Part 2 of an interview with Shannon Popkin,
Author of Comparison Girl
Do you constantly compare yourself with others? On social media, in your neighborhood, at church, or in the school drop-off lane, do you push yourself to prove that you measure up . . . and then feel ashamed when you don’t? Measuring yourself against others isn’t healthy. And it isn’t God’s plan. In fact, the way of Jesus is completely upside down from this measure-up world. He invites us to follow him and be restored to freedom, confidence, and joy.
In Comparison Girl, Shannon Popkin shares what she has discovered about her own measure-up fears and get-ahead pride. With humor and honesty, she’s created this six-week Bible study to explore the conversations Jesus had and the stories he shared with people who—like us—were comparing themselves.
Q: Women comparing themselves to others has been around since the beginning of time—we read about it frequently in the Bible—so it isn’t anything new. Has social media in recent years made comparison an even bigger problem?
For sure. I remember a time, when my daughter was a little girl and hadn’t been invited to a birthday party. It was totally understandable; this neighbor girl was a different age and had only invited girls from her class, but still it was so painful. I said, “Honey, why don’t you come away from the window…” But today, with the dawn of social media, there are so many more “windows”. With Facebook and Instagram blowing back the curtains of a million friends, neighbors, and strangers at once, allowing us to gather tangible evidence on how we measure up, it’s much harder to “come away from the window.”
And how does this anonymous measuring against each other from a distance affect our relationships? Think of my daughter at that window. After the party was over, she didn’t go running out the door to meet up with her little friend. She pulled back. Don’t we do the same, even as adults? If someone makes me feel inadequate, I pull away instead of leaning in. I do the same thing when I feel like I’m the one who’s superior and this other person is “beneath me.” Either way, comparing myself on social media causes isolation, not connection.
Q: The common response to this problem of comparison is: “Just stop comparing!” But is this what Jesus taught?
It’s very common to be told, “Just stop comparing.” However, when Jesus came, encountering people who were plagued with just as much jealousy, condescension, and shame as we are today, that isn’t what he said. Not once! There is no verse which quotes Jesus saying, “Come follow me, and I will teach you not to compare.” In fact, Jesus’ teaching often invited people to compare.
Think of the story of the Good Samaritan and the one about the wise and foolish builders. Think of the time the widow gave her two copper coins and Jesus said she had given more than anyone else. How about the time Martha was complaining and Jesus said Mary had chosen what was better? Jesus used comparison words and stories all the time. He taught a new upside-down way of comparing which stands in stark contrast to what we’re used to. In Jesus’ kingdom, the last will be first. The greatest among us is the servant of all. The one who humbles herself will be exalted. This book is a study of these upside-down comparison statements of Jesus, which teach us to live today the way we’ll wish we had on the day all things become realigned under King Jesus.
Q: How does your book take the conversation on comparison in a new direction?
I have lots of books on my shelf which remind me when I’m obsessing over how I measure up to lift my attention to what God says about me, and my identity in Christ. I’m a daughter of the King! I’m accepted. I can enter the throne room boldly (Hebrews 4:16). I already have a seat with Christ (Ephesians 2:6). All of these are true and incredibly helpful. But I’ve noticed that sometimes, after relishing who God says I am with my Bible open on my lap, I can get up and enter a room full of people and fall right back into obsessing over how I measure up. So, I wrote this book for women like me, who want to find freedom from measure-up comparison, not just alone before God, but also in a room full of people. And I’ve invited Jesus to do the teaching.
It’s interesting that Jesus—when responding to his disciples’ argument over who was the greatest—didn’t say, “Guys, good grief. There’s a throne with your name on it. What more do you want?” Instead, he pulled a baby on his lap and said, “You want to be great? Be like this baby. Be the smallest person in the room.” In other words, Jesus didn’t remind them of their identity by telling them they already were great. He told them how to be great in the upside-down kingdom. Jesus modeled this upside-down kingdom greatness by making himself small, emptying himself, and lifting up his friends as he died so they might have life. So, when I’m obsessing over how I measure up, Jesus gives me the same instructions. He says I should start pouring, not posturing. I should make myself small and lift others up. For this is the way to be free of measure-up comparison in a room full of people.
Q: What does it mean to live “me-free”? How does a me-free outlook give our differences new meaning?
When I compare myself with others, I might be looking around or glancing sideways, but my focus always boomerangs back to me. Me-first comparison drives me to constantly be absorbed with self. But me-free comparison is completely different. Obviously, the contrasts between me and others remain, but when I’m free of self-focus, those differences don’t add or detract from my value; they offer me unique ways to serve!
