The Practice of Pondering (by Jean Fleming)

The following full-length article first appeared in Discipleship Journal (a discontinued publication of NavPress). You’ll find a condensed version of this article (with Ann Voskamp’s excellent photography) at Ann’s place today. Don’t miss it!

Giuseppe Momos' double helix spiral staircase in the Vatican
by Jean Fleming

Have you ever sunballousa-ed? If not, you should try it. Our Lord’s mother, Mary, did. It characterized her life.

The word sunballousa is Greek for “placing together for comparison.” In Lk. 2:19, the word is translated “pondered.” The Amplified Bible translates Lk. 2:19 this way: “But Mary was keeping within herself all these things (sayings), weighing and pondering them in her heart.” Later in that chapter, Luke says that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart” (v. 51, emphasis mine).

What things? The words of the angel Gabriel. The words of her cousin Elizabeth. The words of the shepherds. The words of the Old Testament about the coming of the Messiah. Every developing event, every new word, might yield more light to this astonishing unfolding. So she kept adding to her treasure store. She held all that was happening in a precious bundle. Over and over again, she unpacked it and spread it out on the table of her heart. Each time she would arrange the pieces anew, placing the various elements in fresh configurations. Today she would, perhaps, place the shepherds’ words beside a passage from an Old Testament prophet. Tomorrow she might place the shepherds’ words beside the words of Gabriel. On Thursday she might consider the words of the shepherds as they related to Elizabeth’s greeting. Mary reverently held each word to the light and compared it with the other treasures in her bag. Her pondering shaped her mind and her days.

Mary’s pondering might be compared to the actions of a broody hen. The dictionary says the word brood means to warm, to cover, to spread over. One definition is “to have the mind uninterruptedly dwell a long time on the subject.” Another definition: “to mature anything with care.”

Recently, I was gathering eggs for a friend who was out of town. One hen was conspicuously broody. The other hens came running when I brought greens, but she remained hunkered down on the nest. As I picked up the eggs from the other nests, she observed me with a “don’t even think of reaching under me” glare.

And I didn’t She seemed so intent, so determined, so fixed on one thing. Perhaps this is what pondering does for us. And we, who lead such “flitty” lives, could learn from that hen how to dwell uninterruptedly for a long time on a subject and how to mature a thought by brooding over it.

Stair Stepping
Some words of the Apostle Paul have helped me to understand further what it means to ponder or brood. Paul exhorts the Colossian church and us to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).

What does it mean to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”? I think Mary gives us a model. Her practice of pondering is typical of Hebrew thought patterns, which are circular, in contrast to Greek thought patterns, which are linear. Her thought pattern would look more like ascending a spiral staircase (always finding larger and more splendid rooms) than filling out an outline. She would rotate through the same ideas over and over again, gaining insights as she gave them another turn.

What insights can we gain by pondering Paul’s words to the Colossians?

“Let”
A seminary professor once asked his students, “What is the most important word in the New Testament?” The students’ responses varied: “Love.” “Salvation.” “Redemption.” “Forgiveness.” The professor shook his head at each. He contended that the most important word is “let.” Three letters held together with an electrical charge.

Throughout the New Testament, this little word precedes great possibilities, opportunities to know more of God and His fullness. “Let” is a word that pleads with us to throw open some door inside ourselves to what God wants to do in us and for us. “Let” is an invitation, an appeal to the heart, an appeal to the will. “Let” in Col. 3:16 doesn’t stand alone in the Greek. It is one word with “dwell”: letdwell. Allow the Word of Christ to dwell in you richly. Practice sanballousa-ing.

“Dwell”
There are no surprises in the meaning of “dwell,” only in the audacious reality. The Word of Christ will inhabit my life if I permit it. The believer’s life is the intended home, the settled abode, for the Word of Christ. Eugene Peterson in The Message renders the verse this way: “Let the word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives.”

“The Word of Christ”
In all the Bible, this phrase appears only here. Commentators agree that this phrase can mean either the words spoken by Christ or the words spoken about Christ.

