“Comparison is the thief of joy,” Teddy Roosevelt once said. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. In some ways there is a necessity of comparison, so we know when things are good and holy vs sinful. If we didn’t compare and contrast things, we wouldn’t be able to move about the world with any sort of stability. Example: comparing a dark alley to a brightly lit street means we choose which route feels safer. Comparing the plant that grows in the shade versus the one that grows in the sun allows us to see which method produces the most fruit. Comparing a sinful behavior vs. a holy one will help you grow as a disciple of Jesus. Not all comparison is bad; we’ve been given critical minds to see things clearly and think through how to take the next step.
As I’ve spent time pondering this, I believe comparison can be the thief of joy when it becomes the thief of gratitude. When our ability to be grateful in all circumstances is diminished by looking at our circumstances and trying to measure up against a false sense of reality, our joy quickly fades too.
The type of comparison that has the capacity to steal gratitude is the type that attaches value to the subjects being compared and ranks them in order of importance. “This day was more beneficial because I harvested more fruit.” “Last year’s garden was better than this year’s because it produced more tomatoes by this point.” “She is a better mother than me because she knows how to keep her children calm.” “She is a better homemaker than me because she can decorate better than I can.”
Any type of comparison that measures value and worth up against another person or thing has the potential to lead us down a road of forsaking gratitude, stealing joy, and placing our worth in something worldly rather than heavenly. To this, we must be on guard.
The Lord has been teaching me this over the past few months. It’s winter now, but in the warm days of summer before my baby was born, I wrote the following:
Last week I went out into my garden. I started looking around at the tomatoes and squash plants. “These squash aren’t doing near as well as they did last year,” I thought to myself. Then I looked over at the tomatoes, “Wow I can’t believe none of them have turned red yet! Last year by this time I had so many tomatoes I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’m so disappointed.”
Holy Spirit nudged in quickly, “Who are you to judge something I’ve planted?!” You see, every single tomato plant in my garden this year was a volunteer. They sprouted up all on their own and I didn’t do a single thing. Every single plant was a gift. I was comparing the free and gracious gift of having four healthy tomato plants that I didn’t even plant against the “planned” tomatoes from last year. Comparison, stealing gratitude and peace, sneaks in like the weeds that pop up persistently throughout the year. One day the soil is clear and empty, then two weeks later it’s riddled with weeds in seemingly an instant.
Weeds steal nutrients from the soil that my plants could otherwise have. They vie for space among the root system and tangle their leaves between the cultivated beauties that are so desired.
The only way to stay on top of the weeds is to persistently pick them out when they’re small. To intentionally uproot them before they smother the cultivated plants. It’s this way with our hearts too. Criticism, comparison, and lack of gratitude can leave our hearts feeling withered and fruitless.
Paul penned from prison that he found the secret to being content in all things - Christ gives him strength. Only a few versus before, he exhorts the Philippians to find gratitude in all circumstances, pray continually, and think upon things that are lovely and true. (Philippians 4:4-13) Those moments where I was picking apart the ability of my garden to produce more squash and tomatoes were the exact moments where I was neglecting a spirit of thankfulness for the bounty I had in front of me at that time. While I was busy being disappointed in my squash plants, my cucumbers were producing way more than they did last year, my kale was still going strong, and my zinnia flowers were finally blooming in both the front and back yard. Not to mention the fact that the tomatoes were a complete gift from the very first seed. I did nothing to make them grow.
In these moments of comparison, we forget the truth that not all moments are equal and they were never intended to be. I went outside two days ago to check the plants and identify anything for harvest. I walked away from the garden that morning with merely two cherry tomatoes. One had a hole in it and probably wasn’t even edible. “Here’s your opportunity,” nudged the Lord as he invited me to see my current situation differently. Only a few days ago, I harvested two butternut squash, a handful of kale, spinach, two cucumbers, basil, mint, and a small bouquet of Black-eyed Susans. It was a perfectly picturesque garden day. On the two-tomato day, I walked around the garden and noticed that the kale had been overrun by grubby cabbage worms. I spent a good chunk of time picking off worms and squishing them against the dry earth. Then I cut off dead leaves from my cucumber plant and picked two squash bugs off my tomatoes. It wasn’t a harvest day; it was a work day. But if I put the two pictures side by side, our instinct is to say one was better than the other. One had more fruit and the other one was disappointing. But without the days of cabbage worm picking and squash bug hunting, I would never have days of bountiful harvest.
Comparing two completely different days doesn’t add any life to either one. Can you have days of harvest without days of work? Can you eat from the fruit of your hands without pulling weeds, picking out pests, and watering deeply?
As I am navigating this new life stage of motherhood, the comparison disease does and will continue to sneak up on me like weeds as I watch other moms around me. “Am I doing this right?” I will ask silently as I pick my cabbage worms and look at other people’s harvest.
My prayer is for the Lord to meet me in work days and the harvest days. Days of bounty and days of mundane upkeep. Who am I to judge the gifts he has given me?
Here’s the point of contention: Is your comparison life-giving or life-sucking?
What is before you that you need to be thankful for today?
I’ve found this truth to be just as applicable as it was 5 months ago. When I wake in the night with a crying baby, I get the choice to be grateful for the little life in front of me instead of comparing my restless sleep to pre-baby nights. I can find this mind shift to be applicable in hundreds of different ways throughout my day. It’s not easy, as discontent wells up quickly in my sinful heart. However, today it’s mild outside and the sun is shining, so I’m going to spend some time pruning the weeds of my heart and practicing a posture of gratitude. Will you join me?
Challenge: List 50 things you are grateful for in one sitting. Ask God to reveal to you the things that you’ve never thanked him for before.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights. James 1:17