Measuring. I saw it at work when I taught middle school, when my husband was a student pastor, in exercise classes, in my own life: Friends suspiciously eyeing one another’s clothes, suspiciously listening to one another’s stories, suspiciously analyzing one another’s social media accounts. We hang out with one another, but our brains are calculating figures our mouths are not, and while we spew compliments and feign laughter, our brains are busy measuring, measuring, measuring. How good am I compared to her? Do I belong here? Is she better than me?
“Connect, don’t compete.” It’s my friendship mantra. I can’t quite remember where I picked it up, but it’s proven to be a convenient thing to carry in my back pocket.
I have the greatest friends in the world. Friends who encourage me, friends who leave soup in my mailbox when I’m sick, friends who hold up my arms when life is too much, friends who send me updates on Amelia Earhart’s whereabouts (WHERE IS SHE), friends who surprise me on my birthday wearing cardboard cutouts of my face. On more than one occasion I have been close to tears when reflecting on those God unexpectedly and perfectly plunked into my life when I was battling loneliness, feeling misunderstood, unliked, and overwhelmed. For me, friendship is one arena in which God has proven his faithfulness over and over again.
I’m an extrovert through and through, and I get sad and very very weird when I’m left alone for too long, falling hard into Wikipedia until I’m crying over a random historical figure (looking at you, George Washington Carver), painting something that does not need to be painted, Instagramming seven times in a row, walking around the house sobbing about the mess without actually ever cleaning anything. God made me a certain kind of way, and he knows I’m better when I have people around me. And though that’s true for me practically, it’s true for all of us spiritually: We are better together.
But “better” is the danger word, the one that alarms the Enemy. Because the together things are better things, they are vulnerable to attack. As much as I love my friends and as much as I root for them, my heart is ugly, and often it bristles when someone is wiser, more talented, better dressed, thriftier, thinner, prettier, in a healthier marriage, is a better parent, whatever. My heart gets out its wonky measuring tape and turns my insecurities into a challenge: I must be as good as her. No—I must be better. “Better” gets distorted, changing from a “we” thing to a “me” thing.
For a girl who used to spend softball games doodling her name in the dirt, competition is an unfamiliar phenomenon. Often I don’t even recognize it for what it is, but it’s certainly there, and in friendship its about as helpful as a dirt-doodler on your softball team. In fact, it’s toxic. Over the past few years, God has been calling me out, showing me when my spirit of competition blocks the holy connection between friends. He's teaching me that measuring tape is a noose that chokes the life out of a friendship, leaving only empty shells exchanging niceties.
God have mercy on us, friends who have clung to measuring tape rather than each other!
The heart of competition is pride: I’m better. But the heart of connection is this: We are better together.
And yet there’s still something better than “better together.” The heart of the Christian is supposed to be sacrificial in addition to being relational: “You can be better, and we can still be together.” We must not only let our friends shine, but shine bright, and shine ever brighter supported by our encouragement. Because light is good and brings glory to God, and we root for it wherever it can be found, faithfully battling the internal screeching voice that begs us to compete.
And then the heart of the Christian takes it a step further than “better together,” further still than “you can be better” to the ultimate: “God is always, always better. Let’s pursue Him together.”
These are the friendships that change us from the inside out, eventually extending beyond the friendship itself to change our families, our churches, and our communities. These friendships pack a punch, and they are worth the battle.
And so when we want to compete, we choose to connect instead. We give less advice and more love. We make our living rooms safe places for hard conversations, for tears, for unwashed hair. We fill the air between us with life-giving words: “You are working so hard to be patient with your kids. You are teaching me so much.” We “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10), looking for ways to put one another first, looking for ways to Jesus-love one another.
We “take captive every thought to obey Christ,” (2 Corinthians 10:5), training ourselves to recognize our brain's measuring tape as a threat, refusing to create distance with competition. When our “better” gets out of whack, we must jolt it back into place, reminding ourselves over and over: Connect, don’t compete. Connect, don’t compete. Connect, don’t compete. We are better together.