But Paul himself clarifies his intended meaning of the phrase early in the book of Colossians. He speaks of “the word of truth, the gospel” (1:5). This good news was obscured in the shadows in the past but now is “disclosed to the saints” (1:26). Paul says he serves believers by presenting the “word of God in its fullness” (1:25). Each truth in the book of Colossians reveals that the Word of Christ encompasses more than a message of forgiveness and heaven, as wonderful as that is. The Word of Christ is the complete “package” available to us when we believe. He who is the Word imparts Himself and all that He intends, purchases, promises, and fulfills to us in the written word. In the Scriptures, God reveals Himself to us, shapes the life of Christ in us, and extends the work of Christ through us. Let that dwell in you richly.

“In You”
Jesus took a body: “The Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14). Now He calls us to let the Word of Christ be incarnated in us. The Word of Christ living in us reminds us that we are forgiven and must forgive others; that Christ lives in us to express His life to us and through us; that we are new creatures, beloved of God, bought with a price and not our own. This indwelling Word keeps setting the trash by the door, keeps throwing open the windows to let in fresh air, and keeps leaving notes on the bathroom mirror—reminders to love, to trust, to give generously, to speak kindly.

It helps me to remember that one reason Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians was to confront false teachers who divorced spiritually from everyday life. Paul says twice in this letter that every area of a believer’s life should feel the pressure of the gospel truth (Col. 3:17, 23). The effect of Scripture is not distant, abstract. It is personal and deeply relevant: “in you.”

“Richly”
The Amplified Bible reads “dwell in you [all its] richness.” The Greek word refers to God’s rich provision for His people. In Jesus Christ, a treasure trove beyond our imagination or comprehension is available to us—provisions of every sort for every need. The Word of Christ reveals and bestows God’s fullness to us.

My friend was not yet 40 and the mother of two adolescent girls when she was diagnosed with a particularly virulent cancer. Facing life-and-death issues, she asked God big questions. What does it mean to live well? To die well? What is health? Is there a difference between being healed and being cured? Lord, what do You want to say to me at this time?

My friend placed her questions beside the Scriptures. Seeking God’s mind and ways wasn’t new to her. But as she focused the laser beam of God’s Word on her questions, God unfolded more of Himself and His truth to her. At this time the doctors detect no cancer, but I think her greater treasure is in letting the Word of Christ dwell in her richly.

The circumstances of our lives can choke the Word or propel us to listen for God’s voice. I’m startled as I read these words of David: “The wicked are waiting to destroy me, but I will ponder your statutes” (Ps. 119:95). David, like Mary and like my cancer-stricken friend. sunballousa-ed. He put his worries beside the Word of God and allowed the Word to give him direction, courage, and joy.

Treasures During Trials
As I write this, the first anniversary of my mother’s death approaches. During her long fight with terminal illness, I traveled from my home in Colorado to care for her in Maryland. A month or more in Maryland, and then home to Colorado for a month, repeated again and again. I still can’t unravel all that was happening inside me during that time. The struggle didn’t take the form of grief I expected. I think my greatest grief arose from my inability to love my mother as I knew she needed me to. I knew that real love must come from God’s life expressing itself through me. I prayed for the Holy Spirit’s control in my life and surrendered to Him again and again. I confessed sin and lived in the richness of His Word.

During that period, God met with me day by day. In my quiet times, I felt His nearness and the relevance of His Words. I carried a stack of memory verses on walks. Some days I’d pull out the ones that spoke of joy and pray over them as I walked. Sometimes I’d place one card beside another so that one verse could shine light on the other. This radiance kept me going in the darkness of confusing emotions.

For four of the months I was at Mom’s home, the Lord impressed a different theme each month: joy, love, thankfulness, humility. I think God did this to remind me that I was under His training and in His care. I was a caregiver, but I was also a disciple learning at the feet of my Lord and Teacher.

Although this period has been one of the most painful in my life, I don’t think that the Word has ever ministered to me on a deeper and more profound level.

For example, one morning in my quiet time I read: “Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:7). The phrase “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” touched my spirit. “Lord,” I asked, “am I being overwhelmed by my feelings of failure to love my mom?” The King James Version uses the phrase “swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.” As I pursued the thought I discovered that overwhelmed is the same Greek word that Peter uses when he says that Satan seeks to “devour” us (1 Pet. 5:8). “Lord, is my grief over my failure excessive sorrow? And does it make me vulnerable to enemy attack and accusation?” I asked.

