For as long as I can remember, I have had the inclination to compare myself with others. There is no such thing as a fair comparison, and since I usually compare my worst weakness with others greatest strengths, I always end up feeling inferior. The irony of that position is that it is based in pride, even though I see myself as “lowly.”
In his landmark talk on pride, President Benson said, “Most of us consider pride to be a sin of those on the top, such as the rich and the learned, looking down at the rest of us. (See 2 Nephi 9:42.) There is, however, a far more common ailment among us–and that is pride from the bottom looking up. It is manifest in so many ways, such as fault-finding, . . . envying, coveting, withholding gratitude and praise that might lift another, and being unforgiving and jealous.” He followed this thought with a quote from C.S. Lewis, “It is the comparison that makes you proud: . . . the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.” (“Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May, 1989, pp 4-7)
I had not realized that indulging in comparisons was a form of competitiveness. Me, competitive? Never. It’s those other people who are com . . . oops. Much to my chagrin, I must admit that it is the competitive attitude that frames everything in comparisons. In addition, I have come to recognize that I cannot feel inferior unless, in my heart I really wish to feel superior. Such pride is hard to admit. In Alma 5:28 we read, “Behold, are ye stripped of pride? I say unto you, if ye are not ye are not prepared to meet God. Behold ye must prepare quickly; for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand, and such an one hath not eternal life.”
Taking into consideration President Benson’s conclusion that pride is the universal sin, one that every person has need to repent of, this requirement for spiritual preparedness causes me great concern. Can I compare without judging? Can I compare without pride? No! Not at all. Never. This scripture gives me ample motivation to check my pride, humble myself, and repent daily.
A part of comparing is envying. Alma 5:29 says, “Behold, I say, is there one among you who is not stripped of envy? I say unto you that such an one is not prepared; and I would that he should prepare quickly, for the hour is close at hand, and he knoweth not when the time shall come; for such an one is not found guiltless.”
How often have I fallen into the comparison trap and felt envy of someone who has an “intact” family or has all their children “safely” married in the temple? Do I have need for concern about my spiritual preparedness in regard to envy? Yes!
A Humorous Look at the Comparison Trap
I write about so many serious topics, but I have a huge appreciation for humor–especially humor that enlightens. For example, here’s one of my favorite reasons to chuckle. It began as a skit about the “comparison trap” written by lecturer and humorist Gladys Allen. With her permission I paraphrase it:
Rhea Sharp, a middle-aged sister with two grown children, was one of the first to enter the Relief Society room. She sat on the front row, but soon wished she hadn’t. Angela Goodwin, the bishop’s wife, was teaching that day and hurried in to set up her materials.
Here are Rhea’s thoughts when she saw Angela:
“Oh no! I would have volunteered to substitute in the Primary if I’d known Angela was teaching today. Angela makes me feel so. . . telestial. Look at that tablecloth she made–all the women’s monuments in counted cross-stitch. How does she find the time? She has eight young children. I have no children at home, and I still haven’t finished my bicentennial potholders! And isn’t that a maternity dress she’s wearing? Well, she lives all the other commandments to the fullest, why not “multiply and replenish”? Oh, she’s such a talented seamstress. Her dress is the same material as those adorable dresses she made for her darling triplets. I couldn’t keep my eyes off them in sacrament meeting today. She had to nudge them to get them to unfold their arms to take the sacrament! I used to have to pull Bret and Rodney out from under the benches! I guess that’s what I get for feeding them Wonder bread. Angela’s kids get delicious homemade whole wheat bread, of course. The last time I tried to bake bread I had to donate it to Interstate Brick! Oh, and now she’s getting out those hand-crocheted bookmarks for everyone who read the scripture assignment she gave last month. I forgot! I think I’m going to be sick. No! I can’t get sick. Last time I got sick Angela brought in dinner–and it was soo good my husband is still hoping I’ll need more surgery. Oh let’s face it! I’m just not celestial material. I was only able to have two children. I can’t cook, I can’t quilt, I can’t do crafts, and now I’ve failed the bookmark test. I think I’m going to be depressed!”
Angela had her own inner agenda. When she saw Rhea on the front row, here is what she was thinking:
“Oh no! I can’t teach this lesson with Rhea Sharp on the front row watching my every move. I wish I’d caught the measles from John! Rhea is so educated, refined–she has degrees from some of the finest universities in the country, she plays in an orchestra and sits on cultural arts boards. Me? I struggled through one year of general education at the community college. The glory of God is intelligence,’ and I’m into Dr Seuss! Rhea is such a quality woman–celestial quality. Even her clothes are quality–look at that nice suit–and look at me in my pathetic homemade dress. I’m sure she noticed it’s the same material all the kids were wearing. The material was so cheap I just had to buy the whole bolt! I should have made quilts with it. How embarrassing. Rhea’s children are so fortunate to have her for a mother. Her boys are such go-getters–my children are so blah–I’m sure that’s because they are culturally deprived. They think a cultural night out is to go to the nursery on enrichment night. Oh, now they’re asking Rhea to play a prelude because the pianist didn’t show up. She’ll probably play songs of her own composition. How would it be to have such noble talents? Me? I have no noble talents–all I can do is cook, sew, and make dumb little crafty things. I’m not educated, I’m not refined–I’m just not celestial material! I’m going to ask my husband to release me from this calling–I think I’m going to be depressed!”
