May 15, 2012
Beating the
Comparison Trap

 Developing Vision That
Is Right for Your Life
 
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This article is adapted from my just-published Reach Beyond Your Grasp: Embracing Dreams That Reflect God's Best for You -- And Achieving them.
  
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IT WAS THE FIRST TIME EVER that I’d heard a Charlie Hunter song. The jazz instrumental, Someday We’ll All Be Free, which Hunter plays with only bass accompaniment, melted me, and I phoned the radio station at once to find out who the guitarist on this recording was. I felt immediately that this was a song I wanted to perform on guitar myself. While I knew it would stretch me, I was sure I could learn it with some effort, and that the challenge would be good for me. Although I’d never heard of Hunter, I was pleased to find the CD in a store the next day, and purchased it.

If you happen to be a Charlie Hunter fan, you’re already chuckling, for you know where this story is heading.

I was surprised enough to find that Hunter plays an eight-string guitar, unlike the six-string model picked by most ordinary mortals. I was astounded to find that no bass player is listed in the album credits, even though I was certain I’d heard one on the radio. Of course, Hunter could have dubbed in the bass part himself. But the album is produced by Blue Note, a purist jazz label that would never stoop to such studio trickery.

It couldn’t be, I thought.

It was.

Hunter plays both the lead guitar part and the bass part on this song—as he does on every selection on the album—at the same time. He picks the guitar portion on the high strings, the bass portion on the low strings. And he plays complex, nuanced lines, that any guitarist or bassist would be proud to play as individual parts by themselves.

Hunter covers them both at once.

While I’ve witnessed many guitarists, like Chet Atkins, who can play multiple guitar lines at the same time, I’ve never encountered one who can play bass and guitar parts simultaneously—a skill I hadn’t previously thought possible. I was delighted to discover Hunter’s unusual talent, and his music is truly inspiring.

Yet this discovery had a demoralizing effect on me, for I knew if I practiced a lifetime, I couldn’t come close to matching his remarkable skill. That realization dampened my enthusiasm for doing what I can do—which is to learn the guitar portion of the song I’d so enjoyed.

Finally it dawned on me that I was falling in to the same rut I warn others to avoid. I was letting Hunter’s talent be a benchmark for judging my own. This envious comparing led me to devalue my own talent, and went well beyond healthy humility, for it sapped my motivation to take a step of growth that was within my reach.

Embracing the Right Dreams

Each of us is far more capable of setting significant goals and achieving them than we normally realize. Dreams that seem impossible may even be much more within our reach than we imagine. The secret lies in how we focus our thinking. Beginning with the premise that the problems we encounter can be solved, then dwelling on finding solutions, can make a radical difference. This approach to life is at the heart of what one writer has termed “the magic of thinking big.*

This isn’t to imply that any dream we wish to achieve can be accomplished through such positive thinking. Thinking big has it limits, which are vital to respect. The dreams we establish and the goals we set need to reflect the potential God has given us, and his unique design of our life. If we tread too far outside this arena, we can end up thinking big in a manner that works against us. We can lock in to goals that don’t fit us well, and even devote considerable energy to attempting to reach them.

It’s easy to fall into what psychologists term an “idealized self-image.” We esteem someone else’s talent, or success, or possessions or benefits they enjoy, and decide we would be better off in their position. We may even establish a major dream, and stake our self-worth, on our ability to match their success. Yet this grass-is-greener mentality is bound to frustrate us, especially if our gifts and potential differ significantly from theirs.

As an avid guitarist, I’ve often fallen into this comparison trap when listening to other players. It was, of course, outlandish that I gave even a passing thought to how my musical ability stacks up against Charlie Hunter’s. There are probably not a half-dozen people on our planet who can perform his musical feat. Yet this is how our psyche works. We instinctively compare ourselves with others in countless ways we have no business doing.

The process is most insidious when we establish major dreams based on others’ potential rather than our own. While it’s commendable that we have vision, we’re basing it on God’s design of others’ lives, not ours. This idealizing can leave us greatly dispirited if we’re unable to live up to the accomplishments of others we esteem. It can rob us of the motivation to take our own potential seriously, and to work toward goals we actually can reach. It can also incite us to strive unreasonably hard to accomplish goals that aren’t appropriate for us.

