“So how are things going at your church?”
I knew the question was asked in love and compassion because she knew how difficult things had been, but I still deflated a bit inside. Things hadn’t been going that well, and I knew her church was flourishing. Their women were signing up by the dozens for a new mentoring ministry, excited to disciple and be discipled. They were meeting regularly for prayer. Their Bible studies were standing room only, and they had over 200 women at their fall retreat. At my church, there were only a handful of ladies who seemed interested in spiritual things, and when I worked for months to put together a one-day conference, only five showed up.
“Lord, why can’t You move here the way You’re moving there? Or why don’t You let me move to a church like that?”
Does the above scenario sound at all familiar? The temptation to play the comparison game is so strong in ministry. Deep down, we all know that only the Holy Spirit can change hearts and lives and that any transformation or visible fruit from our labors is dependent on Him. However, when it comes to the daily grind down in the trenches, we can start to feel like we deserve to see some results from all our hard work. When we see God moving in another church or ministry in ways we long to see Him move in ours, it’s easy to fall into the comparison trap—holding up one against the other and grumbling about the differences.
Developing a habit of comparison is a trap indeed, because the results are usually dangerous and painful. I believe there are several pitfalls lurking along the path of comparison, and just like a patch of black ice on a dark road, they can send us sliding off the safe path into danger before we’re really aware of what happened. Let’s look at some of them here and put up signs that say “Caution: Danger Ahead!” so we can safely navigate the path of ministry.
Comparison Can Lead to Wrong Thinking About Myself
Comparing my ministry to others usually boils down to comparing myself to others. It can lead to two extremes—thinking too highly of myself or thinking I am a failure. Comparison inevitably leads to a mental ranking; we learn in elementary school math that the terms for comparison are less than or greater than. So, when we compare ourselves with others, we rank ourselves as less than or greater than, both of which are dangerous.
If I decide I am less than you because your ministry is more successful than mine, I’m believing a lie. I have equated my measurable success with my identity. On the other hand, if I pat myself on the back because my ministry comes out on top in my own rankings, thinking that I must obviously be a little better than you, I’m in serious danger of pride and self-righteousness. Again, I’m functioning as if my success determines my worth and your failure.
Comparison Can Lead to Wrong Thinking About Other Leaders
Another pitfall is to start thinking critically of the leaders around me. If I feel like my ministry is more successful than another, I might start to criticize that leader unfairly. She must not be as spiritual as I am, or as diligent, or as gifted. I may start to question whether she should even be serving in that capacity at all.
Ironically, if her ministry is more successful than mine, I could still find myself being unfairly critical. She’s just in it for the numbers, or she’s enjoying her success a little too much, or maybe she’s watering things down just to attract more crowds. Or she only reached that level of success because of who she knows—I’m just as gifted as she is, if not more. Unfortunately, instead of rejoicing with those who rejoice, the comparison game encourages me to be frustrated when another leader enjoys success that eludes me.
Comparison Can Lead to Wrong Thinking About Those to Whom We Minister
It can be very difficult to minister in a situation that seems to stay stagnant. Comparing my ministry with those that are growing and thriving will only make things more difficult. Just like a trapped and wounded animal, I may be tempted to start lashing out at anything around me, namely the ladies whom I serve.
If they cared more, came more faithfully, prayed more, put forth more effort, were more faithful to invite others, or even appreciated me more, then this ministry would be going places. Or even if they are faithful godly women, I may be tempted to think they simply aren’t worth all my efforts. Shouldn’t I go serve somewhere I can have a bigger impact instead of spending all this time on just a few? Shouldn’t we focus on maximum impact in this godless culture? Surely, I am just wasting my time here with just three or four ladies.
Comparison Can Lead to Wrong Thinking About God
I confess that at times when I’ve compared myself with other leaders, I’ve started entertaining some dangerous thoughts about God. Thoughts like, He must care more for those other leaders than He does me, or I must not be pleasing Him somehow or He would bless my ministry, or If He is really good and really loves me, why am I struggling so much? It’s the age-old story that when things aren’t turning out like we had hoped, we’re tempted to start doubting the truth of God’s character. Developing a toxic habit of comparison is like pouring gasoline on the fire of doubt that was already planted within us back in the Garden of Eden.
Hope for Escape
If you find yourself in any of these traps—and it’s possible to be caught in all of them at once—don’t despair. There is hope! You’re not alone in your struggle, and the gospel has help for you to escape.
The classic story of comparison in the Scriptures has to be the disciples themselves. Those guys were constantly jockeying for position around Jesus. There are no less than four times in the New Testament when the disciples were arguing and questioning as to which was the greatest among them (Matt. 18:1; Mark 9:33–34; Luke 9:46, 22:24).
On one occasion, the brothers James and John even got their mother involved as she had the boldness to ask Jesus to guarantee them the best seats in the throne room of heaven (Matt. 20:20–21). And then, in one very emotional scene after the Resurrection, we find Peter and Jesus on the beach. Jesus has just offered Peter hope again after Peter had denied even knowing Him, and He goes on to give Peter a hint of the trials that await him in the years ahead. Peter is trying to absorb this new insight into his future, and he sees John following them.
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:20–22).
There is so much hope in Jesus’ response to Peter. Ladies, we need to stop wasting time and energy worrying about what God is doing in someone else’s ministry and how ours measures up. God has given us a task to do, and He doesn’t ask us to add to our labors the agonizing process of figuring out how we measure up with those around us.
We don’t have to measure up, prove our worth, or try to impress God. We’re free from all of that in Christ. We’re already safe and secure in His acceptance and love, and if we fully grasp that reality, we’ll realize it doesn’t matter where we rank among others in ministry. We just need to focus on being faithful to follow Him along the path He has laid for us.
Countering Lies of Comparison with Truth
Here are ways we can counter the lies of comparison with the Truth and hope of God’s Word.
- When I am tempted to think I am a failure because my ministry is not successful, I can find hope in the Truth that nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord (Rom. 8:39).
- When I start to think too highly of myself, I can be reminded of Christ’s example of humility and find grace to count others as more significant than myself (Phil. 2:3–8).
- When I see that another leader is seeing great fruit from her labor, I can rejoice with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15).
- When I’m tempted to give up on my tiny ministry, I can rest in the promise that in due season, faithful labor will reap a harvest if I don’t give up, and I can refrain from growing weary (Gal. 6:9).
- When I’m tempted to doubt the goodness of God, I can bank on His promise that He sees even the most unseen work done in His name and will reward it (Matt. 6:4). And I can rest in the promise of Hebrews 6:10: “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.”
The light of God’s Word is the best safeguard to keep us from comparison’s pits and traps along our ministry journey. If you, like me, struggle with comparison, consider memorizing the Scriptures above that most apply to your own traps. Ask the Lord to help you keep your gaze fixed on Him alone, without getting distracted by what may be happening in someone else’s work. And remember the words of our Savior: “What is that to you? You follow me.”