by Tim Pauls
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes that as soon as sinners gather, they start to compare themselves to each other. It happens every Sunday morning at every congregation. It might be about cars in the parking lot, new or old. It might be about clothes — too rumpled, too garish, too casual, too short! It might be about how well people sing, or how loudly. It might be about personal hygiene or personal appearance. It might be about the number of questions that get asked in Bible class or how well those questions stay (or don’t stay) on topic. It might be about whose kids are the loudest squealers in the church. (Surely not yours! Compared to that kid over there, your kids are angels!)
Sinners compare themselves to others. It’s what we do. An honest pastor will tell you that whenever he listens to another preacher, he has to fight comparisons, whether it’s “I wouldn’t have said it that way” or “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Some comparison is healthy. After all, we learn by imitation. For instance, if I compare myself to other preachers so that I may hone the art, that’s a good thing. But that isn’t what Bonhoeffer is talking about.
Too much of the time, our comparisons are the work of the old Adam in us. We compare so that we feel better about ourselves, and so we do it in service to pride. Once pride takes hold, there are jobs to do and people to help that we may deem beneath our dignity. On the other hand, we might end up feeling worse about ourselves by our comparisons to others. Thus we feed a sense of worthlessness and put ourselves on a path to despair.
Whether our comparisons lead us to pride or to despair, they ultimately turn us into rivals rather than uniting us as coworkers in the Gospel.
It’s no wonder that the old proverb lives on: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” If you spend all your time comparing yourself to others, you’re going to have a distorted view of who God made you to be. If you spend all your time at church comparing yourself to others, you’re going to miss hearing the joy of God’s grace, that in Christ you have priceless worth.
In Christ. That is where your worth lies. Compared to His glory — freely lavished upon you and all those who live in Him — your best efforts are as nothing.
Thus Bonhoeffer counsels that each member in the congregation should gather saying, “I am the worst of sinners.” If you’re the worst of sinners, there’s no room for pride. If you’re the worst of sinners, there’s no job too humble and no person beneath your dignity to help. (Who better to scrub toilets at church than the worst of sinners?!) Furthermore, you have this marvelous, joyful news: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15). You’re one for whom Christ died, so you are most certainly forgiven. Forgiven, you’re set free from pride and worthlessness. Instead of rivals, you and your fellow Christians are one in Christ. As the forgiven worst of sinners, you’re set free to serve anybody. Everybody. What joy!
Beware of those sinful comparisons. Your priceless worth comes from Christ, not how you equate yourself to other sinners who all want to be better than you. Bonhoeffer’s counsel proves to be true, profound and simple.
I mean, why didn’t I think of that?
There I go again. I am the worst.
The Rev. Tim Pauls serves as pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and as a Collegium fellow for DOXOLOGY: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel.