This is a guest post written by Bryan Knell.
I don’t want to be ill. I don’t want to be in self-isolation. I don’t want to have to social
distance. I don’t want to not hug my grandchildren. I don’t want to go on furlough. I don’t
want to lose my job. What a load of things we don’t want to do.
We can so easily feel low, depressed, distressed and sorry for ourselves. Self-pity is a very
common and debilitating condition that can lead to despondency, discouragement and much worse.
But the more I have thought about it, the more I have realised that self-pity is a complicated and not a black and white issue. Job was understandably full of self-pity when God allowed his wealth, family and health to be taken from him, but God did not rebuke him. Job never got the answers to his questions but he became satisfied in God. Many psalmists were full of self-pity and at least two of them did not find a way out by the end of their psalm. (see Psalms 39 and 88) Mourning the death of a relative often involves self-pity. Is that wrong? Grieving is an important experience to go through, we are told, in order to cope with personal loss. How should biblical faith affect the way we grieve and deal with self-pity in that situation?
What does the Bible have to say about self-pity? Were there biblical characters that were
prone to self-pity? How should Christians deal with self-pity?
The most common reason behind the feeling of self-pity is experiencing personal loss or
suffering. Why me? That’s not fair? These are common reactions, which we have all
experienced. But self-pity is negative and there are aspects of it we must guard against.
1. Self-pity is self-centred Self-pity is so often all about me, I and us.
We are concerned about yourselves, how we will be disadvantaged, missing out or suffer. It has often been said that the key characteristic of SIN is that ‘I’ is in the middle. Self-pity like pride is an obvious expression of sin.
The children of Israel in the wilderness after they left Egypt were very prone to self-pity.
They grumbled about food, water and their whole situation.
But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses.
They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children
and livestock die of thirst?”
There are over ten references to the children of Israel grumbling in the wilderness. The text suggests that they grumbled on a regular basis. This is what the Lord thought of their self-pity.
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: “How long will this wicked community
grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites.
Many of the things that have a dominant emphasis on me, my desires, my pleasures, my
progress, my success and my future happiness, have a small or large element of
wickedness in it.
2. Self-pity is selective in what it remembers and has a rosy view of the past
Self-pity leads us to be very selective in what we remember. People, events and even
problems are remembered so much better than the reality. Indeed any objective analysis
probably goes out of the window. Our self-pity also affects others, those we live with, and
those who care of us.
The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’S hand in Egypt!
There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have
brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started
wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in
Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.
They remembered the occasions when they had enough to eat. I wonder how often they
had the range of things they mention here. And was it really at no cost! But their minds had blotted out the slavery, the oppression of the Egyptians, the punishments, the humiliation, the backbreaking labour, the Egyptian taskmasters, the whips, the collecting straw and the making of bricks in the heat of the day.
Self-pity has a way of blotting out the good memories and concentrates on the current
3. Self-pity is overly pessimistic about what the future holds
We have all been tempted to believe that, ‘The grass is always greener ….’ But the point
about the proverbs is that it probably isn’t.
That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud.
All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly
said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD
bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children
will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?”
They seem to be very sure that they would all be killed by the sword’ or that their wives and children would be taken and abused, but they had built up in their minds an expectation for which they had no evidence. They were imagining the worst.
Self-pity expects the worst. It imagines the glass half empty and not half full.
4. Self-pity is unfair on others, particularly on leaders
In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.
And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”
These were mutinous thoughts and ideas. They did not respect authority, despite all that
Moses and Aaron had done for them and their rebellious ideas were not easy for their
leaders to cope with.
Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They
are almost ready to stone me.”
Self-pity has a damaging effect on those around us and particularly our leaders.
So what is the answer to self-pity?
The big question is, and I don’t know the answer, is self-pity always wrong? In some
circumstances, is self-pity part of the healing process for an appropriate amount of time?
That may be true, but I am also sure that a lot of self-pity stems from a selfishness and
continues because we don’t have God’s perspective or a heavenly viewpoint on the
situations that we face The psalmist suggests we should follow his example and ask ourselves a question.
Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope
in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.
His reaction here seems to be rather too simple. He tells himself off and sometimes it is just a matter of telling ourselves to snap out of it. Get a God perspective. Get a hold of yourself. Be a bit more objective about your situation. Now there are times when we need to be told that gently but firmly. Our self-pity is selfish, destructive to ourselves and others and we need to get a divine perspective.
But sometimes, the problem is a bit deeper than that. The Psalms are great examples of our need to recognise our self-pity, express our feelings of self-pity, even our anger with God, because then we can move on and get a God perspective.
Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise
the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits – who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you
with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Some Bible scholars suggest that Psalm 103 is positioned to respond to some of the
concerns expressed in Psalm 102. ‘I am in distress’ (v 2) and ‘My heart is blighted and
withered like grass; I forget to eat my food.’ (v 4). But the whole of Psalm 102 is a good
antidote to self-pity.
Ongoing thought and discussion
I’m aware this blog has asked more questions than it answered. Here are a few more to reflect on –
1. How do you define self-pity?
2. What is the difference between self-pity and a victim mentality? Are both always
3. How do we understand and react to self-pity, in ourselves and others, in the context
of God’s goodness and sovereignty?
4. What is involved in mourning? Is some self-pity an inevitable part of mourning?
5. What is involved in grieving well?
6. Because of a strong belief in the resurrection and the new heaven and new earth,
there must be a huge difference between how a Christian grieves and how a non-
Christian grieves. How should that difference show?