We also need to establish a pace that’s right for us in pursuing any goal. It helps to remember the dynamics of flight. An airplane needs to be moving at a reasonable speed to gain lift and become airborne. But if, once in flight, the pilot raises the trajectory too high, the plane will lose its thrust and descend.

This is a good parallel to realizing our potential. We need goals, and we need to be moving toward them at a reasonable pace to achieve them. Yet if we raise the trajectory too high—by setting unrealistic goals, or by pushing ourselves too hard to reach them—we will “crash and burn.” Keeping balance in the process is essential.

Help from David’s Example

Scripture offers us a wealth of insight and inspiration for this process of establishing our ideals and dreams. Some of the most helpful enlightenment comes from examples of those who either succeeded or failed at the task. Once again, the life of David, the Old Testament king, is especially helpful to consider, for he set many stunning goals and succeeded in reaching them. Yet he also overdid it at times and fell flat on his face. His life is an intriguing mix of both dimensions of thinking big.

David was, overall, an exceptionally gifted visionary thinker. His decision as a very young man to fight Goliath is one of the most impressive examples in Scripture of someone thinking big in a constructive way (1 Sam 17). Although an extremely high-stakes venture for David, it was suitable given his gifts and experience, as we’ve noted. As a shepherd he had, with a sling, killed wild animals that had threatened his flock. He had developed a simple strategy for defeating a fierce opponent, and from experience learned that it worked. He had also discovered he had the presence of mind to carry it out at those moments he was under attack and his life hung in the balance.

While fighting Goliath meant taking on a new and greater challenge, David had good reason to believe he possessed both the skill and temperament for it (1 Sam 17:34-37). The rewards for succeeding were also immense: the glory of God was at stake, and a nation of people stood to benefit from his action. He and his family would benefit in major ways as well. Some risk, then, was more than justified.

As grandiose as David’s brothers thought his dream of fighting Goliath was, it was in fact appropriate for him, and he proved it with the first shot of his sling. David’s encounter with Goliath symbolizes his approach to life during his years as a warrior and his decades as king. He was an uncanny optimist and a master at thinking big. He had instinctively good judgment for recognizing good options for himself and his people, and he took many ingenious steps that successfully brought them about. His example inspires us to see the bigger possibilities for our own life and to go for them.

Yet David didn’t always get it right. He made some major blunders at times, which sprang from thinking too grandiosely. In each case, David probably became too obsessed with trying to match the accomplishments of others.

On one notorious occasion, he decided to take a census of Israel , a step that brought God’s wrath upon the nation (2 Sam 24, 1 Chron 21). Although Scripture doesn’t reveal precisely why taking the census angered God, it must have been that David was seeking more information than he needed to govern by faith. He undoubtedly wanted to know how Israel compared population-wise with other nations, and especially how Israel ’s military strength stacked up against other countries’. Instead, he should have simply trusted in faith that God had given Israel exactly the people and resources needed to carry out his purposes.

Equally tragic was David’s decision to seek a tryst with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11). However great his raw sensual desire that drew him to her, David also coveted in this case—a point Nathan the prophet implied when confronting him about the incident (2 Sam 12:1-9). David thought he needed to be gratified through a provision that God intended for Uriah the Hittite alone.

Another grandiose misstep of David’s was his decision to build a temple for God (2 Sam 7). David dearly desired to carry out this project, and spent considerable energy musing about it. Yet God explained to David that he didn’t have the right temperament for the task, since he was a warrior at heart (1 Chron 28:3-7, 1 Chron 22:6-10). He should instead allow his son Solomon to do it, during the latter’s reign.

David’s motives were certainly more commendable here than when he took the census or yielded to temptation with Bathsheba. God, in fact, commended David for his desire to build the temple (2 Chron 6:7-9). Yet he may have been influenced by unhealthy motives as well. David had been mentored by the prophets Samuel and Nathan, and undoubtedly had frequent contact with other dynamic religious leaders whom he esteemed. He may have felt inferior to these people in certain ways. He may have desired to prove to himself and others that he also could make an important contribution to his nation’s spiritual life. It wasn’t enough merely to be a good political leader; he needed to accomplish something that would deeply influence his nation spiritually as well.