I thought of dear Peter, our favorite failure. His denial of the Lord is recorded in every gospel. Peter “wept bitterly” over his sin. His remorse was deep and agonizing, but it did not overwhelm him; it did not swallow or devour him. The next mention of Peter finds him in the midst of the fellowship. It encouraged me to see that although Peter was a weak and fearful failure, he was still following Jesus. Peter was there in the upper room when word came that Jesus had risen; Peter was there at the tomb as well.

These thoughts came upon me as a flood, not to drown me, but to sweep me into the arms of the Lord. Shaking with sobs, I could say, “Lord, like Peter, I’m a recorded failure. Failing, but still seeking to follow You, to be near You.”

The Word continues to speak to me regarding my time of caring for my mother. I have devoted a notebook to recording what God says about that period. His Words are like a flourishing vine growing inside me, attaching tendrils in dark crevices and on healing wounds. His Word dwells in me richly, and I am grateful.

Shared Treasure
But in God’s scheme of things, riches are never for hoarding. Were we to focus only on what sunballousa-ing can do for us individually, we would miss an important aspect of what it means to let the Word inhabit us. Thankfully, Paul did not neglect that aspect either. He speaks of letting the Word of Christ dwell in us richly and corporately: “As you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to the Lord.” The indwelling Word produces an environment in which mutual edification and warning flourish amid joyful worship. John Henry Jowett wrote in Things That Matter Most: “When the divine life possesses the soul, it flows over in gracious ministries among our fellowmen. The affluence becomes an influence importing itself to others.”

A life enriched by the Word enriches others. Those who have tasted God’s grace can administer it to others. Those who have been warned by God’s Word can warn others. Where the gospel dwells richly, believers acknowledge their common heritage, their shared treasure, their common calling and task.

We have yet to see, I suspect, the impact of a group of believers who are pondering God’s Word, letting it inhabit their lives, and allowing the affluence they receive to flow out in influence upon others. may the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, and may it richly overflow to all those who encounter you.

———-

“The Practice of Pondering” first appeared in the NavPress publication Discipleship Journal, May/June 2001. Copyright © 2001, 2014 Jean Fleming, all rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Jean Fleming is the author of Pursue the Intentional Life, A Mother’s Heart, Feeding Your Soul, and others. See NavPress.com for details.

Also by Jean Fleming: Open-Heart Bible Study

Spiral staircase photo credit: Phil Northam, via Flickr Creative Commons

Jean and Roger Fleming

Jean and Roger Fleming

Book Review: The Greatest Gift, by Ann Voskamp

the-greatest-gift-cover-300h

Ann Voskamp doesn’t start the Christmas story with a baby in a Bethlehem manger. In fact, with 25 days of readings and devotionals starting on December 1, you won’t get any New Testament readings until Day 20. Only about the last one-fifth of this entire book on Christmas comes from New Testament passages about the baby Jesus.

Perfect. Because any Christmas story that starts with Jesus’ birth is incomplete and lacking in richness. Ann gives us the whole story from the beginning, and she gives it with fullness, with thoughtfulness, with depth.

The Day 1 reading is from Isaiah 11. Day 2 is from Genesis 1, when in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Ann writes on page 12: “This Christmas story—it begins in the beginning, this love story that’s been coming for you since the beginning.”

What Christmas book highlights the Baal prophets performing for their idol? This one does, and it fits just right for the way Christmas happens in our culture, doesn’t it? Many who struggle and rush through the Christmas season would be blessed by the December 15 reading and devotional on First Kings chapter 18.

What Christmas book has us pondering the life of Esther, who used her position and risked her life to save the lives of others? Ann says on page 179, “You’ve got to use the life you’ve been given to give others life.” The December 18 section on Esther is one of my favorites in the whole book. That, and the message of God’s love consistent throughout. The book’s subtitle is well chosen: “Unwrapping the Full Love Story of Christmas.”

Yes, this is an Advent book, perfect for the Christmas season. But you can use it as a devotional for any time, in every season. Please do.

Rituals (Guest Post for Charity Singleton Craig)

In Your Own Words

I’m delighted and honored to be a guest writer at Charity Singleton Craig: Bringing Words to Life, where you can read about my personal rituals as well as some of our family rituals.

One of my rituals is memorizing parts of the Bible. Don’t miss the link in the second-to-last paragraph (on memorizing Scripture by writing the first letter of each word)!

I invite you to join me at Charity’s website and read In Your Own Words: Monica Sharman – Rituals.

