Formations 12.07.2014: Avoiding the Comparison Trap

John 1:6-9; 3:25-30

Paul Cézanne, Apples and Oranges, c. 1899

Paul Cézanne, Apples and Oranges, c. 1899

The more we use social media—Twitter, Facebook, and the like—the more temptations we find to compare our accomplishments with those of our friends and colleagues. Who has achieved an impressive career milestone? Who just got back from a fabulous vacation? Who is involved in a project that might even change the world?

This isn’t really a social media problem, however. It is a comparison problem that can span every aspect of life. As tech entrepreneur Lauren Bacon explains, nothing about Twitter or any other social media platform is designed to ask us how we’re measuring up. That is something we lay upon ourselves. “In our comparison-soaked culture,” she writes, “it’s hard to avoid looking around at what other people are doing with their short time on earth, and slipping (often unconsciously) into ‘How am I stacking up?’ mode.”

To combat this comparison trap, Bacon recommends three important strategies:

(1) Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides. We have no idea what it took for the people “on top” to get there and have no right to act as if their success was “unearned, effortless, or pure dumb luck.”

(2) Transform comparison into celebration. “Admiration and envy are responses that point us toward what we value most,” Bacon writes. When we find ourselves admiring certain qualities or outcomes in others, we should celebrate them.

(3) Use the success of others as a mirror. The light we see in others can help us see and appreciate what we have to offer. How can what we see inspire us to use our own gifts to the fullest?

John the Baptist’s disciples fell into the comparison trap when they noticed that Jesus was attracting more followers than John. The Baptist, however, had learned the secret of enjoying Jesus’ success rather than being envious of it. As his story is told in today’s text, we see his attitude toward Jesus as Jesus is seen to gain more disciples than John. The slightly older cousin famously declares, “He must increase and I must decrease” (3:30). Nor was he worried about the fact that Jesus seemed to be “increasing” at his expense.

Lauren Bacon, “The Comparison Trap: How to Enjoy (and Not Envy) the Success of Others,”


• When have you seen envy lead to negative consequences?
• According to Bacon, the people we envy often display characteristics that we deeply value. Is this true in your experience? Explain.
• How might John have applied Bacon’s strategies as he observed the success Jesus’ ministry? What might he have told his disciples to help them see things from his perspective?
• How can we grow into the attitude of letting Christ be supreme regardless of the cost?

Reference Shelf

John the Baptist

According to the NT, John the Baptist was born of priestly lineage (Luke 1:5-7) about the same time as Jesus and lived in the wilderness (Luke 1:80, cf. Mark 1:4). (Some interpreters have understood John’s association with the wilderness as evidence that he was affiliated with the Essenes.) According to Luke, he was physically related to Jesus through the kinship of their mothers (Luke 1:36); however, there is no evidence that he knew Jesus prior to their adult lives. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus and John ministered simultaneously for a brief duration (John 3:25-30); the synoptic Gospels, nevertheless, place the public ministry of Jesus after the arrest of John (Mark 1:14; Luke 3:18-23a). John was arrested and eventually executed by Herod Antipas. The Gospels indicate that Herod’s motive was to silence the Baptist’s preaching against the ruler’s sexual immorality (Mark 6:17; Luke 1:19). Josephus states that Herod executed John because he feared that the Baptist’s preaching would spark an insurrection.

J. Bradley Chance, “John the Baptist,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990) 458–59.

The Greater Success of Jesus

The second issue in which John’s disciples find themselves involved is the greater success of Jesus. “And they came to John, and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness [cf. 1:29, 34, 36], here he is, baptizing, and all are going to him’” (v. 26). The problem is envy. (Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.10.1, says, “Envy is defined as a kind of distress at the apparent success of one’s peers.” Cicero, De oratore 2.52.209 says, “People are especially envious of their equals, or of those once beneath them, when they feel themselves left behind and fret at the other’s upward flight.” Plutarch, On Being a Busybody 6.518c.6, says, “Envy is pain at another’s good.”) The cause of the envy is the assumption of a limited good. One person’s gain is theft from another. (Plutarch, On Listening to Lectures 44B, says, “As though commendation were money, he feels that he is robbing himself of every bit that he bestows on another.” Josephus, Life 25 § 122–123, says: “Believing that my success involved his own ruin, he gave way to immoderate envy.”) It is this second issue that prompts the Baptist’s pronouncement. John’s words (vv. 27-30) involve four components. (1) The cause of Jesus’ success is first stated as a general principle: “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven” (v. 27). If there is greater success on Jesus’ part, it is God’s doing. Each person, whether Jesus or John, plays the part God gives (cf. 1 Cor 3:5-10; 4:7). (Josephus, Antiquities 4.2.4 § 32, says, “It was monstrous that Korah, in coveting this honor, should deprive God of the power of deciding to whom He would accord it.”) Two contrasts make this clear. (2) “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ [1:20], but I have been sent before him” (v. 28; cf. 1:15; 1:27; 1:30). In this first contrast, Jesus’ part assigned by God is that of the Christ; John’s part is that of going before him. (3) “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full” (v. 29). In this second contrast, Jesus’ role is that of bridegroom; John’s that of the friend of the bridegroom. In Jewish wedding practice, the friend brought the bride to the groom and then stood guard over the nuptial chamber. Although he could hear the bridegroom’s voice exclaiming in joy over the consummation of the union, he would never consider interfering. Indeed, ancient Near Eastern law forbade the giving of the bride to the best man (cf. the violation in Judg 14:20). John, then, would not improperly interfere win the union of bride (Israel: Hos 2:21; Jer 2:2; Isa 62:4-5; Ezek 16:8; Church: 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:25-27; Rev 21:2) and bridegroom (Jesus). His joy is full because he has played his part in facilitating the union. (4) The conclusion of the matter comes in v. 30: “He [Jesus] must increase, but I [John] must decrease.” The fact that has sparked the controversy is Jesus’ greater success in attracting and baptizing disciples. John’s interpretation of this success is that it is as it ought to be. It is God’s doing and accords with the assigned roles of each in the divine plan….

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 112–13.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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