One of the supreme struggles of my life is weaning myself off performance-based poison. It’s the compulsion to evaluate myself and others based on what we do, and it’s based on the fallacy that our performance is the best way to judge a person’s worth. Truth is, only God can make that kind of judgment, but it doesn’t stop us from trying. Even in the Church.
We look around at the believers around us and judge. We compare all the things we are doing for God to what we see others doing, and we feel pretty smug. …or, we don’t. Sometimes we compare ourselves to others, and we are disheartened by how much better Christians they are.
Either way, we are missing the boat. God doesn’t want us looking at each other; He wants us looking at Him. Jesus didn’t say, “the Son…can do only what He sees his neighbor doing.” He said, “the Son…can do only what He sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19) That’s our model to follow.
Comparisons take our eyes off God’s standard. Our neighbor isn’t an accurate yardstick with which to judge our walk. Only God’s standard gives a true measure. But what’s worse is that comparisons create competition, and competition poisons our compassion for our neighbor. We find it difficult to be happy for them when they succeed, and we might even take a little satisfaction when they struggle. Why? Because they are the competition, and bad news for them means we’re moving up in comparison.
How does this square with Paul’s directive to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn?” (Romans 12:15) How can we do that unless we have genuine empathy for those around us? And how can we have genuine empathy for others when we are always playing “One Up-One Down” with them.
You may not have heard of it, but you know what it is – a sick, little game that many of us play with the people around us. Here are the rules. When you first meet someone, try to decide who is better. You can pick any category you want. Here are a few examples:
- Who’s better looking?
- Who has better teeth?
- Whose children are more well-behaved?
- Who is smarter?
- Who has a nicer car?
- Who earns more money?
Whoever wins these contests goes “one up.” The other goes “one down.” Then, we try to protect our opinion. If we think we are better, we look for evidence that confirms our hypothesis. If we think we are worse, we tend to accept data that agrees with that supposition. Sometimes we might reject our original assessment and fight to prove it wrong, but this happens less than you might think.
When we start doing this in the Church, we compare things like:
- Who volunteers more?
- Who knows more Scripture?
- Who spends time with the pastor?
- Who tithes more?
- Who attends more church meetings and serves on more committees?
- Who sits in the “amen” pew?
- Who speaks in tongues?
- Who sings better?
- Who fasts and prays the most?
Can you see how sick this is? How backward? Jesus does. Remember when the disciples were fighting over who would be the greatest in the Kingdom? (It’s “One Up-One Down – Special Eternity Edition.”) Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I trust He was referring to children’s better qualities, like innocence and unconditional love. My kids play plenty of “One Up-One Down,” but they didn’t use to. There was a brief window of time when they didn’t measure themselves against their friends or each other, when they didn’t care whose dad could beat up who or who was better at video games.
Jesus was saying to the disciples, “You’ve got it backwards. If you’re winning at “One Up-One Down,” you’re losing on My scorecard.” For one thing, humility scores big points with God. It’s hard to be humble while we are jockeying for position.
And secondly, it’s not about performance; it’s about the condition of our hearts. It’s possible to have the most points with our church for volunteer hours and the least points with God for the condition of our hearts. Our motive has to be love, or all our works count for nothing with God.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
It’s not what we do so much as how we do what we do. And if what we do is only done to outdo what others do, we might as well not have done it.