There’s a dangerous species of pride that often goes unnoticed and unbattled in the Christian life, yet it kills. It poisons relationships. It prevents us from repentance. And because it slyly leads us to justify our wrongdoing by appealing to how we’ve been wronged, the tentacles of pride maintain their grip on the heart, even while we appear humble and needy. I’m talking about self-pity—a sin that is everywhere these days.
The Turning Inward of Pity
Self-pity starts with pity—the virtue of showing sympathy and seeking understanding. When pity turns inward, it diminishes compassion for others and makes selflessness harder to come by. Eugene Peterson in Earth and Altar wondered if we have become “the most self-pitying populace in all of human history.”
“Feeling sorry for yourself has been developed into an art form. The whining and sniveling that wiser generations ridiculed with satire is given best-seller status among us.”
Self-pity plays a role in today’s conspiracy thinking on both the left and right. Whether it manifests itself as self-victimization or resentment, the reflex is to grasp for outlandish theories that keep us from owning our mistakes and taking responsibility for our actions. The world is rigged against us, so blaming others and lashing out against any form of disrespect is justifiable.
Self-Pity as the Flip Side to Boasting
How does self-pity relate to pride? It’s the flip side to boasting. In Desiring God, John Piper contrasts boasting and self-pity:
Boasting is the response of pride to success.
Self-pity is the response of pride to suffering.
Boasting says, “I deserve admiration because I have achieved so much.”
Self-pity says, “I deserve admiration because I have suffered so much.”
Boasting is the voice of pride in the heart of the strong.
Self-pity is the voice of pride in the heart of the weak.
Boasting sounds self-sufficient.
Self-pity sounds self-sacrificing.
Boasting is usually obvious. But self-pity is more subtle. It arises from the wounded ego. The self-pitiful often appear as if they struggle with low self-esteem or feelings of unworthiness. In reality, people who wallow in self-pity are unhappy because their worthiness has gone unnoticed. “I haven’t received what I’m owed. I deserve better. No one treats me according to my worth.” Here is Piper again:
Self-pity is a dangerous, deceitful, heart-hardening sin. It’s a spiritual deadener, choking faith, draining hope, killing joy, smothering love, fueling anger, and robbing any desire to serve others. And it is a feeder-sin, encouraging us to comfort our poor selves with all manner of sinful indulgence like gossip, slander, gluttony, substance abuse, pornography, and binge entertainment, just to name a few.
Self-Pity and Leadership
Leaders may be especially prone to self-pity. When criticized (rightly or wrongly), our response is not to turn to God for our justification, but to inwardly whine about our unrecognized worth and value—our goodness that has gone unappreciated. How easily we retreat into the echo chamber of our hearts and rehearse again and again the wrong that has been done to us! Then, as we indulge other sins, succumb to sullenness, or no longer feel compassion for others, we blame others for our lack of spiritual growth.
Self-pity provides the kindling for other sinful fires, especially anger, as even secular sources show. One research report links self-pity to feelings of both loneliness and anger.
Individuals who experience self-pity usually expect more from the environment than the environment is willing to give. Personal relationships are perceived as unstable and characterized by high demandingness on the part of the person who experiences self-pity, and who sees his or her environment as unwilling to provide the empathy, comfort, and support he or she demands. Consequently, a person who feels self-pity is permanently frustrated.
This frustration is self-serving. Like the invalid man at the pool of Bethesda whom Jesus asked, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5), we list reasons why healing is impossible. People steeped in self-pity may truly want healing, but there’s a hesitancy to have their wounds treated because of the self-justifying comfort they receive from focusing on the wrongdoing of others.
- You don’t really want your spouse to treat you as well as you think you deserve, because then you’d lose a major source of self-justification for your own failings in marriage.
- You don’t really want the critics to stop sniping, because then you’d lose the feeling of superiority that comes from feeling embattled.
- You don’t really want to be healed of past hurts, because there’s a self-justifying sweetness in those bitter tears.
Self-pity says, “I am right because I’ve been wronged,” and then proceeds to justify a host of other selfish behaviors.
Resisting the seductive sin of self-pity doesn’t mean we should suppress our hurts, fail to grieve real injustices, or seek healing for real and persistent wounds. To resist self-pity means, instead, that we resist the urge to slip into patterns of self-justification. The sin of self-pity would have us find validation in our suffering, just as the sin of boasting would have us find validation in our success.
Resisting self-pity requires us to cry out to God in humility as David did in Psalm 13, laying out our complaints while still trusting in His “steadfast love,” determining to “rejoice” in His salvation, and then reminding ourselves how often “He has dealt bountifully with me.”
Self-pity turns your gaze to yourself and your wounds. Fighting self-pity requires looking up to the crucified Jesus. By His wounds we are healed. We boast in the cross that crucifies our pride. “For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ” wrote the Apostle Paul. (2 Cor. 1:5) Likewise, Peter gave us this command: “To the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Peter 4:13).
We are to first look up to Christ and then to the people around us. We stop looking for people who coddle our self-pitying attitude. We look around for opportunities to emerge from the self-pitiful swamp so we can love and serve our neighbors with compassion. We look to bless.
Scotty Smith believes gospel-generosity is the best antidote for self-pity. The only way to battle the “soul-shrinking and heart-decaying toxicity and poison of self-pity” is by looking outside yourself. Instead of nursing your wounds by holding a grudge due to your wounded pride, you must lower yourself to look to the needs of others and respond with joyful service.
For the sake of the church and the world, let’s no longer be seduced by this sly and seductive sin that would rob us of our joy. Abandon the pity party you’ve thrown for yourself, and join the gospel party God calls you to throw for others.