based on whether you are doing better or worse than others, based on what shame criticizes you for. But even on your worst days you're not loved or valued any less than on your best days. You see, God is faithful even when we are not. Shame doesn’t want you to believe that. The most important thing when it comes to our esteem -- when it comes to our value, our worth -- is that we place our lives in the hands of our loving and merciful savior, Jesus. To know that you are accepted by him.

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