Sometimes the thief comes early, sliding into our sleep, wrapping his black fingers tight around our throats. He reeks of murderous jealousy, the kind that killed Abel, the kind that taints every breath and sits heavy on the heart.
Zoe stands in front of the dry erase board, not yet fully awake, her hair a soft tangle on top of her head. She rubs sleep from her cheeks, pressing hard, fingers flat, and then lifts a finger to count the “great job” markers under her name, a flourish of black separating her acknowledgements from Adam’s. She has two less than Riley, and Adam has just redeemed fifteen for a chance to play Angry Birds.
Zoe looks at me and jabs her finger in the direction of the board, the section where she lines her markers up. The look says, “You need to give me some of those.” I look back at her, stubbornly, my eyes hard, wondering if Cain’s eyes flashed that way toward the heavens when God deemed Abel’s a better sacrifice. Was this the way that Peter looked, smoldering just so when Christ told him he’d be martyred, when he jutted a finger back toward the following John and said, “Well, what about him?”
In the early days, I made so many comparisons. I spat the words “not fair” and “why me,” the rotten fruit of a selfish heart. I felt so jealous of all of the friends I have whose children have no developmental disabilities, no chronic illnesses, no papers noting all their eccentricities. It felt like higher favor for them, this lack of noticeable challenges, the ease with which they parented. Every time their children reached milestones I envied, and every time their misunderstanding and impatience with us showed up on their faces, I lifted hard eyes toward the heavens. “But, what about them?” It hurts, the glaring in-congruence.
Zoe stands paralyzed in front of the dry erase board, self-justification like lead holding her to the spot.
“What?” I ask Zoe, even though I know.
“Why does she have more than me?” Zoe says, lifting a finger toward the board a second time, swinging it dismissively up toward Riley’s markers.
Tell me, Lord, why?
How many times has the thief trapped me with my eyes half-veiled, all my comparisons dim shadows, blurring the truth?
“Well, she has a few more than you do because she has been diligent about getting her work done around the house,” I say, lightly, turning away to give her a moment to wake up and consider this.
She moans. “But, I don’t have time to do it.”
I turn back to her. “Ah, but you do. You just choose to use your time for other things, like playing outside with friends in the afternoon.”
Her eyes fill. She chews the side of her mouth, helplessly.
“Honey, I understand. And I don’t get upset with you for those choices. I know you need time to play. But you can’t come down here and have a bad attitude because you don’t have as many “great jobs” if your choices have kept you from earning them.”
I walk to the sink and put my hands into the soapy water, lifting a skillet, moving a dish rag in circles over the bottom. Zoe walks to the table slowly, sliding into a chair, unzipping the case that holds her glucose meter.
I walk to the table, catching Zoe’s eyes in mine. Her lip trembles, and suddenly the tears fall quickly, coming in a rush, with an exhale.
“It’s just that I try so hard, and it feels like I will never get to fifteen. Riley only has five more to go, and I still need like thirteen, and I don’t understand.” The words fall like hard rain, soaking her cheeks, coming so quickly I can’t quite make out the shape of each one.
It occurs to me that this bruises worse because they are sisters. It starts as little girls, this comparing, ripening full into adulthood. Why do women make such rivals of each other? Why do we compare everything—our bodies, our children, our beauty, our habits, sizing each other up, congratulating ourselves on better, tearing ourselves and each other apart over worse?
“Oh, honey. First: the words always and never are a great sign that you have believed a lie. Of course you will make it to your reward. It’s just a matter of how much time it will take. And you don’t need thirteen more, you need seven. Now, let’s be honest here. What really bothers you is that you’ve been comparing, and Riley has more than you do.”
That’s always what smarts, jealousy writing more, better, not enough, cheated all over our blessings, stealing our joy. Our comparisons tell so many lies. Our eyes never judge the scales rightly. Those black fingers that slither over our eyes shroud the shine of glory.
A smile creeps into the corners of her lips, and she tries to hold it back, not ready to let joy return. “Well, yea. I work just as hard as she does.”
“True. But we’re training you on different things.”
“But that’s hard.”
“Yes, but that’s where you are. You are different people, each deeply loved, each cherished, each rewarded. And I am aware that you work hard. And I will reward you for your efforts. I want to reward you. I love to reward you. You are my favorite. …And Adam is my favorite. …And Riley is my favorite.”
“You can’t have more than one favorite.” She says this darkly, jabbing that finger toward me.
“I can’t? Really? What’s your favorite color?”
The tiniest smile tugs at the corners of her lips. She knows me. She knows where this is going. “Okay, okay. I get it.”
“No really. What’s your favorite color?”
“Well, I love blue. But I also love red. And purple.”
“I see. What’s your favorite food?”
At this, she laughs out loud. “Mom, you can stop asking me those questions. I get it.”
I allow her an amused smile, but press on. “What’s your favorite food?”
She slumps, a gesture that says, Mooommm, but concedes, “Okay, okay. Chocolate muffins. And macaroni and cheese—Grandma’s,” she stipulates carefully, “and spaghetti.” I open my mouth, but she continues. “And Daddy’s pancakes.”
It’s my turn to laugh, and I squeeze her hand. “So, what’s that about me not having more than one favorite? And you like them equally for different reasons, don’t you?”
In seasons, God has taught me this truth, that we are all His favorites, all cherished, all deeply loved, all rewarded. But we are different people with different gifts, our differences only evidence of His wildly vivid creativity. Our comparing, all this sibling rivalry, it only shrouds the gleam of glory, the wealth of His lavish grace. It makes a mockery of love for each one, Love that takes power to understand, Love that sets us apart as rare and special, Love that binds us together collectively as His.
And this too is the truth: Everyone struggles with something. Life is hard on everyone, it plays no favorites.
Zoe nods, laughing, the storm clouds gone, her eyes twinkling and rueful. And I reach for her, gathering her close. “Oh Zoe, this is perhaps one of the hardest lessons of all. Comparison will steal your joy. Your sister is not your rival. And when you care more about her recognition and her rewards than your own, then you will know that God has achieved something truly beautiful in your heart.”
Love makes me love you so much more than I love myself.
“But it’s not fair.” She says this tossing a hand back in the direction of the kitchen, the dry erase board, her own appointed scales of favor.
I pull back just enough to make sure she sees, reaching to her with my eyes, and I tell her the truth.
“You know, our lives are really so much better than fair. Fair means we all get the same thing, yes. But the truth is that the thing we all deserve is to die separated forever from God by our selfishness. That would be fair. But instead, we’ve been saved and healed and wrapped up in all grace. We’re eternally His, and that’s so much better than fair. Don’t let anyone or anything ever steal that joy.”