In 1954, Stanford social psychologist Leon Festinger published a paper titled, "A Theory of Social Comparison Processes." In this paper, Festinger hypothesized that "there exists, in the human organism, a drive to evaluate his opinions and abilities." This evaluation is accomplished by "comparison respectively with the opinions and abilities of others." This evaluation can involve both "upward comparison," where a person evaluates themselves against someone who is more advanced in a particular area than they are, and "downward comparison," where a person evaluates themselves against someone of a perceived lower status than they are.
Interestingly, in the moral realm, most people tend to engage in "downward comparison." "At least I'm not as bad as her," a person might say. "I would never do what he did," another might opine. We engage in this kind of "downward comparison" because it allows us to feel secure in our own moral righteousness rather than suffering guilt that inevitably results from our immoral sinfulness.
Our reading for today from Romans 3 leaves no room for the kind of "downward comparison" that many of us like to engage in. Rather, it brings out, with stinging clarity, the depths of our immorality: "There is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood" (verses 12-15).
The language that Paul uses here is gripping. He begins with the depravity of human throats, tongues, lips, and mouths. He then drops to our feet. The implication is this: From our head to our toes, we are sinful, we are not good, we are unrighteous, we are wicked, and we are depraved. And no amount of "downward comparison" can rescue us from our plight.
Happily, Paul does not leave us in this sorry state of sin. For he continues:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. (verses 21-24)
True righteousness, Paul maintains, does not come from comparing ourselves to others who are morally "inferior" to us, but from faith in Jesus Christ. True righteousness is "apart from the law." That is, it is apart from what we do and connected only to what Christ has done.
Thus, there is no room for boasting by comparing our morality to the morality of another. As Paul writes, "Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? O n that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law" (verses 27-28). The upshot, then, is this: no one is better than anyone else. For the ground is level at the foot of the cross.
With this in mind, today, when you are tempted to engage in "downward comparison" and compare your extraordinary performance to the lesser performance of another, can you pause and instead celebrate what you share in common: the righteousness that comes from Christ? Although this may be humbling, for you can no longer engage in comparisons that allow you superiority over another, it is also liberating, for you no longer have to fret over someone who is "better" than you. For our superior righteousness comes not from ourselves, it comes from Christ. And I think I'd rather have his righteousness than mine anyway.