The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. – I Timothy 1:15
Americans have a nasty habit. We are constantly measuring our little personal worlds with the worlds of those around us. “Your kid made honor role? Mine is captain of the football team.” “Your wife is a successful realtor? Mine makes her own clothes and has a popular blog.” “My life is going down the drain. Well, it could be worse. I could be you.” Iterations of this last are especially common among Christian people. When someone is going through a difficult time we often encourage them to look on the bright side by pointing out various ways in which their life is better than someone else’s: “Hey, you flunked out of college but at least you aren’t working in a Chinese garment factory!” What this line of reasoning boils down to is this: somewhere, somehow, it’s worse for somebody else and that is something you should be grateful for. If we arranged all the people of the world in a hierarchy of misery I wonder how this line of thinking would resonate with the guy at the bottom?
We don’t always employ this technique of comparison negatively though. Sometimes we look at someone else and lament that they “do more for God” than we do. “Fr. David is a great preacher and I’m not. I wish I had that kind of talent!” This kind of aspirational or covetous comparison is no better than the other, rooted as it often is in vanity and insecurity. In fact it calls to mind the story of Simon Magus who, because he loved power and glory, sought to buy from the Apostles the ability to lay hands on people and give them the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:18-19)
Imagine trying to construct a building in a world where the definition of an inch varied from place to place. The result would be a building neither safe nor beautiful if you ever got one at all. So it is with us. When we compare ourselves to others, positively or negatively, we are basing our perspective on a continually changing standard of measurement – us in relation to other human beings. Such a perspective will not yield in us either beauty or truth.
Contrast this way of thinking with the quote from St. Paul above. St. Paul refers to himself as the “first,” “foremost,” or “chief” of sinners. How is that possible? Is it possible that St. Paul thought he was worse than Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus!? If we think about it in those terms St. Paul’s statement doesn’t make any sense. But that’s because we’ve got the perspective wrong. St. Paul isn’t saying that he’s the worst by comparison to other people at all. The comparison for St. Paul isn’t horizontal but vertical: him compared to God. What does it mean to compare yourself to God? It is to measure your love, your mercy, your patience, your wisdom, and your obedience against that of His Son, Jesus Christ. From this perspective it is not hard to understand how St. Paul could have said that he was the first among sinners and it shouldn’t be hard for us to imagine saying it either. What is my love compared to Christ’s? What does it matter if I’m more generous than my bishop if I’m more selfish than my Savior?
Or course, none of us comes off so well in such a comparison but that, I would submit, is part of the point. The purpose of a human life is to become like God but we cannot become like God until we are absolutely clear that we are not Him.