I learned recently that a school friend of mine became a grandmother two years ago.
This friend had become pregnant at the age of 15 and gave birth during the exam period of her final year at school. Her daughter, at the age of 17, had her own child who is now 2 years old.
Another friend of mine, who I lived with at university, sadly lost his wife this year.
After 12 happy years of marriage she was rushed into hospital and, a few days later, died from a brain aneurysm. He has now become a single parent, looking after his 3 children, one of whom was born last year.
And then, there’s me.
I’m 35. I’m single and I’ve never been married. I don’t have any children, let alone grandchildren, and at the moment it doesn’t look like any of the facts above are going to change in the near future… except my age, which is gradually increasing step by step whilst everything else remains the same.
Having a friend who is now a grandmother can make me feel like I’ve fallen behind.
She has a grandchild whilst I don’t even have a child.
She has been through so much, so many experiences, and progressed in terms of family far faster than I can imagine… and I’m still at the same point we both were when we started year 11 together at school.
As I mourn with my other friend over the loss of his wonderful wife, I see his frequent Facebook posts covering different stages of his relationship with her over the years.
It is a fantastically cathartic approach for him as part of the grieving process, and it highlights to me how much they went though together; how much he has enjoyed his married life and the many experiences they shared that developed such a deep intimacy between the two of them in the space of 12 years, It is no wonder her loss is as painful as it is.
It is such a tragic loss that the family has experienced and yet I know my friend is so grateful for the years they had together.
In that same 12 year period since the end of our university years, I look at my own life with no years of marriage, no deep bond formed with the same person over this time, and no beautiful children that came out of it.
Although I would not wish to lose anyone close to myself, I sometimes read about how wonderful their life was and it’s difficult not to wish that I could have been married for 12 years by now.
I would not have seen just how great their time was together if this terrible event had not happened and it has brought the issue of where I’m at right now to the front of my mind, just as hearing my other friend becoming a grandmother did.
To be quite honest, I feel bad when I compare my life to other people.
I mean, one friend lost his wife and I can’t imagine how hard life must be for him now, and yet here I am amongst his pain wishing I had been married for 12 years to someone who I would miss that much if she were gone.
I pray peace over his family and yet it is hard for me, hearing what an amazing wife and mother she has been to them all, because there has been no equivalent figure in my own life through this time.
My other friend had a child at an age that made life quite difficult for her, and yet it’s easy to wish I could have at least started this process instead of being two huge steps behind.
I pray the wider family all support each other and decide to look to God for guidance in how to deal with the issues that arise from having children so young, and yet it’s hard hearing this family are so far on in their stages of life because it makes me feel like I haven’t even begun.
It is so easy for me to compare my life to other people.
I’m sure you’re the same.
We all live such different lives in so many ways and there are aspects we see in other’s journeys that we often very sorely wish were in our own. We can look at people who have what we don’t and wish those things could, somehow, be in our lives as well as what we already have.
If we don’t have a spouse and we see how much they mean to others, we want one.
If we don’t have children and we observe the joy and blessings they bring, it’s easy to feel the urge to want them.
And yet, if we are already married, we can look back at singleness and the freedoms it had and we can wish to experience them again. The same with children, when our lives have been taken over with noise, stress, and packed schedules every day.
Easy as it is to look at others and wish to have what they have, this is not the life God wants us to live.
He doesn’t want us to live anyone else’s life and He doesn’t want us to live our own life whilst envying that of another. He has an individual plan for us all and we may not understand it, but it’s His plan and He knows exactly what He’s doing.
Instead of wishing we were at another point and living a life full of looking at other people, He wants us to appreciate what we do have and to learn to be content wherever we are at.
That is ridiculously hard to do!
How on Earth are we meant to enjoy what we have whilst others have the very things our hearts are burning for?
It hurts sometimes, doesn’t it?
To want what you used to enjoy and which was taken away from you.
To want what you had but never appreciated until you made a change to your life.
Or, to want what you’ve never had but which you long to experience and enjoy just as others do every day…
Yes, all of that can hurt, and they can be powerful motivators to do many things that aren’t in line with what God wants for us.
Just as I see in my friend, a grandmother, and long to at least begin to process of parenthood, I’m sure my friend at times has looked at the lives of others and wished for more freedom or for the years to be returned that she may have felt were lost.
She may even wish she didn’t feel so old; an image pushed onto anyone who has grandchildren at any age.
Just as I see in my other friend, a husband who enjoyed 12 years of wonderful marriage that led to 3 lovely children, and wish I could have had the same instead of none of it, I’m sure my friend at times has wished for a bit of space or peace and quiet over the years or for the freedom of singleness when times were tough.