Book Review: Playdates with God, by Laura Boggess

Playdates-with-God-cover

I play tennis with my husband once a week. I wouldn’t normally associate tennis with forgiveness, but as I swung back my racquet, or reached high for a serve, or ran to the net for a quick approach shot, my tennis lessons from Coach Bob (my coach from age 9) and Coach Karen (my college coach) came flooding my mind to dovetail with some of what I had read in the Bible over the past couple of decades. Does that sound weird—playing tennis helped me forgive and overcome bitterness?

Yet it happened; different aspects of tennis served as a metaphor for certain aspects of my spiritual life (Scripture memory, focusing on God, acknowledging sin, forgiving quickly).

Bread-making, too, has been part of my spiritual life. I’ve associated kneading bread dough not only with a particular Psalm I memorized, but also with verses in Habbakuk about rejoicing in hardship.

And again, with hiking. One summer we went on backpacking in autumn at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and that, like the tennis and homemade bread, helped me grow in intimacy with God.

On one of these hikes I decided to start photographing flowers from behind. Did you know that the backs of flowers are just as interesting and beautiful as their fronts? As I noticed this about flowers, I thought of how God values the beauty of the hidden person. I thought of how God delights in and rewards secret acts of righteousness. It made me want to be like the back of a flower.

Laura Boggess helps me understand that when I play tennis, or make bread, or hike through the Sangres and position my camera behind a Columbine, it is a playdate with God—and these playdates doubly enhance my relationship with God. These playdates both rekindle and cultivate my love for Him to make it “the love that endures—the excitement of new love and the security of old love all twined together” (Playdates with God, page 111).

Since 2008, I’ve been reading Laura’s words. With her lyrical, tender voice, she always stirs a deep part of my inner life and makes connection with my own ponderings, struggles, longings, and celebrations. Laura’s book is new (launches today!), but her living-out of the book’s message is not new. For a long time now, she has been intent on noticing and embracing every moment as sacred. And I’m going to be one of her playmates.

The stories we tell ourselves matter. When we are able to communicate the wonder God drops into our lives, others are drawn into our story. And when our stories hold rich tales of intimate times with God, people will want to step into that bigger story of the gospel. What better story to tell than the one Jesus lived and died for? Are you letting the gospel story lead your internal narrative? Am I? Because when we do, it will change our focus. It will change our lives. When we live our story in tandem with the narrative of the gospel, God is given the place in our lives that he deserves. And spending time with him becomes the most important thing.

– Laura Boggess, Playdates with God, 123-124.

Watch the book trailer for Playdates with God!

Running Uphill

For The High Calling community link-up topic: How do you pursue God? One way I pursue God is by obeying Him—and when I pursue Him this way, His blessings pursue me!

How about you? Submit your own story on pursuing God by October 4!

UPDATE: This post was featured at The High Calling. Join me there.

pursuegodlinkup

Over the 2009 holidays I fed my belly with lumpia, atole, chocolate cake—everything that came out of my kitchen.

I overindulged. Something had to change.

Two days after Christmas, I started running every day. We live on a hill, so those first days I ran half a block (downhill) and walked half a block (uphill), three times. Three times around the block wasn’t much.

Still, each day built on the one before. Eventually, I worked up from almost-negligible to three miles a day. I still go slowly, but I go.

A couple of years after I started running, someone close to me had hurt me. That Wednesday and Thursday, I was raging. I fed my heart with too much bitterness, resentment, hatred—everything I allowed to come out of my heart.

I overindulged in anger. Something had to change.

As I jogged that angry Wednesday I asked God my standard question that works for any circumstance: “Father, how do You want me to respond?” When I pray like this, I often get no neon sign, no immediate answer.

But this time it was immediate, in big, flashing neon:
Love her.

Impossible, I thought, feeling my upper lip wrinkle. IM-POSS-I-BLE.

Yet I chose to remember God’s works in my past. (The remembering was crucial.) I prayed out loud in faith: God, I remember years ago when I thought it was impossible to forgive Ben. But you did the impossible and helped me forgive in that relationship. I believe you can do it again, in this relationship. (I spoke these words with my vocal cords, but inside I thought, Yeah, right.)

