Are You Living by the Line or the Spout?

Part 1 of an interview with Shannon Popkin,
Author of Comparison Girl

Click here for part 2.

I wish I were tall like her. If only my kids got along the way her kids do. Why does she always seem to have it all together? Women compare themselves constantly. On social media, in their neighborhood, at church, at work, even in the school drop-off lane, they glance sideways and ask, “How do I measure up?” Behind all this comparison is an enemy gaining tactical advantage.

In her new Bible study, Comparison Girl: Lessons from Jesus on Me-Free Living in a Measure-Up World (Kregel Publications), author and speaker Shannon Popkin invites women to leave measure-up comparison behind and connect with those around them by choosing Jesus’s me-free way of living. It’s a real chance to break free from the shackles of comparison.

Q: In your previous release, Control Girl, you confessed to your struggle with needing to be in control. Is it safe to assume with the release of Comparison Girl, that comparison is also a problem for you?

Yes, I wrestle daily with comparison, and I’ve noticed that my struggles with control and comparison are related. As I glance sideways, measuring myself against others, I’m often laser-focused on things that are out of my control. I wish I was tall, like her! If only my kids got along the way her kids do. Why has the Lord given her so much more wealth than he’s given me?

Comparisons such as these lead to sulking, questioning, and doubting—not entrusting myself to the One who is in control. Actually, it was the study of Rachel and Leah in Control Girl which prompted this study on comparison. Rather than pacing, fretting, and driving ourselves to outdo each other (like these Old Testament sisters did), Jesus invites us to pour our lives out in surrender to our Creator—who both fashions and leads us as individuals.  

Q: How far back does your struggle with comparison go? Has measuring up and proving yourself to others been something you’ve struggle with your entire life?

My comparison problem literally goes back as far as I can remember. In fact, my first memory is a Comparison Girl story. When I was four years old, I was in church and feeling very grown up, holding my own hymn book. But then a woman from the row behind me reached forward and turned my book right-side-up. I felt embarrassed, exposed, and ashamed since the entire watching world now knew that I could not read.

It seems silly, now. Why was I so worried about being exposed as an illiterate preschooler? Yet, some of my current struggles are just as absurd. Why do I worry about being exposed as a less-than-perfect mom? Or a middle-aged woman who struggles with her weight? Or a Christian who still sins? My heart, since childhood, has been bent on perfectionism, pride, and measuring up—which has not led to great freedom and joy. Instead, it’s led to a great fear of what people think and a great dread of being found lacking.

Q: You find it ironic that we often refer to comparison as a game. Why do references to “The Comparison Game” rub you the wrong way?  

It’s ironic that we call comparison a “game” since I’m pretty sure Satan thinks of it as a strategy of war. Listen to the way James 3:14-15 links comparison to Satan’s agenda: “If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts… this is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthy, unspiritual, demonic.” You can’t be jealous without first comparing. And you can’t be selfishly ambitious without glancing sideways to make sure you’re still in the lead. When we try to measure up and get ahead, we are being influenced by the world.

So, keep this in mind. If you hear some voice saying, “Look over at her. She’s so much thinner than you…” This voice is never Jesus; it’s always Satan. And if you hear a voice saying, “Look over at her. Her kids are a mess! You’re a way better mom than she is…” again, this voice is never Jesus. It is always Satan trying relentlessly to pull your attention back to this measure-up, here-and-now world. Comparison Girl is written to help readers reject what Satan has to say and learn to listen to Jesus instead.

Q: How does Satan use comparison to keep us in bondage? Why does Satan count our comparison as a win?

Satan once held rank and position in heaven, but he was discontent. He loathed being less than God, so he set out to lift himself up, saying, “I will be like the Most High.” See that comparison word, “like”? Satan’s undoing began with comparison. He had the audacity—as a created being—to measure himself against God, and because of his pride, he fell from heaven like a streak of lightning (Luke 10:18). But when Satan landed on earth, it was not with new meekness. He is a liar, and the truth has no place in him, so he lives out the delusion that he is somehow God’s rival. Today, he still roams the earth with dogged resolve to challenge God’s preeminence. And how does Satan attack God? By hurting and destroying us. He sees us as pawns to prove his blasphemous point.

