Two politicians recently had a spat on Twitter. That’s hardly headline news, but the subject of their tiff caught my eye. The first, in an effort to promote her working-class cred, bemoaned her difficult past life as a barista working double shifts and serving mean customers. The second, a military veteran, mocked her barista story by pointing up the much greater suffering he underwent in Afghanistan.
“My suffering is worse than your suffering!” can be a devastatingly effective putdown. The veteran used it with crowd-pleasing success to paint his opponent as a whining crybaby. But here’s my question: is making your point by one-upping somebody’s pain ever useful for anything but a verbal weapon? Does it reveal anything true and helpful?
Quite often, we do it to ourselves. My wife is a past master at it. “I shouldn’t be complaining,” she’ll say, “because so-and-so has a much worse such-and-such than I do.” (Fill in the blanks; you’ve probably done it too.) And to that I would say to you what I often say to her: “Don’t invalidate your pain.”
Our one-year-old gets very upset over very small things, such as his toy slipping out of reach or his favorite person leaving the room for five seconds. His mother and I don’t stand over him and say, “Listen, you pathetic whiner: we have problems and trials a billion times bigger than your silly baby issues!” Such an attitude would not only be unkind, but unfair. Matthew’s infant world is different from our world. Even though the source of his pain is tiny compared to our adult problems, his pain itself is just as big and real in his world as ours is in our world.
Why do we understand this with children but not with each other? My problems as a middle-class American are very different from those of a poor person in Ghana; and that person’s problems are very different from those of a persecuted Christian in China. Who is helped when we try to arrange them from biggest to smallest?
Returning to the squabbling politicians from earlier: a Holocaust survivor could tap the veteran on the shoulder and say, “At least you had guns to fight with and food to keep you going.” And then (permitting time travel) a survivor of the Black Death could show up from 516 or 1382 and put down the Holocaust survivor: “At least you understood what was happening; we fell by our millions in terrifying, helpless ignorance.” And so on, to no end and no useful point.
Search the Bible and you won’t find God putting people down as whiners because they haven’t suffered as much as somebody else. God takes a different approach: He supplies us with vivid examples of those who have gone before – not to lame-shame us by comparison, but to inspire us with greater courage and endurance (Heb. 12:3).
Sometimes the examples chosen are not even those we would pick as the most striking. The poor widow in Mark 12 gave only “two tiny coins, worth very little.” But in her world, those coins represented everything. Rather than comparing her unfavorably to those who had “sacrificed” much more, Jesus did the reverse: Against the backdrop of her circumstances, He recognized her small contribution as the great sacrifice it was, and enshrined her story in the Gospel.
No one has ever given and suffered, or could possibly ever give and suffer, more than Jesus Christ Himself. And yet He does not contemptuously put us down when we balk and faint at comparatively small sacrifices and trials.
Here’s what the Bible says about Jesus, the one sufferer whose story could never be one-upped by anybody: “… we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin … He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he is also clothed with weakness.” (Heb. 4:15 & 5:2 CSB)
Maybe my suffering, in some area at least, is “worse” than yours. So what? What matters is not the harshness of the trial, but the strength and purity of character God brings through it as we endure.
Don’t invalidate your two tiny coins. Your pain is real, and your life is precious to Him.
You rejoice in this, even though now for a short time, if necessary, you suffer grief in various trials so that the proven character of your faith—more valuable than gold which, though perishable, is refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.1 Pet. 1:6-7 CSB