We have all heard the expression ‘comparisons are odious’, but it is not the act of comparing that stinks, but what we actually compare.
The phrase itself comes from the early 15th century but it was Shakespeare who popularised it when he adopted and modified it as ‘comparisons are odorous’ in his play ‘Much ado about nothing’. However, we all compare different things and usually find it a productive exercise. If I want to buy a new car, computer, or guitar, then I will go to a lot of trouble researching and comparing the different available options. Companies compare their products and processes with competitive offerings to see where they can improve. Descriptions of Best Practice often include benchmarks to assist practitioners to compare what they do against the best in the field. These types of comparisons are not odious.
The problem comes when we try to compare who we are, and not what we do, against others. Now this can be odious. If we compare ourselves with someone who we regard as ‘inferior’ then we could be setting ourselves up for a superiority complex, or condescending attitude, and those are odorous conditions. If we compare ourselves to someone ‘superior’ then we run the risk of experiencing feelings of worthlessness, anger, or even despair.
When I retired a few years ago, I had to recognise another aspect of this vital distinction. Church leaders, more than any other types of leaders, tend to merge their sense of identity with that of the church they pastor. When I retired, this identity conflation was no longer supportable (not that it ever was supportable). Who was I now? How was I valued? What was I living for? All very silly in hindsight, but anyone who has retired will understand. But my identity has never been ‘pastor’ but ‘child of God’.
‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!’ (1 John 3:1)
Another very unhealthy and unhelpful form of comparison concerns neither what we do, nor who we are, but what we receive. Here is a typical example:
Jesus ended his parable with the words, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”… so we trust that the last-in-first-out principle of stock clearance will apply to the newbie in my example. But, even if it doesn’t, just remember that ‘each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgement on one another’ (Romans 14:12-13). Hmmm.
Let me end with a somewhat fatuous home-grown proverb:
‘He who compares himself to another is as unwise as another who compares himself to him’ Huh?