Many times, we stumble into comparison, thinking only of ourselves and ignoring the cosmic battle playing out in the heavenly realms. And Satan is fine with that. He’s content to remain anonymous, whispering to us from the shadows as we glance sideways. He is equally pleased when we compare up as when we compare down; both inferiority and superiority drive us to the exhaustion of measure-up bondage. As we ignore God and fold into ourselves, we begin to resemble Satan—back when he was insisting on a higher throne. Satan counts this as a win.

Q: Can you explain your analogy of living by the lines vs. living by the spout?

Jesus, however, turns your attention to your measuring cup’s spout, saying that you were designed—not to measure up, but to pour yourself out. And he shows you how it’s done. If Jesus had a measuring cup, it would be completely brimming full. In fact, it would be impossible to find a cup to contain his worth, which is beyond compare. But instead of concerning himself with proving his worth, Jesus, who was “in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant…”  (Philippians 2:6-7). In other words, Jesus lived by the spout. He emptied himself of status and poured his life out on the cross, giving his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). He invites us to follow him, pouring out what we have and who we are in service of other people.  This is counter-intuitive, to be sure, but living by the spout is what frees us from comparison. For when we tip our measuring cups to one side, the lines become irrelevant.

Q: Comparison breeds pride, yet there are different kinds of pride. Tell us more about healthy pride vs. the various kinds of unhealthy pride and how they impact our relationships.

We sometimes talk about taking pride in something. Like taking pride in our appearance or our work. This is appropriate, since as God’s image bearers, we have great worth. We matter. Our bodies and our work matter. The problem comes, however, when we turn to other people (who are also created in God’s image and who also matter) and use comparison to feed our pride.

Comparison-fed pride takes many forms. For instance, envious pride says, “I wish I was great like her.” Jealous pride says, “I’m angry because she is great.” Haughty pride says, “I’m so happy that I’m great.” Insecure pride says, “I’m ashamed because I’m not great.” Wounded pride says, “I hate being overshadowed by the greatness of everyone else.” Our pride is expressed in both longing to be first and in despising being last. Of course, comparison and inflating pride is exactly what Satan wants for us. But Jesus says that in his kingdom the first and the last, the greats are those who empty themselves out. In other words, our pride is what keeps us from greatness in the kingdom of heaven.

Q: We’ve talked a lot about bad comparison, but when can comparison be positive?

Picture yourself walking into a room of people. If you enter the room with a measure-up mindset, you’ll spend your time measuring yourself against everyone else. You’ll either fill with pride, inadequacy, jealousy, or a combination. You might start posturing to compensate for your inadequacies. You might become guarded around those who make you feel threatened or outdone. Or you might distance yourself from those who seem “beneath you.” In each instance, when you enter the room focused on the lines, you’ll keep people at arms’ length, and there’s a good chance you’ll leave the room feeling even more isolated than when you entered.

However, what if you could enter that same room of people, focused on the spout? What if you could approach others, knowing exactly what is in your cup and looking for ways to pour yourself out? What if, instead of being threatened by the gifts of others, you could anticipate receiving what’s in their cup as a gift from God? We are all different on purpose. God gave more of this to one and more of that to another, not so that we can measure up, but so that we can pour ourselves out. Picture that room again with yourself right in the middle of a cluster of people who are all pouring and receiving. Instead of isolation, there’s community! By engaging the spout, not the lines, we free ourselves to compare and explore our differences with new freedom and joy.

Q: Tell us more about the format of Comparison Girl and how it was designed to be used. Could the book be used in a group setting?

Comparison Girl is a Bible study which examines the conversations Jesus had and the stories he shared with people who—like us—were comparing. The study is built around in the upside-down comparison statements of Jesus (such as “the last will be first”), which he often used in these stories and conversations. Chapters two through six look at various ways that we tend to compare ourselves: comparing sin, wealth, appearances, our work for Jesus, and status. Each chapter is broken into lessons which begin with a Bible passage to read and end with application questions and a meditation.

Since this upside-down life is meant to be lived in groups, not as individuals, it would be great to gather some friends and do this study as a group. Also, if you’d like to have me be part of your group time with additional teachings, please check out my Comparison Girl video sessions (they are sold separately).