The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’
I just got back from our church's mens retreat over the weekend at a camp in the woods of Pennsylvania. We spent a lot of time eating, playing volleyball, and laughing (sometimes at each other's expense, I admit!). But the heart of the retreat was about exploring our inner lives with humility.
We used a lot of concepts from Rich Villodas' book, Good and Beautiful and Kind, exploring the things that fracture God's world and how we can be a part of living a better way. One of the major concepts is learning to shed the false self that we live in, constantly needing to look good and feel capable and impressive, often through comparison to others. We can easily form our identity based on how our opinions, achievements, or competencies are better than "those people" (whoever we want to put in that category that helps us feel better). The end result is a "zero-sum game." It's the mentality that in order for me to win, someone else has to lose. The biggest tragedy may be that we subtly convince ourselves that winning is even the point. Simply put, the whole approach is truly a failure to love...to love ourselves as we are, and to love others as they are.
In the above story that Jesus tells in Luke about a Pharisee and a tax collector, Jesus concludes by letting the listeners know that the tax collector was the one who headed home in right relationship with God. He was just plain honest. The Pharisee only continued to build up his false self through an over-spiritualized comparison game. He got nowhere with God.
Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber recently said that, "as a society, our drug of choice right now is just knowing who we’re better than."
I'll let you sit with that.
It's possible to hold convictions and live them out without seeing everyone else as your enemy to defeat. It's possible to look around and first notice truly good things about others, rather than primarily finding what to critique.
When we learn to receive the love and grace of Jesus and live in honest humility in our own lives we no longer need to protect a false image of ourselves. And therefore, we no longer need to compare ourselves to others to try to feel better or gain external admiration. I am loved. So are you. We are not perfect. And we need not live in denial or shame. And because of that, the door to relationships opens wide. We both win. I can even root for you and acknowledge what God has placed in you that is good and beautiful. That's good news, and that's a glimpse of the kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus, teach me to move beyond the comparison and arrogance that forms a false self, so that I can fully receive your grace and pass it on.