Grading on a curve in the classroom, competing in the marketplace for a job against others of a similar skillset and ability, sports team tryouts — in so many areas of life, we get compared and graded based on the performance of our peers. And we benefit from their failures. This dynamic can feed in us a toxic pride when those failures of others advance us. So how do we seek the good of others when others are our rivals? It’s the question today from a high school student named Clara. “Dear Pastor John, thank you for your ministry. I’m writing because of a problem that disturbs my following of Christ. I’m a high school student living in South Korea. I read in Scripture about self-conceit and pride being really sinful, especially looking down on others and trying to be better than someone out of pride. However, the high school grading system in South Korea is based on comparative evaluation, where I get better grades when others fail. How do I love my neighbor in this atmosphere of comparative evaluation, where I benefit from the failures of others?”
Even though Clara doesn’t ask my opinion about this grading system, I’m going to make a comment about it before I answer her more important question about how to love people.
Grading the System
A system of student evaluation that only communicates a person’s competencies in relation to other students is not useful. It’s not helpful in preparing a student for life in the real world. The reason is that such a system doesn’t communicate to the student or the parents or the future employers what the student’s competencies really are.
“If we’re going to love others, we must be done with pride, self-exaltation, and boasting.”
There may be a class of fifty math students, all of whom are weak in math, some more weak than others. If grades are given only in relation to the other members of the class, then weak students in math who happen to be the least weak (but are still weak) will be given As.
That’s not a way to communicate anything clear or helpful to the student or the family or their employer. It does not communicate the truth about the student’s weakness in math.
On the other hand, there may be a class of fifty students, all of whom are very bright in math, just some a little brighter than others. In that system, the slightly less bright students will be given low, low grades which will communicate nothing true to the student or the parents or the employer because they’re really very, very bright in math.
Love in Real Life
She didn’t ask my opinion about that. But that’s the way I feel about grading. She wants to know how to love her neighbor who is less competent than she is in a specific field and whose lower competence accents her superior competence.
Now, that question is a real-life question because that’s the situation in which all of us live all the time. We will always be relating to people who are inferior to us in some skills and competencies and who are superior to us in other ways.
Now, how are we supposed to love people in real life? I just want to commend to Clara four passages of Scripture to think about on her way to humility and love.
For Your Neighbor
I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Corinthians 4:6–7)
“Own who you are for yourself as God made you, not who you are in superiority or inferiority to other people.”
In other words, if we’re going to love others, we must be done with pride, self-exaltation, boasting. Paul says one key to that self-humbling is to realize that absolutely everything we have — every competency we have and every advantage we have — is a free gift of God. It is a gracious gift of God, which we do not deserve.
If we are better in some subject than someone else, God made us better. And his reasons for doing so are not pride and boasting and elitism. His reason for doing so is that we might use our competencies for the good of others.
That’s the point of 1 Corinthians 12–14, where the differentiation of the gifts is clearly for the sake of the building up of the body of Christ — not exalting other members in the body, but building other members up with our distinct gifting.
“Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:23–24)
In other words, if you are wise or strong or rich, you will only be pleasing to God and useful to people if you cease to boast in the wisdom and the strength and the riches. Instead, you are to value God more than you value your superiority in any particular competency.
Let’s fix our focus on the all-satisfying superiorities of God and not ourselves or any vaunted skills we think we have that are better than others’. They come from God, and God is infinitely superior to all of them.
Bear Your Own Load
Number three is Galatians 6:2–5. There’s a paradox in this text that often has baffled me, leaving me to ask what this text means. I think I’ve got it now. Let me try it out. On the one hand, it says, “Bear one another’s burdens.” On the other hand, it says, “Bear your own burdens.”
“If we are better at something, God made us better. And his reasons for doing so are not pride and boasting.”
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load. (Galatians 6:2–5)
Now, I think the point is this. If you’re going to really be a person who bears the burdens of others by serving them and helping them, you must stop puffing yourself up by comparing yourself with them by looking for your superiorities.
You will give an account of yourself to the Lord, just yourself. The Lord has given you your distinctives. You don’t boast in the way you compare to another. If you boast, you boast that God made you the way you are, just for you.
Stop comparing. Bear your own load. That is, own who you are for yourself as God made you, not who you are in superiority or inferiority to other people. Then you can be about the business of loving others, which we are to do.
Worthy of Service
Finally, Philippians 2:3–4. This may be most immediately relevant text. It’s so powerful.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3–4)
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” There’s the key phrase. I used to really stumble over this text using the old King James translation: “Count others better than yourselves.”
I would think that if I’m an A student in math and my sister’s a C student in math, then I have to look at my sister and think she’s a better math student than me. Well, that’s just plain self-deception.
That’s not what the text means. That’s not a very helpful translation. The newer translations are right to say, “Count others more significant than yourselves.” I think it means when Clara looks on the students in her classes in high school and finds that she is making some better grades than they are, she is supposed to look at them as worthy of her service. That’s the context.
Jesus emptied himself. He didn’t count equality with God a thing be grasped. He came and he served us even though we didn’t deserve it at all. He counted us as more significant than himself. He got under us and put on a towel and served us.
Clara, the pathway to loving those who are less competent than you in one subject or another is:
1. Gladly acknowledge that all your competencies are free gifts of God. You don’t deserve them.
2. Delight yourself in the Lord above all your competencies and superiorities.
3. Be done with measuring your worth by your superiority or inferiority to others.
4. Use all of your competencies to serve other people. Take the very things that elevate you above them and use them to go down under them and lift them up.