Before she died quickly of complications from COVID, my mother spent many years suffering chronic pain and increasing debilitation. She hunched over when she walked. Her eyesight began to fail her. And whereas she had always had a quick mind, she found herself struggling sometimes to come up with the words she wanted to say. Having watched my father slip slowly into dementia, and before him, his mother and sister, Mom worried that she would suffer the same fate.
And yet… My wife and I were constantly amazed at how sharp she still was at the age of 89, despite the way she fretted about the otherwise normal “senior moments” she experienced. This was a woman who had been on the most powerful of pain medications for decades, drugs that would turn most people into zombies at much lower doses. In an attempt to encourage her, we would tell her so: “Mom, it’s true that you’re more forgetful than you used to be. You’re not at your best. But look around you. How many of your friends are still as sharp as you are now? And imagine how much sharper you would be if you didn’t need to take all those pain meds.”
I’m not sure how much it helped.
Still, this is something we are all prone to do: to cope with whatever’s distressing us, we tell ourselves that we’re not as badly off as someone else. Researchers call this social comparison. We look around at others, see how we measure up, and feel better or worse according to what we see. What my wife and I said to Mom was an example of downward social comparison: Be encouraged, because others are worse off than you! But there is also the upward social comparison of “keeping up with the Joneses”: we feel more inadequate when we see someone else’s success (especially if they flaunt it).
Upward social comparison is one of the engines driving a market economy; it’s what makes so much of advertising effective. But none of this is new. Behind the scolding words of the apostle James, beneath his distress at what he sees happening in the church, is the game of social comparison between believers, both upward and downward.
As some wit once put it, the social world can be divided into three groups: the haves, the have-nots, and the have-yachts. Similarly, in the letter of James, we can see the same three groups. There are the poor, who often made up the bulk of the church (and indeed, of the entire Roman Empire). These are the have-nots.
There are the rich, who were typically landowners born into their wealth. Today, we’d describe them as having nice clothes, big houses, and expensive cars. These are the have-yachts.
And then there’s the haves, including the merchants who made arrogant or empty boasts about their plans to make money (James 4:13-17). The haves want what the have-yachts have and treat the have-nots with disdain, as not worth their attention or respect. But the have-yachts treat the have-nots even worse, to the point of incurring the judgment of God. At the beginning of chapter 5, James will therefore have some rather salty words (always in love!) for the have-yachts.
The temptation would be to read the passage through our own, often unrecognized, ways of comparing ourselves to those who have more than we do: Oh, those snooty rich people!
But that would be a mistake. Social comparison comes easily to us, and it’s a slippery slope that leads to the envy and arrogance that James sees dividing the church. And as we’ll see once more, the remedy is in part to broaden our perspective, to practice thinking beyond our own limited stories to what counts for eternity.
After all, throughout Scripture, God is on the side of the have-nots. We should therefore be careful of wanting what the have-yachts have.