Suffering from the Comparison Trap
Sound familiar to anyone out there? I doubt there is a woman in the Church who hasn’t indulged in similar thoughts at one time or another.
(Do men do this too?) I must confess that comparing myself with some “ideal” used to be the scourge of my life.
A few years ago I wrote the following Journal entry: “I feel that all the tapes of my life have programmed my inner computer to compare what IS with some impossible ideal that won’t leave me alone. Then I go into anguish because I have failed to create that ideal, because my life is so many light years from the ideal. How can I let go of all that, be an observer of life, a student of life, rather than a judge and a critic–especially of myself? How can I quit all the futile comparing and judging? The role of judge and critic galls me. I hate it. It does me no good, only evil. It poisons my relationships and erodes my well-being. I’ve been pleading with the Lord to change my heart–to replace all this with charity. How would it feel to have charity for myself as well as all those around me? I plead for it, and feel the difference in certain moments, certain hours. Yet I fall back into the pattern of comparing, then judging and criticizing myself over and over and over.
He Did Deliver Me from Bondage–Even the Bondage of Comparison
I knew that the Lord alone could deliver me from this trap. I made some progress through self-help books, workshops, “arm of flesh” efforts, but not enough! I knew the only real answer was spiritual. However, I didn’t know quite how to rely on the Spirit for the help I needed on a moment-to-moment basis. Then I discovered Colleen Harrison’s book He Did Deliver Me from Bondage. Studying it, I began to see that the thought patterns of pride and envy that held me stuck in the comparison trap were an addiction of sorts. President Benson said, “When pride has a hold on our hearts, we lose our independence of the world and deliver our freedoms to the bondage of men’s judgment.” (Ibid, p. 5) My pattern was often to be in bondage to my own judgment! The Twelve Steps provided the perfect vehicle to teach me how to get Christ’s saving power into my life to overcome those patterns.
Learning What to Do with Any Troublesome Emotion
The same principles that apply in my quest to overcome the “comparison trap” in regard to comparison apply to the quest to cleanse my life of all emotions that do not contribute to spiritual strength and spiritual preparedness. Happily, the answer is NOT the impossible ideal of never feeling a “negative” emotion.
In my associations with the author of He Did Deliver Me from Bondage, Colleen Harrison, I am constantly amazed at the quietness of her spirit in the midst on ongoing daunting challenges in her life. Because of her experiences, she has an earnest desire to “spread the word” and to help others find their answers in Christ.
Speaking of this desire to share what she has learned about all this, in her book Colleen quoted Alma‘s words: “declare the word with truth and soberness” (Alma 42:31), then said, “I have long realized that to be “sober” from my destructive addictive behaviors, I must first be “sober” from any thoughts of fear, anger, resentment, doubt, self-pity, or other negative emotions. I used to think that meant I must somehow totally eliminate those thoughts and emotions from my mind–that I should simply stop having them–(which was clearly impossible.) You can imagine my amazement when, in prayerful scripture study, I began to realize that my emotions are a part of me–all my emotions, both positive and negative. I began to understand that no part of me can be destroyed because I, as a whole entity, am eternal. Then how do I stay sober of these things, since I can’t just eliminate them? I learned that I must look unto the Lord in every thought, counsel with Him in all my doings (Alma 37:36-37) . . . take my negative emotions to the Lord as soon as they appear.
“What an amazing and revolutionary idea! I could take my fears, my anger, pride, jealous, resentment, envy, greed, lust–all my negative thoughts to Christ while they were still thoughts! Instead of trying to resist the fact that I was having these thoughts and feelings–instead of trying to stuff them down and hide them, pretending I could eliminate them, I could take them to Christ.
“I tried it. When I was tempted, I turned to the Savior in my mind. I cried out in my heart to my Redeemer and to my Father and sought the Savior’s intervention. Lord, I’m being so tempted to feel . . ., or think. . . , or do . . . I have no hope but Thee. O Jesus, Thou Son of God, deliver me! Father, apply the Atoning Power of Thy Son.’ Some version of one or all of these thoughts became my first reaction to temptation. I began to get past the lie that to be tempted was a sign I was bad. I wasn’t bad. I was mortal. I found there was a time between temptation and action–enough time to call upon the Savior’s power and surrender the fact of my mortality and weakness to Him. I began to realize that soberness was a condition in which I needed to look to the Lord every hour–or at least, be willing to practice doing so. Lo and behold, it worked!” (Colleen Harrison, He Did Deliver Me from Bondage, Revised Edition, pp171-172)
Application to Comparison
When I read those words, the light came on! The process actually begins for me each morning when I take the time to come to Christ, and feast on His word. It takes a conscious decision to place Him at the center of my life, and ask for the Spirit’s guidance in all I do that day.
