Making Sense of Self-Pity
What is self-pity, and how should we view it? How can we turn our self-pity into godly lament that engages honestly with the Lord? Listen as Alasdair Groves discusses self-pity and considers what to do when we or others are struggling with it.
Hi. My name is Alasdair Groves and I’m the host of Where Life & Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF, the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation, where our mission is to restore Christ to counseling, and counseling to the church. Today I want to talk about self-pity. The reason I want to talk about self pity is that it’s so prevalent and so easy to overlook. Or I guess at least it’s easy to overlook in ourselves. I mean, whether it’s the day you stub your toe and spill your coffee, or whether it’s a long season of having your hopes dashed and watching your dreams die—we so easily respond to the genuine sufferings of life by pitying ourselves, and we don’t even realize it most of the time. So I thought it might be worthwhile to dig a bit deeper on what’s happening here.
Self-pity in the view of scripture is a sin, and it happens to be a sin that I struggle with personally, and I suspect I’m not the only one listening here to my words who could identify with that. What’s interesting is it’s one of those things that I think most of us intuitively know is a bad thing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone refer to self-pity as a good thing. I imagine most of us, if you have any comfort with the word sin at all, you probably can go, yeah, okay, self-pity is a sin, that probably makes sense. I can see how the Bible might get there. But it’s not a word the Bible actually uses, or at least not in most translations you’ll find on most shelves. And so the question is why do we say it’s a sin? What really is going on with self-pity? What is self-pity? Why is it a problem? Why is it bad? So what I want to do today is not give you a comprehensive, overarching treatment of self-pity. I really want to give us time to think briefly about a few different elements of what’s going on in our self-pity and what’s driving it. And I’ll probably focus in on one angle in particular and a few ways Scripture encourages us to move forward in response to that angle. But a caveat upfront: it’s really important that we’re all clear throughout everything I’m saying here: I don’t mean it’s a sin to feel upset or disappointed. So as we talk about self-pity in this episode, I’m hoping we’ll piece together a better understanding of what self-pity is, but it’s vital you don’t come away at any point thinking Scripture makes it off limits to speak about the disappointments, the griefs, and the hardships of living in a broken world. The opposite is true. Scripture constantly encourages us to grapple with our emotions and to bring them to God, even the hard ones like sadness, anger, and disappointment. These are in Scripture’s view profound opportunities to engage with God and deepen our relationship with our Heavenly Father.
So with that said, let me start with just a couple of examples of self-pity. What are we talking about here? One of the better ones in scripture would be in 1 Kings 21, where Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, not the best leaders any of God’s people have ever had. Ahab wants the vineyard of the guy next door and basically tries to get it at a discount, uses his power as King to throw his weight around and get what he wants. And the guy says “No, because God has said don’t sell away your family inheritance and land. This is the land I’ve given you. And Ahab gets very upset about this. I love the way that ESV puts it. Let me pull this up here. It says, verse four. “And Ahab went into his house, vexed and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him. For, he had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” And he laid down in his bed and turned away his face and would eat no food.” A lovely biblical example of a grown man throwing a temper tantrum here. Self-pity, I didn’t get what I wanted. I didn’t get the thing I should have. And I think about in our lives, what does self-pity sound like? It sounds like after all I’ve done, I can’t even have fill in the blank. Or it seems like everything is just going wrong all at once and it shouldn’t be like this. Or I never seem to have the physical health that I feel like I ought to have. Or I got overlooked at work and I don’t have the friends that I wanted. And if I could just, or it seems like it wouldn’t be too much to ask, and so on and so forth.
Recent example for me, in the course of a single week, our dishwasher did this thing where it fell an inch in the front. And so everything kept trying to spill out and we’re trying to figure out, okay, how do we fix this? And our washing machine died the next day. And then two days after that, right after we’d left to be away for the weekend, our fridge died. So we came home to a fridge full of food that had gone by and now the hassle of trying to replace these things. And we were very shortly about to leave on a longer trip that was part work trip and part vacation. And so I was feeling the stress of I have to get ready to go and all these details that have to be sorted out on top of these appliances all failing at the same time. And when I get back from this trip, there’s going to be all the extra emails and all the extra work waiting for me because I’ve been away doing things in other places.