I’m sure now, however, he is not wishing for singleness and may even have wished that none of it had happened at all just so he doesn’t have to feel the pain of loss any more.
He will no doubt be looking at others who still have their spouses and wishing life could have continued for him as it did for the 12 years before and as it is doing for many of his friends and family.
We can all be tempted to look at others whatever stage we are at.
No one is immune from it, even those that we ourselves are certain have everything they could possibly want.
When the world tells us to look at others, to show off about what we have on social media and in our conversations with others, to try desperately to have as much as you can and to have it as soon as possible, to believe that the grass is always greener on the other side wherever you are to begin with, then it’s no wonder we all fall foul of comparing our lives to everyone else instead of appreciating what we have.
No wonder there are marriages to the wrong people when we rush to be married, or children born when we are too young to be ready for them, or even affairs or divorces taking place when we were happily married to start with. These are all the result of looking elsewhere instead of seeing what we already have.
I asked above how on Earth we are meant to enjoy what we have, when our hearts burn for something else.
Well, I’ll tell you how I manage it… at those times that I do, which is certainly not all the time (I can tell you that now!), there are five things I find useful to remember:
1. The first thing to realise is that on Earth, it’s going to be hard.
It’ll be hard at times for everyone, whoever you are and wherever you’re at.
It’s no harder for you than for anyone else because, whilst on Earth, we are all subject to sin. It’s affects us all and no-one is above being tempted to envy what others have.
Accepting it’s no worse for you than for others is actually a powerful first step in killing envy.
‘Why’s that?’, you may ask.
Well, if we think we have it worse it’s easy to justify doing something about it – and doing the wrong thing, at that!
We can believe we deserve more because we have a harder life, in terms of lacking things or because we believe we feel the lack more keenly. This is because we don’t understand everyone feels like this, or at least will do if they don’t protect themselves against it.
So what do I do?
I remember I’m not alone. The desire to compare my life to another is just as strong in everyone, but that doesn’t make it right.
Instead it means that we are all in the same boat and that the same rules apply to us all.
I must not envy. Neither should you. And I don’t deserve to break that rule just because it feels like it’s harder for me and I deserve a break when others don’t… the reality is no one deserves a break.
When God decided that not envying your neighbour was important enough to include in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), He did it because it really was very important to follow – for everyone. The effects of disobeying this can be disastrous.
2. Envy is a choice and this is the second thing I focus on to help.
You might feel you can’t help but look at others and then envy what they have.
If God says not to do it, however, then that means we have do a choice in the matter. He wouldn’t have told us not to do something if it were impossible not to do it. He doesn’t give us instructions that we can’t do.
Every sin highlighted in His word is a choice to live in a way that does not honour Him, and if it’s a choice that means we can choose the right option instead of the wrong option every time that choice presents itself to us.
It can be a hard choice of course, no doubt about that, but by choosing not to compare your life with others who have what you want, or at least what you think you want, you are choosing to please God and embrace the life He has for you, instead.
3. The third thing I do to help myself is to follow the example of Paul.
Paul said ‘I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’ (Philippians 4 v 12-13.)
Once you know that there’s no excuse for envy and you know it’s a choice that can be made correctly, the next thing to do is to learn to look to Jesus. That’s the secret Paul talks about to learning to be content: we look to Him for strength instead of others for comparison.
When we ask Jesus for the strength to look at Him instead of others, it’s amazing how things of the world fade away as our focus stays on Him.
After all, life is not really about us, even though He blesses us with so much anyway. It’s really about Jesus. If we get too taken up by what we don’t have then we miss the calling we do have: to glorify Him.
When we forget that, it’s easy to become selfish; meaning we put ourselves at the forefront of our minds and make life all about us and how we think we deserve more.
It’s really about Jesus and how He deserves everything.
4. The fourth thing I find helpful is to appreciate just how much I already have in my life.
We should indeed look at Jesus but, when we are tempted to look at what we don’t have, it can also be a good idea to be reminded of what we do have physically, relational-ly, and spiritually.
That’s linked to the point above because we often need Jesus’ strength to do it, so we can be content.
We are told to thank God in His word for what we have and we are reminded throughout it of everything God has given us.
We are told how He looks after us with amazing things, that we take for granted unless we purposely turn our attention to them.
So, yes, look at Jesus and it won’t matter what you have. But Jesus doesn’t mind at all if you thank Him for all the blessings He has poured out on your life. In fact, He encourages us to build a habit of thankfulness.
Consider writing a list, on paper or in your head, to highlight just how much you have.
If you are going to compare your life with others, try doing it with those who have less than you or look at what you’ve been blessed with that those it’s easy to envy, don’t have.
