Self-pity feels good. Self-pity whispers to you, “You have every right to feel bad for yourself. After all, you have not gotten what is coming to you, what you are entitled to. You deserve better than this, and others should agree.” Self-pity often progresses to sympathy-seeking where we want others to appreciate our suffering, offer comfort, and praise us for our bravery. Feeling sorry for yourself makes you want others to feel sorry for you too. Your suffering seems worse than everyone else’s and your concerns become paramount. You want everyone else to put your suffering at the top of his list of concerns.
If this description does not seem quite ugly to you, then you may have missed the point. Self-pity is ugly. It is an ugly expression of a self-centered heart that has turned its focus away from the beauty and glory of God. It elevates the creature and his concerns above God and His designs. And yet, the temptation to self-pity seems so justified at the time we succumb to it.
I write this as one who has at times battled self-pity regarding suffering. I have experienced the temptation to think, “Woe is me.” I know what it’s like to hear the small voice that says, “Grimace a little more, and people will take notice.” All this while trying to truly deal with my genuine physical suffering. And there’s the rub. How do you experience genuine suffering, pain, disappointment, illness, and weakness without feeling sorry for yourself, magnifying your suffering, and trying to draw the attention of others to your situation for the purpose of garnering sympathy?
Am I recommending that you paste a smile on your face and pretend that you are not suffering? No. There is no virtue in pretending. Your church, family and friends need to know when you are genuinely suffering because they are called to help, serve and alleviate your suffering whenever they can. To hide your suffering and pretend that it doesn’t exist is the sure path to self-pity. So how can we suffer without self-pity?
When we turn to the Bible, we see that Job, David, and Paul provide instruction, and Jesus sets the example. Job is foundational to understanding the proper attitude in suffering, David the proper struggle through suffering, and the Apostle Paul the proper attitude about suffering. Jesus is our model, as he perfectly endured suffering, providing a pattern for us.
When God brought suffering upon righteous Job seemingly out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, Job responded by outwardly displaying his grief (Job 1:20-22). At the same time, he did not claim any entitlement to comfort when he noted that he came into the world naked and would go out naked. In other words, he had no possessions of his own and therefore could lay claim to none. He also recognized God’s sovereign rights over his life to do as He pleased. And in the midst of all this he blessed the name of the Lord. He refused to charge God with being unjust or unloving. He accepted the suffering from God as freely as he had accepted his former prosperity.
When God allowed Job to further suffer excruciating pain, he sat in the ash heap, clearly not trying to put on a brave face (Job 2:8-10). The point is that Job’s outward expression of suffering was proportionate to his genuine suffering. He wasn’t trying to get anyone’s sympathy; he was just trying to gain some relief from the sores. He neither magnified nor minimized his pain. And when his wife spoke what many would consider to be rational words, Job refused to think in a merely human fashion. Job saw his suffering in the context of God’s sovereign right over his life as his creator. There was no sense of entitlement in his words. As the Book of Job progresses, Job seeks answers, asking “why” more than twenty times. But God never tells Job “why.” As Job noted earlier, God can do what he wants.
When we move to David’s life, we see a full body of literature expressing his struggle through suffering. In the Psalms, David asks “why” only a few times, but his struggle is just as real as Job’s. He feels forsaken (Ps. 22:1), and feels that God stands far off from him (10:1). He feels overwhelmed with fear (55:4-5), he despairs (69:20), tosses and turns and weeps (56:8). Yet, after crying out to God, David always comes back to the goodness and faithfulness of God. David shows us that it is good to pour your heart out to God (62:8), to tell him all your troubles and complain to him (142:2). When we are finished, however, we need to bring ourselves back to the goodness and faithfulness of God.
When we move to the New Testament, the example of Jesus ought to be the guiding mindset in our approach to suffering. Jesus came for the express purpose of suffering and dying. His whole incarnation was directed to this end. And the way he suffered is designed to show us how to suffer. First Peter 3:21 reminds us, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” Peter goes on to say that Jesus suffered with dignity by continuing to entrust himself to him who judges justly (3:23).
This is the key to suffering with dignity and not self-pity—trusting the justice of God, the goodness of God, the wisdom of God. Self-pity tends to move a person away from trust in God toward resentment of God. If God is bringing the hurt in my life, how can I trust him? And yet, to whom else but my loving, just Father can I entrust my life? Only when we practice this kind of trust will we avoid self-pity and suffer with dignity.
In Part 2 of this essay, we will look at the Apostle Paul’s suffering, and see how he avoided self-pity and sympathy-seeking. I will also present a diagnostic to help us evaluate ourselves for any sign of self-pity.