And I remember probably the key moment of self-pity came as I was opening up the freezer. I had dragged the trash can in, trash barrel in from the garage and I’m standing there and guys, I love food. I hate to see food go to waste. I won’t even tell you some of the embarrassing things I’ve done to keep food from going to waste. But anyone at CCEF could tell you that I’ve made questionable judgment calls around things that I have not allowed to be wasted that were food. So here I am throwing away all the food in our fridge and all the food in our freezer. And there’s a particular moment I was holding a brown paper wrapped little package of salmon. It was like two, three pounds of salmon that I’d bought and I’d got it on a fabulous sale. It was like half off at the grocery store and I’d bought it with a special sense of, this is great. We have just this happy salmon dinner waiting for us. It happens to be one of the very few things that all five people in my family genuinely enjoy and are pretty much always excited about. I mean, guys, that’s not a common thing. And here’s something that’s even pretty healthy. So here I am holding this salmon in my hands that had been this special happy discount and I’m wasting it, I’m throwing it into the trash can, and of course I’m disappointed. I mean, who wouldn’t be, right? But without me consciously noticing it, my reaction quickly slid past disappointment into feeling this sense of self-pity, of “Is everything going to go wrong all at once?” What’s going on for me there? What’s going on for any of us when you’re in the face of self-pity? Well, I think biblically speaking, there’s actually a number of different strands, there’s a number of different sets of angles we could take and understand what’s happening in my heart here? What’s going on inside? And I’ll just quickly touch on a couple and then we’ll zoom in on one in particular that I thought would be worth just digging into a little more deeply.
But one angle would be pride or entitlement. And often it’s fairly rare for me to hear people say explicitly in the language of, I deserve better than this. I mean, people do, and we may be thinking that inside, but more often the, I deserve better, the pride, the entitlement sounds more like it’s not fair, or was it really too much to ask that this would work out or this would go better, or she would do this or he would say that? Even just the phrase, it didn’t have to be like this. Now, of course there’s a truth in that. It didn’t have to be like this. It could have been that my fridge didn’t break that week. But often if I’m hearing myself say that, if I’m hearing somebody say that, that’s an alert, that’s a flag that self-pity may have entered the equation. So pride, entitlement.
Another angle would be playing judge. We’ve probably often heard people refer to God as how we can treat God as if he’s the big vending machine in the sky. He’s the giver of gifts. And if I pray the right prayers or do the right faith or put in the right amount of time serving him, then I should have all these blessings that come from him. And well, I think self-pity takes a little bit of an alteration on that theme and treats God the big customer service desk in the sky, with whom we bring our complaints and like, “Hey, you sold me a defective product here. You shortchanged me. I did my part here, and you have failed to live up to your part of the equation there.” There’s a way in which self-pity almost always says some version of something like that.
I think there’s a strand in which there’s just this selective focus that we choose. We choose, we recite to ourselves, we practice over and over our story of how the bad things have happened to us. There’s this particular way we hone it. And I mean, guys, I found myself, and if I step back, I’m being ridiculous. I’m thinking in my head or talking to someone, but more of it happens in my head than outside of my mouth where it’s like I’m trying the story on for size. And I’ll get through one run through and I’ll be like, ah, it didn’t sound as bad as it could. And so I’ll go back and I’ll actually kind of tinker with the way I phrased it or the way I frame it and get it, worked through over and over again, sharpening the edge of the knife till it’s a finally honed experience, a crafted tale of woe and how this really is just such a terrible thing that has happened to me that shouldn’t have happened to me and really all at once and how unfair and so on and so forth.
Let me zoom in on this particular angle of self-pity. It’s an angle I would call broken lament. I think self-pity in one sense, it’s a broken lament. It’s lament that’s gone sour. And if you think about it, self-pity is a fundamentally relational problem between you and the Lord. You are pouring out your experiences of a broken world, and we do indeed live in a broken world where things do go in ways they were not intended to in the beginning. And in ways that he’s redeeming and in ways that they will not go wrong in the new heavens and the new earth. So here you are, rather than pouring things out to him, rather than speaking to a loving father, a kind and close friend, a good shepherd. Instead, we are carefully focusing on the pain and excluding his care, his presence, his kindness, his good purposes, his promises to be with us in hardship, his promises to use even hardships in our lives, to grow and accomplish good things. We either don’t speak to him at all and exclude him altogether from the conversation, erecting a wall between us and the Lord. Or even if we are speaking to him, we’re bitter, we’re shaking our fist at him and accusing Him. We’ve become convinced that he’s not good. We distrust him. Without even realizing it, we’re essentially standing over him in judgment or in condemnation of his ways, thinking we know better. So we either stop talking to him entirely and bemoan the mistreatment we’ve received at the hands of the universe as if there was no God… or we speak to him in a way that is pure accusation and insult, that isn’t a conversation, that isn’t in earnest relationship with him.