In his wisdom, God has tucked unique gifts into our Comparison Girl hands and hearts. He gives one more of this and another more of that. He purposefully mismatches us so that we’ll be drawn together. He fills our measuring cups with gifts that are meant for each other. As we come together and tip our cups simultaneously—each pouring and receiving—a unique unity forms. As all the gifts are both offered and accepted, we give each other a place to belong.
Q: Tell us about the “Disgust Factor Challenge.” Why does disgust have no place in the church?
The pain of feeling inadequate causes my heart to crave superiority, as if I can somehow balance things out. It’s ugly to admit, but I intuitively seek out people that I can look down upon. Then, when I find them, it feels good to voice my disgust. So, I’m disgusted with cheating spouses. I’m disgusted with dirty politicians. I’m disgusted with the woman in the express checkout who has more than twenty items. I go through life muttering, “Ugh! I have never… I would never… I could never!” But by glaring down with condescending disgust, I’m also lifting myself up. The two are inextricable.
Recently, some friends and I participated in a three week “Disgust Factor Challenge” where we held ourselves accountable to report any disgust. We were surprised at how often disgust had crept into our faces, words, and hearts—and often over nothing but an arbitrary difference, such as manners at the table, parenting style, or taking the back roads instead of the highway. Other times our disgust was pointed at people we saw as “sinners.” Yet by looking down in condescension, were we not just sinning in a different way? In the world, it feels natural to group up and decide who is disgusting and why they don’t belong. But in the kingdom of heaven, everyone belongs. Everyone is celebrated—not because we are the same, but precisely because we are different. As the Church, our goal is unity, not uniformity. If everyone was uniform, why would we need unity? Our disgust—whether over differences or over sin—is completely out of place in a group whose unity is formed by the cross.
Q: As you were writing, which chapter of Comparison Girl impacted you most?
The chapter on comparing wealth. Tim Keller says, “When you’re greedy, you don’t know that you are.” I think this is particularly true of Americans. As women with more disposable income than any preceding generation, we’ve got to consider that greed might be more of a problem than we realize. Those of us who have excess money (that’s me) often think of ourselves as blessed by God. But what if we’re really being tested by him? What if—as God pads our purses and bank accounts—he’s asking, Will you love me most? Will you worship me, not this money? Will you serve me with what you have, instead of trying to differentiate yourself so that you can “measure up”?
Studying Jesus words about camels and needles, caused me to recognize something I hadn’t considered: my wealth puts me at a disadvantage. It continually pulls my eyes back to the lines. In my jealousy, greed, and measure-up frenzy I’m actually missing out! God, who sees everything and misses nothing, will reward every sacrifice—down to a little two-cent Dixie cup of cold water (Matthew 10:42). Every time we tip our measuring cups forward and pour out even a few drops, we send treasure to the place where moth and rust cannot destroy (Matthew 6:20). I find this so motivating! I want to dream big, with eyes of faith and what God is asking me to sacrifice. Who might need what’s in my cup? And what reward might await me, when I let my generosity flow?
Q: How does “flipping the ruler” help us when we become judgmental of others?
Remember Jesus’ imagery of specks and logs? It’s comical to think of yourself not even noticing a log sticking out of your eye, but even more so when you’re trying to lean in and help someone with their speck. Specks are tiny. To measure, you’d lean in with the millimeter side of your ruler. Logs are large. To measure, you’d flip your ruler around and measure by the foot. Those of us who are judgmental or critical of other people are the ones leaning in to measure others’ flaws by the millimeter. Yet, as we lean in to judge others with disgust, our critical spirit is log-sized. It should be measured by the foot.
We tend to magnify the flaws of others and minimize our own, but when we compare down with hyper-critical judgment, we’re the ones with the bigger problem. So, the next time you’re tempted to lean in and measure someone’s mistake by the minutia, instead flip your ruler and say, “It’s such a small thing. Look how tiny it is. Look how big my arrogance is when I judge her.”
Q: What final encouragement would you offer someone in the audience who may be struggling with comparison or jealousy?
You are different from other people by God’s intentional design. Anything in your measuring cup is a gift from Him. Your enemy presses you to use what’s in your cup to get ahead in the world and finally measure up; then he shames you when you don’t. But Jesus turns your attention to the spout. As you tip your cup and pour into others, the measuring stops. The measure-up lines become irrelevant. The more you pour, the more God fills your cup with freedom, confidence, and joy. This me-free living is the only way to break free from the system of our measure-up world.
Connect with Shannon Popkin by visiting www.shannonpopkin.com, following her on Facebook (shanpopkin) or following her via Twitter (@ShannonPopkin).