If anyone ever had a reason to pity-himself, it was the Apostle Paul. His fall from premier Pharisee in Israel to persecuted apostle is fantastic. His sufferings are recounted in 2 Corinthians 11, and they are as significant as any Christian in all of church history. He suffered physical, spiritual and mental abuse from others, extreme discomfort for long periods of time adrift in the ocean and in prison, hunger, thirst, insecurity, and exhausting toil. His life seemed to be a series of seasons of intense suffering, interrupted occasionally by relief.
So, is Paul’s description of his sufferings a case of self-pity? Not at all. The Corinthian church was challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, so to demonstrate his legitimate right to admonish them, he recounted his sufferings. In the chapter 12, Paul further demonstrates his proper attitude toward suffering regarding the infamous “thorn in the flesh.” After pleading with God to deliver him from it, Paul accepted God’s answer that the suffering remain and that he would rely on the grace of God to sustain him. If God’s power was perfected in Paul’s suffering, then Paul was content to suffer. Here is the suffering soul delivered from the demand for relief!
And Paul didn’t do this grudgingly. He bore it “gladly” because his suffering brought God glory. There is no scent of self-pity here. There is only joy and gladness in the midst of suffering, because he valued God’s glory so much. Paul didn’t want people to feel sorry for him, because he saw suffering as something glorious—not in its present experience, but in its eternal outcome. Earlier in the epistle, Paul says that it was the eternal weight of glory that made the present suffering bearable:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Paul would not seek sympathy beyond what was appropriate. He would not grimace a little more or wear a long face all the time. He modeled Jesus’ command to those who were suffering the deprivation of fasting (Matt. 6:16-18). He would not wear a gloomy face, but in effect “washed his face and anointed his head,” symbolism for the joy of celebration.
Paul’s example reminds us that our natural response to suffering must be overcome by the gospel of the good news of Jesus Christ. By recognizing that God allowed his own Son to suffer incomparably for our eternal glory, we can, like Peter, rejoice in that we share in the sufferings of Christ when we ourselves suffer. This frees us from the feeling that God is not just or does not care that we suffer. The fact that he gave his Son shows us the lengths that God will go to ensure our eternal glory and freedom from suffering.
Now you may be thinking, “I believe that intellectually, but I don’t feel it.” I hear you loud and clear. Being able to write these things does not mean I always practice them. The last time I had to go to the emergency room at 11:00 at night for a crisis with my newly transplanted kidney, I was in the depths of frustration and despair. All these truths ran from my mind like people from a burning building. It was my wife who pulled me out of the pit of despair with these reassurances. She reminded me of God’s sovereignty, the worth of his glory and his sustaining grace to get us through. Exactly what I needed to hear.
So what do we do when we don’t feel the truth that we believe? It is through the training of our responses to suffering that we teach ourselves to speak the truth to ourselves, instead of listening to our doubts. Or as the Scottish pastor Sinclair Ferguson says, we must learn to talk to ourselves, and not to listen to ourselves. In other words, the more we tell ourselves the truth of God, the less we’ll be inclined to believe our thoughts of self-pity. Our self-centered suffering will be transformed into God-glorifying endurance.
So how do you know if you have fallen into self-pity in the midst of suffering? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I believe that my suffering is worse than everybody else’s?
- Do I play up my suffering to gain more sympathy?
- Do I post my suffering on Facebook before I pray to God for strength and relief?
- Do I always talk about my suffering when someone asks how I’m doing?
- Do I sympathize with and minister to others as much as I like others to sympathize with and minister to me?
- Am I able to put on a brave and joyful face even when I don’t feel like it?
- Do I speak of God’s blessings in my life as much as I do my suffering?
These questions should help us to root out self-pity and replace it with God-glorifying endurance.
Those are good questions. I have a struggle with what to say when people asking me how I am doing. Most days am in a lot of pain but really do not want to express it to them. Others know by just looking at me.
I agree, it IS difficult to know when to express suffering and when to put on a brave face. I find it easier to express suffering around close friends who know my situation well, and already empathize. But sometimes you’ve got to just try to make it through the day. My rule of thumb is, if I can put on a brave face and express my thankfulness for the blessings, rather than my suffering, I do that. If not, then I know God’s grace and other’s mercy will sustain me.