In contrast, Scripture holds out a godly lament to us as our way forward. Where we can bring God honest questions, and deep concerns, and anguish of our soul. It’s where we bring him frustrations and irritations and the little things too. We haven’t written him out of the picture. We want to have a conversation with him, even if we’re confused or frustrated with how he has allowed things to play out. We may struggle to trust him but we want to trust him. We’re struggling with our disappointment and sadness but we ask for his help. We genuinely struggle to see what good He’s up to, and still we ask Him for faith to see the unseen. Godly lament, as opposed to broken lament, it presses towards the Lord, and it asks hard questions. It voices the complaints, and the sorrows and discouragements and frustrations. In godly lament, we ask for his help. We speak to him. We see this type of lament in Scripture over and over again. I mean, there’s an entire book called Lamentations, right. And if you’ve listened to the podcast for any length of time, you know we come back to this theme quite often. And I think the reason I come back so often and keep hammering on the idea that there is godly lament and it’s important and it’s a gift to us is precisely because it’s so counterintuitive to us. Because so many of us just don’t go there. We don’t think to go there, we don’t want to go there. We tend to struggle to speak honestly to our God about what is hard.
Now, I’m sure I don’t speak for everyone. Maybe some of you are really adept at lament, and my prayer would be that I would grow to be more like you and that the rest of us would as well. But sadly, if you are a good lamenter, if lament has really become a gear you have, you’re the exception to the rule. Many of us really struggle, and I’m certainly in that category. The Lord has laid this on my heart again and we’ve got to learn to lament, to speak to him about what is hard. And there’s an inefficiency in that, a sense of, but that’s not fixing the problem. I don’t like it. I don’t like the feeling of the discomfort. I want to do something about it. I want to distract myself and run away from it and go binge Netflix or go get some work done or whatever. What we need is to be able to speak the words of the pains, and pain at the micro level, the annoyance. I mean, throwing away a package of salmon, having your freezer and fridge break down, that is not the biggest problem anyone has ever had. That’s a first world problem and I am keenly aware of that. And actually on my bad days, the fact that on one level it’s like, ah, okay, this isn’t even the biggest deal that someone could face makes it even worse. I even have self-pity about the fact that I can’t really whip up a good sense of self-pity about it because it’s not actually the end of the world here. But my point is, it is hard to speak to the Lord about your sufferings and to lament and to honestly go to him and say, “Lord, this is hurting in my heart, on my soul.” We rarely step into relationship in that way. And it’s a struggle, it’s a challenge, and it’s a good, excellent challenge to come to him as the one who really does care, as someone who really can be trusted, who exists, who knows us deeply and intimately and personally, someone who is able to be up to good even when we haven’t seen it yet and can’t see it yet and don’t feel it yet. And to be clear, I’m not just saying, “Oh, well God is sovereign and we need to trust that all things work out for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” That is true. But actually, I’m trying to press into even a more particular sense of trusting, not just that he can work things out for good, but actually that he cares about me right now in this moment, that he wants to hear what’s on my heart, that he wants to know what is hard. And leaning into that, begging him for help in seeing that he is good, seeing that he is close, seeing that he is tender, seeing that he cares for us, that that often is going to be like physical therapy for the soul for most of us. We’re going to do it poorly and we’re going to do it in little bits and we’re going to need to grow little by little.
So let me give just on a couple of points of what might you do with this? How might you grow in having your lament exist at all and not be a broken lament of self-pity where you just repeat to yourself and others the unfairnesses that you’ve felt that you’ve experienced? So for yourself, here are two thoughts. Number one, name your disappointments with honesty to the Lord, especially if you hear yourself grumbling about something to anyone else or you catch yourself grumbling in your head about something that you didn’t like, let that just be a trigger. Turn to the Lord. Name it to him. Speak it to him. Tell him the discouragement, the frustration, the irritation, the anger, the hurt, the heartache, the confusion, whatever it may be. Speak your frustration to the Lord.
Number two, for yourself, do something. When you find yourself there, do something that reminds you of his care for you. This could be memorizing a particular passage of scripture. 1 Peter 5:7 wouldn’t be a bad one to go to. Cast all your anxieties, those things that weigh on you, those things that you don’t feel good about, that you worry how they’re going to go—cast them on him because he cares for you. Spend time, think, what does it actually mean that he cares for me? So memorize the passage of scripture. Be it 1 Peter 5:7 or something else that just reminds you that God is a God who really does care for you and takes care of you. Take a walk, go outside, get outside, get under the clouds, get under the sky, get under the sunshine. See trees or see the sky through the tall buildings in the city where you live. And just be reminded of the vastness of his abundant life giving choice to create. Keep a book by your favorite author who has helped you in the past to appreciate God’s care and kindness toward you. I mean, reread the book is probably not a bad idea if you haven’t recently, but even if you don’t reread it, just keep it on your desk. Keep it on your bedside table. Let it every time you see it, be a reminder to you, oh, right, he is the God of compassion and care.