I turned left, up Centennial Blvd (the steepest part of my running route). God brought to mind the run with endurance verses. I felt my leg muscles pushing off the pavement, steadily. There was a time, though, when I refused even to attempt that route, turning right instead of left because there was no way I could run up that hill.

extreme uphill portion
But one day I tried it, and it was hard. I repeated it every day, and the hill became not only possible but no longer difficult.

This brought new meaning to the phrase “run with endurance.” If I would try loving her just once, and build up my endurance by repeating loving acts, then rather than seeming impossible, it would actually no longer be difficult. It would eventually become easy—as Jesus said His yoke would be.

In order to “run with endurance,” I first had to … start running.

The biblical “run with endurance” doesn’t happen at the first attempt; it happens over time, when I run over and over. Running with endurance doesn’t mean I can wake up in the morning and, if I set my jaw firmly enough, I can finish any race, whether marathon or hundred-meter dash. Endurance doesn’t come instantly. Endurance has to be built up.

The transformative process is always done little by little, small obediences over and over.
– Jean Fleming

I turned to do the steep uphill in this relationship. My first act of obedience was to call her on the phone. A little later, I called her again simply to ask, “How are you?” I kept running up the hill, showing her acts of love, because my Father told me to love her.

Now, I don’t consider this a hard path. Not anymore.

———-

Photo credit: djfrantic, via Flickr Creative Commons

Don’t Touch That Stove!

A poem after Ann Voskamp’s recent tweet on bitterness:

“Holding on to bitterness is like holding a flame in your own hand and wondering why you feel burned.”
– Ann Voskamp

Don’t Touch That Stove!

You who taught your children
to keep away from the stove—
why does your own hand
reach for the burner
and even carry the very flame
that scorches your palm,
now blistering? Quick!
Run to the sink. Turn
the faucet full blast.
Open your hand
under cold running water.
Break a leaf from the aloe,
slice it lenghtwise, lay its healing
thickness, cut side down,
on your palm. Close your fingers
and press the soothing fruit
to absorb into the burn. This
is what you should hold.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
(Ephesians 4:31)

An excellent article on forgiveness by Mark D. Roberts: How Can I Forgive Someone Who Doesn’t Admit to Having Done Anything Wrong?

Photography Lesson

The following is a found poem from Jennifer Dukes Lee’s piece at (in)courage today: Light, for Your Darkest Days. (Scroll down if you want to know what a found poem is, or how to write one.)

To learn the magic of light, she said, I needed to wake before sunrise. I needed to watch how light overtakes dark.

– Jennifer Dukes Lee

Photography Lesson

To learn the magic of light, wake
before sunrise. Stumble barefoot
on gravel. Chase light before dawn

in the silky mist of valleys
where landscape yawns.
Then wait. Press

one hopeful eye against
the viewfinder and capture
the last word:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness
has not overcome it.
(John 1:5)

Have you ever written a found poem? The Academy of American Poets defines it:

Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems.

A pure found poem consists exclusively of outside texts: the words of the poem remain as they were found, with few additions or omissions. Decisions of form, such as where to break a line, are left to the poet.

If you’ve never written a poem, try a found poem. It’s a gentle, fun, and easy way to dip your toes into poetry for the first time!

Related:
See more of my found poems here.

A Family Superstition

Sometimes I need to write something lighthearted and fun, even (or especially) when I feel like writing about other things. The following poem is for Tweetspeak’s current poetry prompt: Write a ballad about a family superstition. If you’d like to learn how to write a ballad poem (or if you just want to know what a ballad poem is), read Marjorie Maddox’s excellent, fun guide: How to Write a Ballad—which would also be a great teaching resource on the ballad form.

Making faces

A Family Superstition

I relished car rides, windows down,
air rushing, freeway speed.
Made faces with my brother (clown!),
heads stuck out in the breeze.

My index fingers pulled my mouth
to stretch the lips out wide,
and forced the eyelid corners down,
exposing whites of eyes.

Our older sisters (adult age)
would warn us with a grin:
Your silly face will freeze if you
make faces in the wind!

So now, though I still revel in
car windows opened wide,
I only make expressions when
my face is safe inside.

David making his "funny eyes" face

Photo credits:
Top photo by Jo Christian Oterhals, via flickr creative commons.
Bottom photo by Larry and Laura, via flickr creative commons.

