Self-Pity: The Sin Behind the Sin
Perhaps then you could talk about some sins being ‘mothers’ to other kinds of sin – where the offspring are sometimes lesser, and sometimes greater. There are a lot examples of this. Idolatry (whether worshipping yourself or other ‘gods’) always gives birth to some other sin, for example, Mammon worship makes you greedy. Pride has many children, since it leads to anger, unclean ambition, superiority, and much else besides.
Now, in some ways it feels a bit silly to talk about sins as though they were particular apps loaded onto your brain software, each self-contained but with some interaction between each other. The reality is so much more complex and intertwined. For example, it’s not as though you can always separate out the sins of anger and pride when they are in so many situations horribly overlapping. But the Bible names particular sins by showing us their typical patterns and characteristics and treats them as entities to be identified and killed. “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2.1). So, it seems worthwhile thinking about the rarely acknowledged sin of self-pity.
We need to stress, of course, that there’s a difference between being sad and being self-pitying. I don’t think that every time you feel down you’re indulging in self-pity. That would be a ridiculous conclusion. But there’s a line we cross somewhere when we’re weighed down in the circumstances of life that takes us from sadness to something uglier and altogether more dangerous. It’s not easy to explain the difference, and it’s even harder to identify the difference in your own heart and mind. But there is one evidence that always shows when you’re settling into self-pity, and that’s to look at the fruit. Are you beginning to look for comforts outside of Jesus? Are you beginning to consider sin as a way of getting your joy? Are you doubting that God has your best interests at heart, that his will is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12.2)?
And so I’m convinced that the root of self-pity causes so much trouble in our hearts. It seems to be a particularly fertile kind of sin. From self-pity spring so many sins of self-indulgence. Self-pity lays down the conditions of the heart in which all kinds of illegitimate comforts become more appealing. When you’re wallowing in a state of self-pity you can begin to feel like God is withholding good things from you. You can begin to feel a sense of entitlement, that you deserve more. You start looking for comforts to touch your sorrow. You find avenues of escape that allow you to feel better if only for a while.
John Piper gives the example of a Christian leader who’s drawn towards adultery because of self-pity. What on earth is he thinking? Perhaps, Piper suggests, something like this:
Nobody else understands my pressures. Nobody else seems to feel for me in my loneliness the way she does. If any of them knew what I was going through in this leadership role, they would understand why I need this kind of embrace, I need this kind of ‘unconditional acceptance’. I have borne enough of the burden of being everybody’s spiritual example, I can’t take it any more. And I don’t care if they don’t approve.
Even if the result is not as extreme as adultery, hasn’t self-pity been the cause of so many other forms of greedy self-indulgence — from buying stuff you can’t afford, to wasting time on some form of entertainment, to over-eating, to laziness, to dating that person who’s no good for you.
I wonder how many people who battle with particular recurring or habitual sins are failing because they haven’t taken out the root of self-pity.
Self-pity is sin for two big reasons. First, because it’s saying something about the character of God, saying that he’s not good or loving or kind since he must be withholding. Second, self-pity is sin because it’s saying something about your importance, your entitlements, your rights. Perhaps, then, self-pity is not the root at all but rather springs out of our unbelief (towards God) and pride (towards ourselves). Even so, it’s a particularly powerful expression of these other sins; a concoction that always produces a reaction.
There is an antidote to self-pity, and that is gratitude to God.
It is the conscious decision to thank God for all he’s done for you in Christ. In being grateful we take the axe to the root of unbelief (saying God’s not good) and pride (saying I deserve more). In being grateful we find there’s power to climb out of the hole of putrid self-pitying and kill all of the accompanying temptations by simply discovering happiness in God.
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1.16–17)
I find it interesting that the world is awakening to the power of gratitude, though sad that nobody knows who to thank — something Paul understands to be the cause of man’s rebellion: “For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him…” (Romans 1.21). As Christians we not only know who to thank, but have a profound duty and privilege to do so. As J.I. Packer puts it,
No religion anywhere has ever laid such stress on the need for thanksgiving, nor called on its adherents so incessantly and insistently to give God thanks as does the religion of the Bible.1
“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2.6–7).