What about helping others. It’s one thing to deal with our own self-pity and the challenge there is no small one. How do we help others? Well, let me just give two steps, two simple thoughts about how you might move towards others as they are wallowing in self-pity on some level and you are the one in close proximity to it. Step number one, it’s actually okay to just plain old agree that this is hard and that it hurts. To have simple compassion for someone, even when they are manipulating you to get that compassion is okay. I’m going to qualify that in a second. But the fact that somebody is trying to milk the situation to pull your compassion toward them doesn’t mean you can’t have compassion on them. In fact, you can have compassion for the fact that they are in self-pity and that they’re going after compassion in the wrong way. Jesus shows real compassion to people who are about to kill him. He shows real compassion to thieves being crucified next to him justly. He’s not afraid to let his heart go out to sinners who have made their own bed and are lying in it. So let’s image him in that. Let’s follow him. Let’s let our hearts really go out to people, even if they’re making it worse for themselves, even if they’re making it worse than they need to, even if they’re over exaggerating to themselves and to you how bad it is, there is some form of real suffering. There is some form of hardship. There’s some form of brokenness in the world that they’re experiencing, even if it’s a little bit different than what they realize. And we just have a freedom to have compassion on any sinner in any situation, in any time ever. There’s a step one that’s simply, you’re free to have compassion and care about the person.
Step two, if you’re watching somebody in self-pity, they are indeed spiraling downward, they’re doing something unhelpful. You, when you are in the grips of self-pity, are not making your situation better, you are honing that blade in a way that’s going to cut against you. And so step two would be do something. Do something that would point the person toward the surprising goodness and compassion of God in some way. One thing I find myself often doing in these situations is even just responding with, I hope, a compassionate and sincere like, “Oh man, that’s hard. I’m sorry to hear that.” And at some point, articulating that if I were in their shoes, there would be a temptation to me and fill in the blank to spiral downward further, or to just get bitter and angry, to become unable to see that there are also good things that God is up to, whatever the case might be. So I’m not saying you say, “Well, that’s all very hard, but you need to remember that God is good” and give them a long rebuke of such and such. I’m not saying that would never be right or effective. And then some of us are in relationships where we would have confidence that actually that would be exactly what the person would genuinely say like, “Yes, thank you. I needed that reminder.” So that’s a possibility. But that is the minority report. The vast majority of the time when you’re struggling in self-pity, to have somebody come along and tell you, “Hey, you need to trust God more, and you need to be better at seeing God’s goodness and count your blessings” is just going to be salt in the wounds, and it’s, if anything, going to lead us to push away from what is helpful and true and God’s goodness.
So what I’m talking about is more just acknowledging A, this is hard. And B, man, when things are hard like this, we all struggle, don’t we? It’s so hard not to have this just drift us in negative directions. And so whatever the case might be, I mean, if I heard somebody else telling the story of having to throw away stuff from their fridge, I would say, “Oh man, that is so brutal. I know in that situation, it is so hard not for me to just get frustrated and angry and just feel like the whole world is against me. How are you dealing with that? How are you handling the temptation to just see the whole world as one big terrible place? To see God as utterly distant and cut out of the situation?
Another option you would have would be to encourage something good you do see in them. So they’re doing their self-pity thing, but is there any good thing? Is there any way in which they’re handling the situation better than they could have handled it? It could be worse in the way they’re handling it. Can you speak, can you name some good thing? Because in doing so, you are also offering them a reminder of there is a good resistance to self-pity. Whether you do this at some point in a conversation, or perhaps maybe even just come back later and you just say, “Hey, how are you doing since last Thursday? I’ve been thinking of you. I’ve been praying for you. And particularly that God would just break in with tastes of his goodness and care. Have you seen those? What, if anything, have you seen since that day you were standing there throwing everything in the trash can? Where have you seen God’s kindnesses since? We know he is kind, we know he’s doing things. Have any of them broken through? And if not, well, I’ll keep praying for you on that.” Now, don’t say I’m praying for you if you’re not actually praying for them. So let this be a spur to us when we are getting frustrated with somebody who’s feeling self-pity, to actually pray for them, to think about them, to follow up with them, and not just run away and be like, ugh, it’s maddening to talk to somebody who’s always down and who’s in this mucky spiral of such things.
So long story short, we want to do things that just would point people back in a compelling, in a helpful, in a surprisingly good way towards the fact that God is there with them and for them. We want to know that ourselves. We all need help when we’re in the grip of self-pity. So I hope that this sparks your thinking, gets you moving in response to your own places where that entitlement or that broken lament can surge up. And I hope that it helps you even move toward others with actually greater compassion, greater simplicity, greater sense of, yeah, I can really be for this person, and hopefully even an ability to spark a little something in them that would open their eyes just a little further to the closeness and the tender goodness of God.