“Woe to those who are at ease in Zion and to those who feel secure on the hill of Samaria – the notable people in this first of the nations, those the house of Israel comes to. Cross over to Calneh and see; go from there to great Hamath; then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms? Is their territory larger than yours? You dismiss any thought of the evil day and bring in a reign of violence.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
There is a terrible disease wreaking havoc on our culture right now. It passes easily from person to person and young people are especially susceptible to catching it. Once you have it, it is tremendously hard to get rid of it. The medicine you need to fight it is costly and often feels enough worse than the disease itself that some people refuse to take it in favor of either trying to fight it on their own or else simply living with its effects. Curious what this scourge is? I’m talking about the disease of comparisonitis. Amos here talks about a particularly tragic case in Israel. Let’s take a look at this and talk about how it can infect us as well.
I was trained in the school of Big Idea Preaching. This style of preaching, made most famous by Haddon Robinson, calls preachers to wrap their entire sermons around a single big idea that the congregation can remember and easily apply to their lives. If you’re going to do it well, this can’t be just any big idea. This should be an idea that comes directly out of the text you are exegeting with the congregation. The idea can’t be overly long or terribly cumbersome to remember. It should be short and pithy. When done well, a good big idea wrapped in a really compelling sermon can stick with an audience for years.
One of the best modern practitioners of big idea preaching is Andy Stanley. He has a genuine gift for crafting memorable phrases that help drive home the point of his messages. Having been listening to his preaching for close to 15 years, there are several of his big ideas in particular that I can still remember. One of the ones that has stuck with me the most and which I have even repeated to my own sons when doing a bit of fathering in the trenches is this: There’s no win in comparison. It’s short. It’s pithy. It rhymes. And it captures a really important biblical truth in a way that’s easy to remember and apply.
The idea here is pretty self-explanatory. When you start trying to make comparisons between yourself and the people around you or even between or among other groups of people, no one ultimately comes out on top in those efforts. Thinking specifically about comparing ourselves with others, every time we do that one of two things is going to happen, and oftentimes both of them will. One outcome is that we become prideful in our perceived superiority over this other person. We start looking down on him because, after all, we are better than he is. The other outcome is that the other person starts to feel improperly badly about herself. She begins to see herself through a lens of insecurity since she doesn’t measure up to your standards. And again, in many cases, both of these things happen.
All of this profits us and the people around us exactly nothing. As long as we are making comparisons on the basis of people, those comparisons will always result in more harm than good. The simple reason for this is that we were never intended to be compared with the people around us. They aren’t the standard by which anything about us is going to be measured. Well, they aren’t the standard by which anything about us is going to be measured by someone whose opinion ultimately matters in any significant way. Yes, the people around us will play into this game just like we are tempted to do, and, yes, their evaluation of us may be rendered more negative than positive on the basis of one of these factors. But even where these folks are in the position to make certain parts of our lives more difficult than they might otherwise be, their evaluations of us are not rooted in any kind of an ontological reality.
If you want to put it in these terms, all comparisons like this fall prey to the sin of idolatry. By making someone or something other than God the standard by which we evaluate ourselves or the people around us, we are making this person or thing ultimate instead of Him. This is uniformly unfair and unjust. It is unfair because in doing this we are necessarily holding people up to a standard that is imperfect by its very nature. An imperfect standard is going to be held inconsistently and imperfectly. Different people will be locked into different outcomes through no fault of their own. It is unjust because by using a standard other than God’s character, we are doing what is not right. We are rendering them incapable of obtaining certain outcomes that are intended to be universally available.
Or, to put it like Stanley did, “There’s no win in comparison.”
The people of Israel were playing a very dangerous game of comparison. They had veered wildly off the track of righteousness and were on track for a head-on collision with God’s judgment. The trouble was, they thought they were invincible. As we have talked about several times in our journey through Amos, in economic and military terms, they seemed to be doing great. They were convinced by these external signs that they weren’t off track at all. After all, they told themselves, if they were really making God angry, wouldn’t they be experiencing some measure of hardship? Yet everything was going great. Clearly they were doing better than their neighbors who were being slowly gobbled up by the Assyrians. Those were the ones with the real problems. As for Israel, they were doing fine.
Through His prophet, God took the path of playing their game. He essentially says here, “So, you want to compare yourself with the people around you? Then let’s do that. Take a look at these other major cities with whom you have compared yourselves. They were bigger than you are. They were stronger than you are. They bad better economies and stronger armies than you do. And where are they now? They are gone. They have been conquered. By what rational measure do you think you’re going to avoid their fate? Because you certainly don’t have me on your side right now.”
They were making comparisons and they weren’t going to win. In fact, they didn’t stand a chance. They thought they were doing great, but they were soon going to learn just how wrong they were.
I’m curious: What kinds of comparisons are you making in your life? What are the standards – or perhaps, who are the standards – by which you decide whether or not you are on the right track? If these standards are anything other than God’s character, you are playing a very dangerous game. It is not a game you will win. It is not a game you can win. Hold yourself to the standard of the character of Christ and let Him hold the people around you to that standard. He’s better at it than you are anyway. Instead of worrying yourself about whether or not they measure up, love them with the love of Christ and by that help move them in the direction of measuring up. That’s a game everyone can win.