This is not to feel superior to them or to lord it over them, but to remind you just how much you really do have.
It can be so humbling to realise what riches have been poured out on your life and yet we still pine for more, or for something different.
If you have disposable income, a roof over your head, clothes to wear, a job, a family, friends, food, clean water, toiletries, and clean air…
If you have vast quantities of things to enjoy, or watch, or read, or entertain yourself with…if you have time to spend as you wish in comfort and luxury compared to those who have nothing…
If you have your health and medicines when you need them, if you have space to think and discuss and debate the issues of life, and if you have the technology and ability to even read this article…
then, just pause for a second.
Just wait for a moment.
How much do we have to be thankful for? How much is in our lives that we can all appreciate and enjoy?
And, yet, instead of focusing on what we have and thanking God for it, we look at the things we wish we had and fall into self-pity.
We believe if only we had just that one thing we desire THEN we could be happy and, until then, it’s no wonder we are sad.
We forget that we have so much already and that when we get what we think we want, our sinful hearts look at something else and cause us to believe we just need one MORE thing to bring us happiness.
That cycle never ends. We will not be content living like this.
Seeking after “one more thing” to bring contentment will never achieve it but, instead, enjoying what you have and looking to Jesus wherever you’re at will allow you to live like Paul and to be content without comparison.
When we realise what we were pining after and how we wished for so much more when others have so much less, that’s another reason we may be humbled – as we realise how selfish and un-thankful we can be in the light of all this.
In a way, how dare we be so ungrateful when we have so much?
Comparing ourselves to others in the right way can provide a rebuke to our attitude that brings us right back down to reality and it’s often just what we need to turn bitterness into thankfulness.
It may also prompt us to do something about the terrible lack that many around the world are experiencing right now. I certainly hope it will as we all could, and should, do a lot more.
We won’t, however, be prompted to do anything if we don’t choose to look at what they don’t have.
Finally, there’s a fifth and equally powerful thing you can do to avoid envy.
5. When I am tempted to be annoyed with what others have, even when they parade it proudly in front of everyone, I choose to celebrate it instead and I enjoy their happiness, too.
I decide, albeit hard at times, to build others up in their achievements or in what has happened to them, whether I think they deserve it or not.
If God has given them something then, instead of making it about me, I’ll make it about them.
The Bible says this in Philippians 2 v 3-4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Now, that is difficult: putting others above yourself and their interests above your own!
But, yet, when we do this, it’s amazing how freeing and fulfilling and fantastic it feels!
Shifting your focus to others in the correct way, in love rather than in envy, means we are doing exactly what we are called to do.
If you want to compare something, don’t compare what you DON’T have with what others DO have, but instead compare what you’re DOING for others with what you COULD be doing for them.
Whenever we shift our goal from being selfish to being selfless, envy disappears and love takes its place.
In case it’s useful to look at it again, here are the 5 things in summary:
- Understand that everyone faces the same temptation we do to envy others and that the same rule applies to us all.
We are told do not envy (Exodus 20:17)
- Know that it’s a choice to envy and a choice to compare our lives to others in a way that will not help. If it’s a choice, that means we can choose to take the right option each and every time if we want to.
- Look at Jesus instead of others and you’ll see what He has given us as well as realising our focusing is Him, not ourselves.
- Remind yourself what you do have by looking at your own life and at others, not to feel superior but to be humbled by God’s provision.
- Look to others’ interests above your own, it’s a powerful way to turn selfishness to selflessness and bitter envy to peaceful love.
So now, after all that, how do I approach the situations of my two friends whose lives could easily cause me to envy what they’ve been given? Or, indeed, how do I approach anyone I’m tempted to compare my life to in a way that would make me envious of them?
Well, I wish them well. I celebrate what they have and I hope they, too, won’t be envious of others in those areas that might be an issue for each of them.
I’m not perfect at it and I certainly need to keep reminding myself of the ways I’ve found that help me to stop comparing and to start enjoying what I have and where I’m at.
If it’s been an issue for you too, and I suspect it is for everyone, then I hope this encourages you to do the same: to look at your life and those of others in a different way and, of course, to look at Jesus as the focus of your life above all other things.
It’s so freeing to be released into contentment and I pray that if you’re someone who needs to experience this, you’ll take this whole issue to God, you’ll start taking some practical steps to helping yourself, and that you’ll receive exactly what He has for you: a contentment that passes understanding, a contentment that Paul quite rightly told us we can have in every situation.
I also pray you’ll have the peace you’ve desired for such a long time and that it is yours to enjoy as soon as you let it take the place of envy in your life.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!