Tennis Lessons

Daily Shoot 10.18.10 [Spherical/Curved]

What coach taught me:
When you serve, step up
to the line, bounce the ball

three times, and pause
for that calming breath—those habits,
those rituals will keep you

consistent. Toss the ball in a straight
vertical, to the highest point
of your reach. Keep looking up

even after you hit the ball.
Don’t get caught flat-footed. Stay alert
on the balls of your feet. Split-step as soon

as the ball zooms at you. If the ball is out,
call it out. Hit the ball on the rise
so it won’t continue on its

natural trajectory.
And keep up your
mental game.

Serve

Photo credits:
Tennis ball photo by Marie Coleman, via flickr creative commons.
“Serve” photo by mirsasha, via flickr creative commons.

Curbing Comparison (by Jennifer Dukes Lee)

The following article appeared at Today’s Christian Woman. Reprinted by permission of Jennifer Dukes Lee, award-winning journalist and best-selling author of Love Idol: Letting Go of Your Need for Approval—and Seeing Yourself through God’s Eyes. Jennifer (and others) have traveled to Ferguson “to listen to people’s stories, and maybe to write some of those stories … to get a first-hand look at what’s been happening in Ferguson, to talk to people doing good work there, and to see how the Church can lead better in times like this.” Follow Jennifer on Twitter for updates.

I have asked Jennifer for permission to reprint her article “Curbing Comparison” because I identify so closely with every word.

365 Days (2009): Day 107

by Jennifer Dukes Lee

I learned early how comparison can wound a person.

I was 12 years old, sitting on a street curb with my friend on a July afternoon. It was so hot that the street’s tar bubbled up around our flip-flopped feet.

I had called a curbside meeting because I needed her ear. I don’t remember what had troubled me, but I do remember how I thought my heart might burst with sadness. Tears spilled down my face.

I wiped my cheek with the back of my hand and started to confide in her.

“Oh-OOOOH-ooh,” she interrupted me. “Sounds like trouble in paradise.”

I remember how she rolled her eyes, how her blonde ponytail whipped through the air when she shook her head—and how it felt like she took satisfaction in my momentary troubles.

My friend saw only the outside of my life, only the parts that looked like some version of paradise. The truth is, I did have a good life. I lived in a nice house, earned good grades, wore nice clothes, had dependable parents. Our family gathered around our dinner table almost every night, just after the six o’clock whistle blew from the top of the town’s water tower.

My life wasn’t perfect, but to my friend, it must have looked rather Beaver Cleaver-ish. My friend lived in a single-parent, low-income home. School was difficult for her, and her big brother was often getting into trouble.

When my friend held her life up next to mine, she saw a trash heap next to a gold mine. And I can’t say for sure, but I walked away from the curb that day believing that, somewhere deep inside her, she felt a little bit better because I was hurting so badly.

Curbs are everywhere

Turns out, our little-girl penchant for comparison grows up with us.

Turns out, women can be 25 or 55 or 75 and still trying to figure out how they measure up to one another.

Turns out, there are curbs everywhere.

The curbs are on Facebook and at the city park. There are curbs on Twitter and the blogosphere and in churches and school gymnasiums and the carpool lane.

It gets hot out there on the curb, where people’s envy bubbles up like tar. We’re comparing waist sizes, square footage, IQs, kids’ report cards, approval ratings.

Comparison is a quiet vulture, swooping in to peck its sharp beak at our joy, our camaraderie, and our witness to the world.

We compare our trash-heaps days to someone’s paradisiacal online updates. We might be tempted to roll our eyes at the precocious comments that some preschool mama quotes. Somewhere inside of us, we might be turning green with envy at another writer’s bestselling book, a former colleague’s success in a new business venture, another couple’s second trip to the beach in a year. We might even quietly harbor a sense of satisfaction when the object of our envy stumbles.

Comparison is folly, and no one wins—or ever has.

We’ve been measuring ourselves against one another for approximately forever—sometimes with deadly consequences.

Cain compared himself to Abel, with a jealous anger that ended in his brother’s murder. Joseph’s brothers, moved by envy, sold him into slavery. Jesus’ disciples bickered and compared themselves to one another on several occasions.

Paul pointed out the foolishness of it all:

But in all this comparing and grading and competing, they quite miss the point. (2 Corinthians 10:12, The Message)

We might not be killing our sisters or selling them off to the Egyptians. But are we killing each other’s spirits? And are we killing our own souls?

Are we, as the verse says, missing the point?

