Comparison, the Thief?

There was an article in Bloomberg Businessweek about recent research indicating that close neighbors of lottery winners were more likely to have financial distress due to overspending, bad investments, and bankruptcy. This real-life example of “keeping up with the Joneses” should cause us to pause and reflect on our own attitudes towards comparison—striving for what others have—and ultimately our well-being both physically and spiritually. 

Theodore Roosevelt is often quoted as saying “comparison is the thief of joy”. This cute little refrain now circulates the internet every so often. Well-meaning people (probably even myself at some point!) post this phrase with the hope that if we all do a little less comparing, we will all have a little more joy. In the social media age, the opportunities to compare are many, but is it just the comparison that is stealing our joy?

It’s pretty easy to break down this argument. Think of someone you love dearly, and for whom you genuinely want the best. Maybe it’s a parent, or a sibling, or even your own child. If you compare their talents, or their success, against your own, does it automatically steal your joy? No way. When I see the gifts and talents of others (especially my children) that far exceed my own, it actually increases my joy! 

It’s wonderful to see people use their God given talents for great things and be blessed in ways I am not. “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” Romans 12:15 says. The Bible also says that we all have gifts, and they are all different! Knowing the ways God has gifted us, or even the physical things we have, should not lead us straight to sadness or lack of joy when we see what others have. What is it then, that makes neighbors of lottery winners, or people looking at social media, strive to keep up with others in a way that strips them of joy and contentment?

The real joy thief is envy. We don’t like that word. No one wants to admit they are envious, but isn’t that the real culprit? It’s not simply comparing, it’s actually wantingor longingfor something that someone else possesses. The bible talks about this attitude often. James tells us it can lead to more sin, “For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every evil practice.” (James 3:16 NIV). Proverbs 14:30 tell us that it actually causes our body to deteriorate, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.”

What do we do? First, we must recognize it for what it is and repent of our envious ways. Name the sin and ask that God will work to rid it from your heart. Identify the culprits that lead to your envy. Is it scrolling through social media? Watching hours of royal wedding coverage? Choose activities that don’t stir up negative feelings. Then count your blessings. Literally, write them down on paper, put them on the fridge, and have them up to see. Even the simple ones - health, a home, family, meals on your table, flowers, waterfalls, and trees (some of my favorite things!).

Remember, it takes work to cultivate a spirit of contentment and joy. There will always be someone for us to envy. But if we recognize that envy is the thief and learn to “rejoice with those who rejoice,” the thief is stopped their tracks. We can live in the joy, purpose, and contentment that God designed uniquely for each of us.