We live in a world of comparison. Our ultra-connected social media atmosphere allows us more windows into more people’s lives than previous generations could have ever imagined. There are benefits to this reality. Scrolling through slices of life shared by our friends, our family, our heroes, and our news sources can give us welcomed information and an occasional laugh.
But there are dangers as well. There’s the deceptive danger of thinking that we can maintain relationships with quick comments and “likes.” There’s the desensitizing danger of vast exposure to bite-size bits of all news, good and bad. Then, perhaps most of all, there’s the deadly danger of comparison. In a few minutes online we can take in a host of information about other people, information we can contrast and compare to our own lives, and quickly find ourselves puffed up with pride or deflated with discouragement.
The internet age breeds comparison, but this is not a 21st century problem. Whenever you have insecure human hearts this danger will appear, and John 21:20-22 becomes an instructive example of how to deal with this temptation.
In John 21 Jesus has just graciously reconciled with Peter after his three infamous denials, powerfully called Peter to gospel ministry for the rest of his life, and then clearly revealed to Peter the way he will die. Peter will lose his life for Christ and the gospel. Then we read this in verses 20-22:
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!”
Notice both the danger of comparison and the way to resist.
Peter hears of the suffering he will endure, turns around, sees John, and asks, “What about this man?” “What’s going to happen in his life, Jesus? Will he suffer too? Or, will he have it easier than me?” Peter looks at John and wonders, “How does my life compare to his?” This is our natural impulse as well.
We look at other people’s success and wonder, “Will my life look like that?” “Will I gain the position, the influence, the applause, or the attention this person has?” Often our wondering turns to coveting as the idol of each particular “success” grips our hearts (Col. 3:5).
We look at other people’s failures and think, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, especially this person with all their mess” (Luke 18:11). Pride creeps in. Or, knowing our own frailty, we wonder, “Will I fall too? Will this be my outcome? Can anyone remain faithful in this fallen world?” Fear creeps in.
Whether our comparison drives us to coveting, pride, or fear, the danger is real. And here’s the root issue: when we fix our eyes on another person’s life, we no longer have them fixed on Christ. Notice, that in this passage Peter is having a direct conversation with Jesus, then he turns to look at someone else and his mind wanders off into comparison, but Jesus kindly calls his attention back.
The Way to Resist
Jesus responds to Peter’s question about John, saying, “What is that to you? You follow me!” This is the key weapon in the battle against comparison: take your eyes off of other people and direct them onto Jesus. When your mind is filling up with thoughts of others, and your find your heart drifting into the treacherous waters of covetousness, arrogance, or worry, shift your gaze back onto Christ. Here’s what you’ll see:
In Christ, success is faithfulness. “You follow me,” Jesus says. This is what matters most. Whether you have the things, the relationships, the opportunities, the experiences, or anything else other people have, if you have Christ you have all you need. Our call, our mission, and our joy is to follow after him in any and every circumstance of our lives. In Acts 20:24 Paul says, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus.” The more we lose ourselves in the service of Christ, the more we will find ourselves content in his call and humbled by the privilege of living for him.
In Christ, you are secure. Our news feeds often alert us to the latest scandal, and whenever another politician, celebrity, or pastor fails and falls we are wise to remember our own weakness. Paul wisely writes, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). The failings of others should sober us, but they should not cripple us. These things may grieve us and rightfully concern us, but Jesus’s words apply here too. “What is that to you? You follow me!” When you follow Christ you must remember you are following the one who “is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 1:24). So we trust and we sing, “When I fear my faith may fail, Christ will hold me fast.”
Our modern media age is vying for every bit of our attention it can grasp. Our screens yell to us, “Look here! Look at him! Look at her!” Our hearts often take the bait and produce enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, and envy more than we’d want to admit (Gal. 5:20-21). But, praise God, there is grace in Christ for our twisted hearts and strength in Christ for every temptation. So our call is to press on, to run the race of the Christian life, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). May our Father give us the strength, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to fix our eyes on Christ.