How precisely can I sort out my emotions? (Part 4 of 5)

Published: November 15, 2012

Our letter writer raises the question of how to sort out whether her sadness is more keyed to self-pity or to longing for Christ to return and to make right what is wrong. She suspects that her experience is not quite an undiluted version of either one. She is then rightly puzzled about how her relationship with God fits in:

I'm not sure that the sadness I feel is the type of sadness that lies in self-pity, but I'm also not sure that it is the kind of sadness that is groaning for the return of Christ. Many times I will be sitting down and thinking, "I really wish Christ would come back so I don't have to deal with this terrible sinful situation any more."

Perhaps I am not seeing the grace of God in everything that he has given to me. Perhaps I'm not seeing God for who he is.

Here’s the problem: her actual reactions could be a mix of honest faith and confusing self-pity, with a number of other things swirled in just to further complicate matters!

For example, part of her reaction is simply accurate and honest about life’s dark side. But it may be that part of what locks her into an introspective spiral is that she feels overwhelmed, and does not know what she is called to do (and not do) in particular situations. Perhaps she feels an infinite sense of obligation to fix things, and yet complete powerlessness to do anything at all. Perhaps she has some growing to do in learning how to make open, honest, childlike requests of God—how to pray, supplicate, entreat, beseech, and plead, with gratitude and with trust—casting genuine cares on a Father who genuinely cares for her (Philippians 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:7). We all have growing to do in this department. Perhaps there is something that she knows she ought to do—such as talking candidly with someone whose responses are unpredictable, or predictably aggressive and self-righteous. But such a conversation is hard to do, and she does not know how to do it. Perhaps there are crucial strands of Christian truth that her church has never taught her—such as how God works out his purposes in the midst of human woe and failure. Perhaps she has a lingering (and faulty) suspicion that if she could just see God for who he is and what he has given, then she would not feel sadness. And so forth.

Exhaustive analysis of an emotional moment is impossible and not worth pursuing. One of the pitfalls to which introspective people are prone is the attempt to exhaustively understand and explain themselves. You'll drive yourself to distraction if you try to figure out the percentage. Is it 80% self-pity and 20% honest faith? 50-50? 20-80? Or is it 20% self-pity, 20% faith, 20% not knowing how to entrust cares into God’s hands, 20% just plain hardship, and 20% not knowing how to do what needs to be done?

You can’t do the calculus and come up with numbers. But you can help her sort out when and how she crosses the line into self-pity, or avoidance, or confusion. You can help her fill in wisdom where blind spots exist. And you can help her sort out how living faith and loving actions think, talk, and choose. Wise friends and wise pastoral counsel can walk with her. We can help our sister to move forward constructively even without exhaustive understanding. We can honor her bravery in asking tough questions, her existing self-awareness that enables her to even bring such questions to the table, her desire and humility to not give herself over to what might be an ungodly temperament. She can find help in moving from self-pity to faith. Other people can help her to think through and walk through some of the matters raised in the various “Perhaps ____.”

Our letter writer is dealing with what our forebears called a “case of conscience.” When is it right to feel the sadness of the world’s wrong, and when does it become an expression of self-pity or some other redressable problem? How can she move in a fruitful direction when she feels that sadness, and is tempted to turn inward? We can help her grow more fruitful and constructive without claiming to understand all the ins and outs of a particular emotional experience.

Here's another reason to not rush too quickly to make the moral assessment. We are God-made to grieve at losses, to be troubled by troubles, to be distressed at evil. And we are God-made for taking refuge in him and for growing in confidence in him. Faith is human and humane. Self-pity works to magnify and distort grief, turning me in on myself, rather than reaching out to God and to others. It is possible that our letter writer uses the return of Christ to short-circuit honest sorrow, and then constructive engagement with a broken world. Instead of spinning her wheels in introspection, wise cure of souls aims to lessen self-pity's self-preoccupation (however it appears). Pastoral care and Christian friendship aim to help her grow into faith's humanity. Faith reaches out from ourselves, rather than turning in on ourselves. So faith grieves. Faith longs, "Come, Lord Jesus." Faith trusts God and rejoices in hope. Faith pleads with God, "Deliver us from evil." And faith reaches out in love for other strugglers.

This is part 4 of a series. Read the introduction to the series here. Read part 2 of the series here. Read part 3 of the series here.

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Check out CCEF's latest resource from David Powlison, Bible Reading for Personal Application