Last weekend I went on a golf trip to Pinehurst, North Carolina with my mom and dad and son. This is the fourth time we have gone on this trip together (my brother, who usually goes, was replaced by my mom this time). The sun was shining, the sky was azure, there was not a cloud to be seen. The azaleas were in full bloom. The courses were in pristine shape. The cigars were tasty. And my golf game was wretched. I finished in 4th place (which is good if you are in a pool of 100 people, but bad if you are in a pool of 4 people that includes your septuagenarian parents). I hadn’t picked up a club since our trip last year. I wasn’t expecting a low score. I was right not to expect it.
The trouble with that is that it’s frustrating. This led me to do bad things, sinful things. Like throw a club. And cuss a few times. I repented. I trust that God’s grace has covered me in Jesus. But still, it’s frustrating. And if you understand me, it was frustrating to be so frustrated!
I don’t want to overstate the problem. It was a wonderful, relaxing time. I was reminded how blessed I am to have parents that I love and respect and whose company I enjoy, as well as a son who is growing into a man right before my eyes, whose company I also enjoy immensely (and who handles his own golf frustrations better than his dad). It was spiritually encouraging as well – each of us led a little devotion each day and we prayed together. We had some interesting conversations with waiters for whom we prayed. The goodness of God and His unfathomable creativity were on full display in the springtime in the South.
So then why the outbursts? Why not just go with the flow? Why not chuckle at myself for possessing a golf game that will never be envied? One reason, I think, is that I was comparing myself with the wrong measuring stick. How well or poorly I play golf really does not matter, even if I lose to my dad (that last bit was difficult to write and I am still not completely convinced of its truthfulness). A lower score does not indicate stronger character or Christlikeness. However, how I react to a frustrating circumstance DOES matter. Reacting with patience, and the ability to laugh at oneself, is fruit of the Holy Spirit at work. Similarly, we often compare ourselves to other people with the wrong measuring stick. “He makes more money, she’s more successful, his career path is on the fast track while I get overlooked.” Jordan Peterson wrote a fascinating book called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos. He is a brilliant psychologist who is not a Christian but writes astutely about the role of religion in the West and about the problems that plague us fallen humans who live in a fallen world. His rule #4 in the book is “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone else is today.” Peterson references a client who was seeing him because he was haunted by his former college roommate’s success, and how by comparison this client was a total failure. His former roommate? Elon Musk! By that yardstick, about 7 billion other people would also fall short.
The wrong yardstick of comparison yields frustration, envy and unhappiness. Rather than comparing to other people, we ought to be comparing ourselves to who we were yesterday. What small, concrete, not-overwhelming aspect of our lives might we set about to change so that in a year, when we look back, we can compare ourselves with who we were and be thankful?
What small, concrete, not-overwhelming aspect of our lives might we set about to change so that in a year, when we look back, we can compare ourselves with who we were and be thankful?
This idea parallels the Christian life of sanctification. No, we are not who we should be. We fail to live up to who God calls us to be on a daily basis. But by God’s grace and our own earnest efforts, we are on the road to being more mature, courageous, humble followers of Christ. That road is not easy. It requires change, and sacrifice, and humility. Often we need the help of other Christian brothers and sisters who see us and our blind spots better than we see ourselves and who will tell us the truth (which requires a level of vulnerability that we tend to avoid). But it is worth it. This road might be helped or inspired by other Christians who are models for us, but in truth God compares us not with those other Christians, but with what He has given us and what we do with it (see Matthew 25:14-30).
The journey of sanctification will last all of our earthly lives. It is a joyful, difficult journey, one that Paul captured well in Philippians 3:12-14:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
We are not there, but we press on. Next year, by God’s grace, I will not throw my putter.