One thing is certain: David’s desire to build the temple had become an obsession. His self-worth had become wrapped up in seeing it accomplished. “He swore an oath to the LORD, he made a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob: ‘I will not enter my house or go to my bed, I will allow no sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, till I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob’” (Ps 132:1-5).

God certainly did David an enormous favor by relieving him of the burden of thinking that he had to build the temple. By revealing to him that the temple project wasn’t his responsibility, God gave David a treasured insight into his calling as king. He assured him it was okay for him to be who he was, to focus on tasks that fit his gifts and personality, and to leave the other responsibilities for those more suited to handle them.

Acceptance Takes Courage

In the same way, God speaks to each of us, urging us to realize that he hasn’t made a mistake fashioning us as he has. He wants us to take great encouragement in the unique potential he has given us personally, even to feel exhilarated about it.

He wants us to be good stewards of our potential, too, and to take the wisest possible steps to invest it for his glory and the benefit of others. To do this effectively, it’s essential that we be optimistic and hopeful, and think big about our possibilities. From time to time, we will need to take a substantial step of faith with our life, to open ourselves more fully to the opportunities Christ has for us.

Again, the important thing is that such a step results from our best understanding of how God has molded our own life. The danger is always that we try to think too big, and embrace dreams that are out of line with who we are. It’s our desire to look good to others that so often makes us vulnerable to such idealizing. Our craving to be appreciated, respected and loved drives us to strive for accomplishments we believe they’ll admire. While we can never let go of this desire completely, we’re far happier not letting it control our destiny. Our greatest joy is found in living out God’s unique design for our life.

We shouldn’t underestimate, however, how challenging it can be to say no to opportunities that appeal strongly to our desire to be esteemed by others, but run counter to what is right for us. Choosing God’s best often means letting go of our need to be liked by others, to some extent—sometimes to the point of feeling like we’re throwing caution to the winds.

Our View of God Makes the Difference

As I’m writing this, a letter arrives from a friend. In it Carol shares about her own struggle to break the habit of comparing herself with others. The challenge for her, she explains, is that, in her unguarded thinking, she imagines that God is comparing her unfavorably with others and expecting her to live up to their standards. In reality, she knows God to be profoundly different. She knows he loves her uniquely, has a distinctive plan for her life, and doesn’t expect her to be anyone’s clone. But she has to dwell upon this realization to be transformed by it.

Carol has put her finger on the heart of the problem for many serious Christians. It has to do with our view of God more than anything. We have a default impression of him—that he judges us in light of how well we live up to the lifestyle and accomplishments of other Christians we admire. Underneath, we know God isn’t like this. We realize he has made uniquely, and that we best honor him by respecting our individuality. But this enlightened view of God doesn’t come naturally. We have a chronic tendency to lose sight of it, for it runs contrary to much of what we’ve been taught.

We need a view of God that frees us from this tendency, and infuses us with courage to be the individual he has made us to be. For this to happen, we need to devote generous time to reflecting on God’s distinctive love for us. We need to remind ourselves constantly that it is he who has given us our individuality, and that he takes it into account at all points in his plan for our life. This outlook on God will give us the heart to take the steps of faith so vital to realizing our potential for Christ. But it takes serious time reflecting on this picture of God for our attitude to substantially change.

In addition to focusing in this way on God’s nature, we should devote significant time to letting him direct our thinking. Investing such time can make a radical difference in our ability to recognize and carry out his will. Give Christ substantial opportunity to influence your life—both to shape your view of God and to direct your decisions.

Then take heart. He wants to shake the foundation of your life with opportunities that reflect his best intentions for you, with insight to recognize them, and courage to pursue them.

And there’s nothing grandiose about saying that.
    

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This article is adapted from my just-published Reach Beyond Your Grasp: Embracing Dreams That Reflect God's Best for You -- And Achieving them.

  
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