Have you ever compared yourself and your suffering with others in their life situations? It’s very easy to do, but very difficult to survive. Such comparisons are relative, often lack full context, and take our eyes off of where our focus needs to be in addressing our own life struggles. What do you do if someone says to you, “There are people who have it so much worse than you do…”? Or what do you with the statement made by an otherwise excellent nurse who without meaning any harm literally said over my son Christopher’s bed in his comatose state, “I’m so glad I’m not in your shoes”? What good does it do for us to compare ourselves with others to see who is suffering more or less? If you think you’re suffering more, you can become bitter and go into a downward spiral emotionally. If you think you’re suffering less than those individuals, you still may determine you’re suffering more than other people you know, and there you go again. Downward spiral.
We see that Jesus’ disciple Peter is tempted to compare himself and his impending suffering with another disciple, as recorded in John 21. In the post-resurrection account of John 21, Jesus restores Peter to his apostolic calling and then tells him how he will suffer and die for Christ’s sake. Peter immediately compares himself with “the beloved disciple,” or as this translation puts it, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” whom many take to be John. Jesus tells Peter not to compare his situation in that way with others. Here’s the text:
…Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” (John 21:17-23; NIV)
This biblical text tells us that Peter will stretch out his hands, someone else will dress him and lead him to a place he does not desire to go, indicating what kind of death Peter would die for God’s glory. Further to the text above, tradition tells us that Peter was crucified upside down. Tradition also tells us that John was the only one of the apostles not to die by martyrdom, but rather, natural causes. Regardless, they are not to compare their life destinies with one another. Whenever we ask, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus responds, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
I revisited this text this morning, as I drank a cup of coffee from my late beloved Dad’s favorite mug with the words “Smile. God loves you” boldly printed on it (shown above in this post). I think about my Dad and Mom and how much they loved Christopher, our entire family, as well as other people. They drank in God’s love morning by morning and were energized to share that love with others on a daily basis, no matter the various challenges they themselves faced. I am grateful for them and their incomparable love today.
Still, it is easy to lose sight of such love presently. It is also easy, though not prudent, for me to compare our family’s present crisis surrounding my son’s traumatic brain injury and comatose state with others’ life situations. After all, misery loves company. Not that I would ever, ever want anyone to go through what we are enduring, which is almost impossible to communicate, nonetheless, it is still all too tempting to ask why we can’t experience life’s joys like those other people over there…. Of course, I don’t know what other people may be or will be going through, and I pray God’s abundant blessings and mercies on them no matter what joys and sorrows come their way.
Jesus tells each of his followers to follow him. No matter what I am going through, I need to follow through and follow him and concern myself with seeking to glorify God. God is not some cosmic killjoy, but one who brings joy through Jesus’ resurrection that transcends and penetrates life’s various challenging and otherwise debilitating circumstances (See John 16:19-24). Similarly, no matter the hardship, no hardship can separate us from the love of God in Christ, as Paul who suffered greatly declares (See Romans 8:31-39).
While each of Jesus’ followers must follow him and seek to glorify God with their lives, he does not turn any of us into robots. None of us have been given the same script or computer code in life. While we can learn from others’ situations in various ways, and can model those traits in others that we find honorable, we should never try to parrot one another’s lives, or expect that everyone’s lives should turn out the same. After all, we are human persons with incommunicable identities and narratives. We are all fundamentally unique. So, how can I follow Jesus uniquely on this unfathomable journey in the face of great suffering?
The author of the words in John 21 attests to being “the beloved disciple” (John 21:24). There is a very real sense in which John, Peter, and every other follower should see themselves as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” It’s not that we should compare ourselves with others, thinking that Jesus loves us more than others, or less than them. Rather, we should take to heart Jesus’ call to each of us to follow him on our ultimately incomparable journeys. The God who loves the whole world and sent his Son to die for each of us uniquely loves everyone and wants all of us to follow him. So, I choose to follow Jesus today.
This day, I need to guard against being like one of the “Four Yorkshire Men” in Monty Python’s skit (click here). The humorous sketch portrays four wealthy men who claim to have grown up in poverty. Each of them tries to out-boast the others in terms of how bad they had it growing up. We can either boast about how bad we have it in comparison with others, or lament how bad we have it in relation to them. But such comparisons never get us to where we need to go in crisis situations. The only thing that is going to get me through this ordeal is not following others to see how good or bad they have it, but following Jesus who promises to lead my family and me through this wilderness. Remember: it’s easy to compare ourselves with others, but difficult to survive.