Comparison eats at pastors. We tend to to measure other pastors, categorize them in our minds, and rank ourselves accordingly. This leads to viewing other pastors and their ministries through a lens of either condescension or envy.
Peter had a problem with comparison. When Jesus predicted the disciples would abandon Him at His arrest, Peter claimed, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33). Peter believed himself to be a better man than James, Matthew, Andrew, John, Thomas, and the rest of the twelve. We know how that turned out.
This comparison reflex did not go away when Peter reconciled with Jesus and was commissioned to spiritual leadership. We know this because, as usual, whatever was on Peter’s mind came out of his mouth. The exchange between Jesus and Peter is recorded in John 21.
After reestablishing fellowship with Peter (“Do you love me?” “Yes, I love you.”) Jesus oriented him toward his new calling (“Feed my sheep”). Peter’s shepherding vocation would take him down a hard path to a painful end. “ ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ This He said to show by what death He was to glorify God. And after saying this He said to him, ‘Follow me’” (John 21:18-19). Although Peter may not have fully understood it then, Jesus was predicting Peter’s ministry would lead to prison and an agonizing death.
As they walked and talked, John lingered close by. He enjoyed a unique closeness to Jesus. As John recounted this event, he called himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who also had leaned back against Him during the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’” (John 21:20). John enjoyed the privilege of being positioned in the number one spot near Jesus during the Last Supper and sharing very personal conversation with Him.
I wonder if the details of John’s proximity to Jesus are included to highlight John’s intimacy in contrast to Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. For some reason, Peter compared himself to John. Whether he was thinking of John’s privileged relationship, or just because he was in view, Peter blurted, “Lord, what about this man?” (John 21:21).
We all have our comparison traps. Other churches in your community have full parking lots and hold multiple weekend services while your membership has plateaued or is declining. Your friend from seminary days gets invited to speak at national conferences and your only outside speaking engagement is the local Rotary club luncheon. As you hear a bi-vocational pastor describe the struggle of meeting the demands of a full-time job, church responsibilities, and a growing family, you feel pity from the vantage point of your fully paid pastoral position with support staff. Or envy if the circumstances are reversed. You visit a church while on vacation and have a running critique going through your head of the facilities, the volunteers, and the sermon, affirming yourself for how you do it better, or wishing you could.
The possibilities are endless as our naturally prideful hearts evaluate, calculate, categorize, and pass judgment on others or ourselves. We feel the Holy Spirit’s conviction in our hearts about it. How can we put off this unholy attitude?
Attack the comparison mentality with the truth Jesus spoke to Peter. He said, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22). Jesus wasn’t stating that John wouldn’t die (see verse 23). He was making a point.
Jesus said to Peter in essence, “If God in His sovereign plan determines John will be exempt from the natural laws of aging and death, or maybe walk with God and disappear into heaven like Enoch, or a that a fiery chariot will pick him up and drop him off in glory like Elijah, but you, before you’ve even finished out your natural time on earth, will be tortured and executed as a criminal, dying in the worst, most shameful way, the difference is not your concern. You have no right to expect the same treatment as the other guy. Your circumstances may seem inequitably harsh. But I am the Chief Shepherd. Keep your eyes on me. Complete my will for you. You, Peter, you follow me.”
Your ministry setting, the people you shepherd, and the circumstances in each season of your ministry are all part of the Chief Shepherd’s assignment for you. Stop comparing yourself with others. You, pastor friend, keep your eyes on Jesus. You follow Christ.
Notice Jesus’ words, “If it is my will . . . you follow me” (verse 22). Literally the first part says, “If I am willing him.” Several translations say, “If I want him” (NASB, NET, CSB, NIV). Young’s Literal Translation captures the essence – “If him I will to remain till I come, what – to thee?”
Jesus claimed absolute authority over the circumstances of John’s life, even how long John lived, and by implication, over the circumstances and longevity of Peter’s life, and the manner of his death as well (verses 18-19).
Jesus revealed that He has a specific will for individuals and their ministries. He had a sovereignly determined plan for John and a different one for Peter. This reality applies to us as well. Jesus Christ sovereignly determines the circumstances of a pastor’s life and ministry. His will may include what we view as favorable circumstances or unfavorable circumstances. And His will for one pastor and ministry may vary significantly from another’s.
How can you gain control of your comparison reflex? Start with submitting yourself to the sovereign will of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Turn Jesus’ words into a daily prayer: “Lord Jesus, I bow to you and submit to your will for me and my ministry. Help me to not concern myself with the seeming advantages or disadvantages of others. Jesus, I’m following you.”
Then you can rejoice with and pray for others with a sincere heart. “Lord, thank you for how you are blessing my brother and his ministry. Give him wisdom to shepherd his flock through this season of prosperity. Guide him in using his gifts to minister for your glory. Keep Satan from gaining an advantage and tearing down what you are building up.” Or, “Lord, I see my brother struggling under heavy burdens. Channel grace to him for every difficult situation he faces. Strengthen him to fulfill your will for his ministry. Help him to follow you.”
Turn the comparison impulse into a reminder that Jesus Christ is preeminent in the church, it is His right to assign undershepherds where He wills, and each of us is responsible to follow Him.