I’m sitting in Stardust Coffee and Video, this indie trendy coffeeshop in Orlando. There are shelves and shelves of old VHS and DVDs lining the walls. The room is set up sort of like a school cafeteria with long metal tables and functional white plastic chairs to match. Kate is entertaining house guests from Virginia and suggested we come join them today. I normally have my weekly meetings with Mitch at Starbucks, so I asked him if he wouldn’t mind changing it up this week and meeting here.
The day started off with breakfast with Jeanne at Cracker Barrel. And also her telling off some shady adjuster on the phone from the unnamed insurance company she works for. Kate kept coming to the front porch, alternating between eavesdropping and giving me a play-by-play commentary of Jeanne’s smack down.
We’re both so proud.
Still sitting in the coffeeshop and waiting for Mitch to get here, I just finished reading Sex God by Rob Bell. My friends Josh and Jeanne have been telling me forever about how great this book was, but every time they tried to explain the gist to me, the gist always sounded weird. “Endless connections between God and sexuality” seemed a bit scandalous.
But it’s good. And it got me thinking a lot. About relationships. And freedom. I’m journaling, watching the people around me, sipping too-sweet earl grey tea.
For some unknown reason, my Bible flopped open to I Chronicles 21. The first words I read were “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.”
This sentence struck me as a little weird. Why is David keeping tabs on how many soldiers had suddenly being labeled as satanic activity? Seems a bit heavy handed.
After all, David is warrior king over all of Israel. He is commander-in-chief, famous for leading a special fighting force of “mighty men,” defeating Philistines and other neighboring warring nations. It seemed natural (and shrewd, even) for David to keep a running count of how many men he had. It’s just keeping inventory. It’s just smart.
The problem is, lately I have been realizing how playing the comparison game can be incredibly destructive.
And we all play it.
Somehow, what begins as harmless observation can slowly but insidiously begin to play upon our weaknesses and insecurities.
“She’s more … than I am.” “Look at how much …. he has.” “Why does everybody else seem to…?” “I wish I were married.” “I wish I were single.”
On and on. It’s difficult, if not impossible, not to compare ourselves to other people, to complete strangers, to our friends, to our families. Either we are aching for that which we do not have, or we are finding our identity and security in how much we have in comparison to other people. We allow comparison to shape our choices, influence our relationships and give us a sense of validation.
We invite in the hierarchy and it destroys us.
In Chronicles, the story goes onto say how David ordered his right-hand man Joab to take the census. Joab protested, but he was overruled by David. So Joab went throughout Israel, counted the troops and reported back to David. Somehow (the Scripture doesn’t say how exactly), David had a moment of realization that this was probably a bad idea. He acknowledges this, then God gives him three options for his punishment. And all three options (famine, sword or divine plague) involve a lot of death. David opts for something that doesn’t involve an outside party coming in, so the Lord sends a plague to Israel. 70,000 people are slaughtered. And then on top of that, God sends in an angel to destroy the entire city of Jerusalem. As the angel was apparently about to wipe out the entire city, God suddenly called the whole thing off. But not before 70,000 men are killed and who knows how many families completely devastated from this loss.
Why all the destruction? It seems a bit extreme or irrational of God, perhaps. Crazy, even.
The truth is, I think God knows how comparison distorts our perspective. It destroys us. So in a very tragic way, maybe the destruction somehow equaled the magnitude of David’s offense, not only against God but against himself.
David rose up from the obscurity of being a shepherd to being king over all of Israel. He defeated the giant Goliath, the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Arameans, the Edomites in a series of swift, merciless battles. He began to amass an enormous army as thousands began to rally behind him. And at every turn, he acknowledged God as the source of his victory, even bringing the ark of the covenant into the city as a recognition of God’s glory and presence being the reason for every triumph. He always understood that his strength and identity was in God.
When David decided to take a census, however, something very subtle was changing within him. He began to shift his trust away from God and toward himself. Toward comparison. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being wise and shrewd, but his actions revealed the truth of his motives. His identity was no longer in Yahweh-Nissi; it was in the strength of his own army.
I often wonder how often I take census in my own life. When I compare my abilities, the strength of my relationships, experiences and it either leaves me with an insufferable sense of pride or an self-destructive sense of inadequacy. Abilities, relationships and experiences are good things, but it’s so subtle and destructive, how often embracing them can so quickly replace gratitude and humility with a sense of fear, pride, insecurity and inadequacy. I am struggling to relinquish my tendency to compare.
And this is one of the many reasons I really do adore God. He destroys the hierarchy. In Christ, there is ultimate inclusivity. And security. A constant invitation to simply draw from His infinite love and grace where there are no conditions, no fear of abandonment. The invitation to know God, and for Him to know us, every messy, human inch of us, and be loved unconditionally. That height and depth and width of the kind of love astounds me. It’s unheard of.
Yahweh-Nissi. God is my victory. Through Christ, He is my strength, my source, my identity, my security and I don’t need to compare myself to anyone.
And neither do you.