Someone always gets hurt when we compare, even if we think it’s a secret battle we’re fighting on the inside. It hurts us, and it hurts the person sitting on the other side of our envy. Comparison creates an us-versus-them mentality that can rob the body of Christ of its unity and fellowship. And it can open up doorways to petty criticism of the people we believe are “living in paradise.”

Psychologists tell us that when we feel inadequate, we might try to protect our own self-worth by diminishing the work of those we envy. Cheap shots are delivered. Snickering ensues. We might get annoyed at the Facebook posts of the person who ran another ten miles, lost another ten pounds, or gained another ten followers. And when they’re not looking, we might try to knock them down about ten notches.

My friend Carey told me the other day how a group of moms had made fun of her for being a “Pinterest mom.”

“They talked about how bad Pinterest moms make them feel for not making cute valentines or throwing ‘extreme’ birthday parties,” Carey said. “It was hurtful. I have never in my life gone overboard on my kids’ birthday parties in order to make someone else feel bad. I do it because creating special things brings me joy.”

When we compare our insides to someone else’s outsides, we hurt them. And we hurt ourselves. I’m convinced that comparison is one of the biggest joy-robbers and dream-shredders in a Christian’s life.

The Comparison Monster wedges its ugly self smack-dab between us and whatever God is calling us to do: start a blog, write a song, lead a Bible study, apply for a promotion. Nothing will kill a dream faster than looking at the life of someone who’s already living your dream, then believing it’s too good for you.

If you can’t do it like her, why try?

Can’t blog like her? Forget it.

Can’t make a difference like your friend does? Throw in the towel.

When we compare, we forget the value of our own lives. We forget that we’re the only “us” that the world will ever get.

We forget that God made us incomparable. We forget that we are so exceptionally crafted as to make any comparison invalid.

For the sake of ourselves and our sisters, we have to stop this. Life is not a competition. We’re actually all on the same team, and it’s called the body of Christ.

The greatest antidote to comparison

One of the greatest antidotes to comparison is praise. We can praise God for what he has given us and—this one might be harder—praise God for the unique gifts he has given to our sisters. Instead of envying them, we can rejoice with them. Consider what would happen if we started celebrating other’s victories instead of trampling on their parades. What if we started living out God’s call on our lives, without worrying whether we’ll measure up to some invisible standard? What if we picked up some pom-poms and cheered on our friends instead of picking up sticks or stones?

What if we ditched the lists?

Any of us can look back on our childhood lives and remember the lists that shaped us: honor rolls published in the local paper, school-play casting calls, homecoming courts, birthday-party invitations, and more. When we grow up, the lists grow up with us: the Fortune 500, the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World, the Top 100 Bloggers, the richest, the sexiest, the most relevant. Even Christian leaders have come up with online lists to tell us which authors are the most influential.

In a world of list makers, we can begin to live only for the Maker’s list:

Rejoice, because your names are written in heaven. (Luke 10:20, KJV)

We can link hands and elbows as we sit on the curb of life. We can brush away each other’s tears, squeeze each other’s hands, and cheer wildly when it goes well for our sisters. I have plenty of friends who have attained a great amount of earthly success, while remaining humble and true to their callings. I have pledged to them that I won’t compare their beautiful lives to mine, and I’ll never cut them down when they’re not looking.

We can sit at the curb together and say this pledge to each other: “I promise that I’ll be for you.” And we can curb our comparing, at the feet of our incomparable Savior.

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Photo credit: amber dawn pullin via flickr creative commons

Fishing Tip

(For Tweetspeak Poetry’s August theme: “Gone Fishing.” Submit your own poem, or submit your photo for the photography prompt!)

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Don’t look
for the trout itself
camouflaged from above.
Look instead for the shadow it casts,
a silhouette imprinted
on the sand,
luring fishermen with
the evidence
of its presence.

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Do you know anyone who has had a powerful influence on others, yet is low-visibility himself or herself? I play on the worship team at church. Musicians are high-visibility and often (even weekly) receive thanks from others in the congregation. In contrast, children’s Sunday school teachers minister powerfully to the children, yet no one sees them. For example, many people, even church leaders, are not even aware that my husband was a Sunday school teacher. In our church, children’s teachers serve in basement classrooms, low-visibility yet strong in influence. Find a low-profile servant of Christ, and thank him or her.

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