But taking time for morning devotional doesn’t automatically shower the Spirit on my whole day and keep my thoughts free of the pride and envy of comparison. Comparison thoughts and the feelings that accompany them inevitably come up, which is a source of real discouragement for me when I’ve been exercising my spiritual muscles to overcome them.
So I must “pray always” and turn to the Lord each moment I recognize a comparison thought in my mind. And I must console my heart that just having the thought does not negate progress in my spiritual preparedness. It is what I choose to do with the thought that counts. Another quote from He Did Deliver Me helps me keep that in perspective:
“As we have rehearsed again and again, the mighty change of heart does not bring us to a state of perfection, but rather convinces us of our own powerlessness to be perfect, and turns us to know and trust Him who is perfect enough for us all. The word repentance means literally to “turn again.” As that process of turning again to God and to the principles of truth and righteousness become more and more consistent and continuous, our lapses from it grow shorter and shorter. They go from being years, months, weeks or even days in length to only hours, eventually minutes, and ultimately nothing more than the turn of a thought, which is discarded instantly.
(Colleen Harrison, He Did Deliver Me from Bondage, Revised Edition, p. 130)
And so I learn that the key is to train my mind to turn to Him at once–the second I recognize a comparison thought! Do I always remember? Of course not. But the more I practice these principles, the more often I remember. And the more I experience the saving power of Christ in the very moment of temptation to compare, to feel inferior, to criticize myself or someone else, the more likely I am to remember to turn to Him in my thoughts the next time the tempting thought appears!
I never expect to reach a point in mortality when I will not need to apply these principles every day. No matter how well I’ve been doing, I may, in the next moment, feel another pang of envy or pride and realize again my dependence on the Lord’s help to overcome such feelings.
However, I am determined to remember that the Lord does not give me weakness to make me miserable, but to make me humble. Ether 12:27, one of my favorite scriptures, is so applicable here: “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for it they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”
Helping Rhea and Angela
If Rhea Sharp and Angela Goodwin applied these principles, how different would their thoughts be? Well, perhaps Rhea would think, “Dear Heavenly Father, I need Thy help. When I see Angela, I’m tempted to compare myself with her and feel terrible about myself. Help me, Father, that I might have the strength to surrender these feelings to Thee. I love Thee, Father, and am grateful to be Thy daughter.”
“Please help me to see myself as you see me. Help me to remember that we all have different talents, and that we are blessed as we use those talents to bless those around us. I thank Thee, Father, for my musical abilities and pray I may use them in Thy service. I’m still struggling with the sadness of not being able to have more children–but I am grateful for the many ways you’ve given me to use my time productively. Please bless Angela to continue to use her wonderful talents in the service of her family and those around her.”
And Angela, if she knew these principles, might think, “Dear Father, I am being tempted to feel intimidated by Rhea Sharp because she is so much better educated and musically talented than I am. Please bless me, Father, to focus instead on my own blessings and gifts–including my house full of precious children. I am willing to let these feelings of envy go, but I need Thy help. I want to give them up to Thee because I cannot have them in my life and still worship Thee with a true and honest heart. I trust Thee, Father, to help me to develop the talents you’ve given me, and ask for Thy Spirit to help me avoid envying others who have different ones. Help me to have the Spirit today that I may magnify the calling you have given me to teach my sisters.”
He is the Vine; I Am the Branch
Turning to the Lord in the moment of temptation reconnects me to Him. When I am connected, I think thoughts of charity instead of envy. The branch doesn’t need to worry every minute, wondering whether the sap will flow to it–the power constantly flows from the vine because they are connected. So it is that the more I stay “connected” to the Source, the easier the process becomes of living worthy to have the Spirit as my Guide.
Alma 16: 16-17 says, “The Lord did pour out his Spirit on all the face of the land to prepare the minds of the children of men, or to prepare their hearts to receive the word which should be taught among them at the time of his coming–That they might not be hardened against the word, that they might not be unbelieving, and go on to destruction, but that they might receive the word with joy, and as a branch be grafted into the true vine, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord their God.” So, as I turn to Him moment by moment, the Lord prepares both my heart and my mind and gives me rest. Colleen summarizes it well: “I know it was by the grace of God that He . . .led me to a program that would turn my face to Him and not teach me self-mastery or self-sufficiency or that I just had to do more. Instead, it taught me that what I have to do is believe more, ask more and receive more.” (He Did Deliver Me from Bondage, Revised edition, p. Xv)
Only as I believe more in the Lord’s promises and ask moment by moment for His help, do I receive the Spirit to help me overcome the bondage of pride and envy. I can’t spring the comparison trap by myself; it’s too hard! But nothing is too hard for the Lord.