Comparison and Our Value (A Study in Ecclesiastes)
Comparison sneaks into my life when I least expect it. I want to know, “Am I OK? Am I cool enough, good looking enough, or smart enough? Rich enough? Do I fit in?” We’re always concerned about that, aren’t we? The only way we think we can figure out the answer to those questions is by comparing ourselves to others. We measure our value based on what other people are like.
We compare in two ways: the upward (comparing to those who seem better than us) or downward (to those who seem less than us). Social media is devoted to upward comparison. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and SnapChat encourage us to put our best self forward so everyone else sees how wonderful we are – how nice our homes are or cute our kids are or what great vacations we take. There’s also downward comparison, like reality TV that exploits people to make us feel better about ourselves. You know the shows – about people who are dysfunctional or even game shows which make people fall down or get embarrassed on camera.
It’s all about making us feel more significant because someone else is less so.
There’s an answer, though. Ecclesiastes helps me with both upward and downward comparison. It reminds me to look to God for my security and self-worth. Solomon asked God for wisdom and God granted him that gift. He was the wisest man ever (other than Jesus). He paid attention to how things worked and wrote this book in the Old Testament to tell us his findings. Ecclesiastes tells us that there’s nothing under the sun that can satisfy the desires of our heart, nothing but God himself.
Solomon was a rich, wise man. He had it all, but he says none of that matters. Only God does.
“And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves. Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked, ‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?’ This too is meaningless—a miserable business!” Ecclesiastes 4:4-8
That word toil, in Hebrew, means labor and misery. All of that heavy work is motivated by envy, our desire to outdo our neighbor. Solomon says, that is a complete waste of good and valuable time. It’s not like Solomon is against work. In fact, later in Ecclesiastes 5:19-20, he says work is a gift from God. He knows there’s value in work, but there is no value when work is motivated by envy.
Solomon says any labor motivated by envy is short-lived. When he says it is chasing after the wind and it’s meaningless, that word meaningless is a word that means vapor. The minute it’s out there, it changes or disappears.
It’s meaningless to work that hard simply because we’re envious of others. In fact, James 3:16 says, “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” That’s where envy leaves us.
In one of his Proverbs, Solomon says, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.”
We have to remind ourselves regularly about the nature of envy and what triggers it for us. Solomon tells us a story of a man who works hard but was completely blinded by his greed. He had no family, perhaps no children, no one to pass his wealth to, and he realized his envy, his greed, led to a meaningless existence. All he had in the end was worthless.
Solomon writes that we come with nothing and we’re going to leave with nothing. So all we toil for is useless in the end. God is the only one who can satisfy us–not our toys or our vacations or our success. In Luke 12:15, Jesus says, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
So what is the answer? How do we avoid useless work, and the trap of comparison?
Look what Solomon says in verse 4:6. “Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.”
When we have tranquility and contentment, we have generosity. When we follow God, not useless things or comparison with others, our life has meaning and purpose.
Contentment comes from God. The Apostle Paul agreed with Solomon. In his letter to the Philippians (4:12-13), he writes, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” And David in Psalm 23:1 says: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”
Aren’t those powerful words? God knows that we struggle with worry, envy and useless work. He knows that we need reminders to slow down and release our grip on pointless things. He gives us what we need. I have what I need. I lack nothing.
We need something to anchor our hearts, and I believe this truth can help us keep our hearts from comparison and, therefore, from envy. “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”
Let’s do it with the picture Solomon gave us: one hand full and one hand empty. Today, as you run errands or go to work or talk to a friend, imagine one hand full of blessings and one empty, ready to give, receive and live free of comparison. What a beautiful way to live.
How can you live with one hand full and one empty this week? Write down some ideas for avoiding comparison and living generously.