Basketball is one of my favorite things. I love playing, watching, and even talking about the sport that, to me, is the ultimate source of comparisons.
LeBron James or Michael Jordan? Stephen Curry or Magic Johnson? The Lakers or the Clippers?
These comparisons are fun and serve as good conversation starters.
On a personal level, when walking onto a court to play, I am frequently sizing up other players. And I know they are just as often doing the same with me. The unspoken competition of skill causes me to want to accentuate my strengths and hide my shortcomings.
This second type of personal comparison can be more harmful than innocuous debates about famous players if it causes us to continually ignore our weaknesses. If we only practice what we are good at because we worry about others’ opinions, then improvement takes a backseat to pride.
When competing in a game, we play to our strengths, but when practicing, we should work to improve our deficiencies. And in that process of refinement, we are going to mess up. We’re not going to be perfect.
Sometimes that can be frustrating. But it is also necessary.
Ether 12:27 states:
“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 if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”
The scripture invites us to confront our weaknesses and take our efforts and struggles to God so He can make weak things become strong. It also tells us to be humble, to ignore the watching eyes of others and our own feelings of doubt borne from comparison.
A Time to Improve
Comparisons can stunt our growth in more than just athletics. Just like players give furtive glances on the basketball court, how often do we look over our shoulder at people in church?
How often do we listen to the unwarranted comparisons the world makes?
Lehi’s vision about the tree of life found in 1 Nephi 8 illustrates the effects of giving heed to those who mock from the “great and spacious building”:
“And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
“And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.”
Even after tasting the fruit that Lehi described as being “desirable above all other,” if we look where we should not and compare ourselves to the things and people of the world, we too are susceptible to falling away.
Continuing the basketball analogy, we know this mortal existence is our time to practice. However, we are also playing in a metaphorical game that has real, eternal consequences.
“I can’t stress too strongly that decisions determine destiny,” President Thomas S. Monson reminded us in a 2005 BYU speech.
This earthly test has no grading curve and no limiting quotas; all who make the grade will be granted the same glory. We have no need to jostle into position ahead of others or measure our growth against theirs.
So why do we so often judge ourselves in this way?
Our purpose during the time we have on earth is to learn and grow and prepare to meet God. Our mandate is to follow Christ and become perfect. Spending time and energy comparing ourselves against others can divert and even halt our progress toward that ultimate goal.
It is easy to get discouraged when we feel like we are surrounded by those who are more talented, desirable, and righteous than ourselves. Social media has inundated us with thousands of people who seem to fit that description. On the reverse side, focusing on others' flaws and limitations adds nothing to our own potential or achievements. Using others as our measuring stick of progress is always a flawed endeavor.
“I would hope we could pursue personal improvement in a way that doesn’t include getting ulcers or anorexia, feeling depressed or demolishing our self-esteem,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in 2017 general conference address. “That is not what the Lord wants for Primary children or anyone else who honestly sings, ‘I’m trying to be like Jesus.’”
It is equally dangerous to take heed of the messages this fallen world is trying to sell.
In a thought-provoking BYU speech titled “Wrestling with Comparisons,” Associate Professor J.B. Haws asks some pertinent questions about the fairness of comparing individuals:
“What I mean is that no one can legitimately say, in the ultimate sense, ‘I prospered because of my genius,’ or ‘I conquered because of my strength.’ We know that, in reality, so many variables are involved. Where we are born, when we are born, our race, our gender, the schools available to us, the education level of our parents, genetic markers like height and muscle mass, the timing of our application and the pool of applicants for a program or a job—there are so many things that are out of our control. All of these factors impact the degree to which we even have the opportunity to ‘prosper’ or ‘conquer.’ There have been many geniuses who have not had equal opportunity to prosper and many strong men and women who have not had equal opportunity to conquer. And for that matter, what does ‘prospering’ or ‘conquering’ even definitively look like?”
Whether you are a recent convert or a long-time Latter-day Saint, all of us experience a unique faith journey with highs and lows. Is assessing two people with such diverse lives fair? Is comparing our lows to another's high helpful?
It is definitely discouraging, and it’s not what our Heavenly Father wants for us.
The Savior, who is the perfect judge, gives a foreshadowing of His outlook in the story of the widow’s mite.
In this story, a poor widow and rich men gave offerings in the temple.
As the widow’s two mites were so much less than others’ grand offerings, her contribution was overlooked by many.
Christ, of course, saw it differently:
“And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:
“For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”
Christ compared her contribution to what she had, not what others had or gave. We, likewise, should compare ourselves to the progress we have made personally, regardless of progress that others have made.
Our Savior used a similar approach when talking with Peter after His apostle learned about John’s desire to live until the Second Coming and bring souls unto Christ.
Haws addressed Christ’s response to Peter:
“In this reading, one might assume that Doctrine and Covenants 7:5 would read like this: ‘I say unto thee, Peter, [your desire to come speedily into my kingdom] was a good desire; but my beloved [John] has desired that he might do more, or a greater work yet among men than what [you have done, thou slacker].’ I can still remember where I was, however, when I realized that of course the verse did not read that way. Here is how it really reads: ‘I say unto thee, Peter, this was a good desire; but my beloved has desired that he might do more, or a greater work yet among men than what he has before done.’
“I feel this with the force of truth: our perfect, loving God makes no horizontal comparisons. In this verse Jesus only compared John with John’s former self—John with old John. He only compared Peter with old Peter, with former Peter. And He only compares me with old me.”
An Appropriate Comparison
Through His example, Christ has unequivocally shown us that the only comparison we should be making while going through this mortal life is to our former selves.
In the same conference address, Elder Holland continues:
“Leo Tolstoy wrote once of a priest who was criticized by one of his congregants for not living as resolutely as he should, the critic concluding that the principles the erring preacher taught must therefore also be erroneous.
“In response to that criticism, the priest says: ‘Look at my life now and compare it to my former life. You will see that I am trying to live out the truth I proclaim.'”
Comparing our present with our past can be hopeful instead of discouraging, and it is an important gauge of our personal progress. As President Russell M. Nelson has reminded us, perfection is pending, and it is contingent on us continuing to do as well as we can.
President Nelson said in a 1995 general conference address:
"Mortal perfection can be achieved as we try to perform every duty, keep every law, and strive to be as perfect in our sphere as our Heavenly Father is in his. If we do the best we can, the Lord will bless us according to our deeds and the desires of our hearts."
In the race to perfection, donning blinders and letting Christ be our jockey is the best plan. Regardless of who finishes the race first, if we trust our Savior and follow His plan, we will be saved as surely as everyone else who pursues righteousness. Comparing ourselves to others is only liable to impede our progress and cause us to veer off course.