Self-Pity has an Aversion to Grace

Jonah winced under the noonday heat…As if to accentuate the silence of heaven, the only movement in the noon sky was a vulture rising effortlessly higher. Jonah shook his head in disgust and slumped down against a rock. His chin hit his chest, and he dozed. When he awoke, he noticed the beginnings of small plant behind him. A few days later the ground was covered in shadow, the vine’s branches reached over the rock. Finally! Jonah said to himself. Some shade for the faithful prophet. He turned his gaze back towards heaven and picked up the one-way conversation. That’s what I’m talking about, God. Giving people what they deserve. When I did wrong, you put me in the belly of a whale. But when I did what you asked, you paid with shade. He permitted himself a smile. Not the wages I was hoping for, but it’s a start. The shade temporarily cooled his internal resentment.

The next morning he awakened to beads of perspiration gathering on his forehead. He turned to look at the plant that had provided comfort the day before. Its leaves were shriveled, its branches sagging. What happened to you? Jonah spoke to the plant. His eyes caught a movement at the base of the vine. A worm quickly retreated into the hole it had made. Are you kidding me! Jonah was talking to the sky again. What kind of games are you playing God? I want my plant back, and I want it back now. You owe me.

As if in direct response to Jonah’s anger, an eastern wind stirred the desert sand, quickly whipping it into a frenzy. Jonah shielded his eyes, unwilling to turn back to the west as the sand beat against his face. Like a child forced to lift his chin and look into his parent’s eyes, the desert sand turned Jonah’s head. The blowing sand allowed only one place to fill his field of vision: Nineveh. He stared at the city whose destruction he desired. The east wind with its swirling sand insisted his gaze remain upon God’s gracious redemption of a city once condemned. Jonah glowered, unwilling to let his anger subside. God’s grace poured out on the people he despised.

The rushing wind subsided, and the sound of voices singing rose from the valley below. It was a song of grace coming from the city that understood the meaning of the word. Jonah knew the song, but he refused to join in. Still, he couldn’t keep the lyrics from running through this head: The Lord is good, his mercy endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations. 

Jonah introduces us to the most dangerous element of self-pity: its aversion to grace. The Bible uses the word often. The Greek word for grace (charis) occurs over 155 times in the New Testament. Its Hebrew equivalent (hen) occurs 70 times in the Old Testament. Both Testaments carry the same warning: you will not see your need for grace unless you come in humility.

On the surface, self-pity and humility appear to be similar, so it’s easy to miss self-pity’s rejection of grace. For instance, the individual struggling with self-pity and the one practicing humility both lack confidence for a given task, but only the humble of spirit will actually seek help. The one encumbered with self-pity will choose to feel sorry for himself rather than humbly asking for guidance.

Because humility is unconcerned with receiving glory, it will naturally seek a source of strength outside of itself.  Self-pity, on the other hand, is overly concerned with the approval of others. Rather than reveal its sense of inadequacy, it will simply not try. Our fear of failure often stems from a fear of what others will think of us if we fail. Self-pity is a deceptive comforter, encouraging us not to pursue our true potential instead of simply admitting we need help. This explains why most men that surrender to self-pity will rarely ask for help regardless of the type of struggle they are facing. It isn’t humility that insists on going it alone, it’s pride. While self-pity can be mistaken for humility, it is actually motivated by the prideful protection of one’s self-interest. It is the natural response of a prideful spirit, not a humble one. This is also why self-pity has an aversion to grace: you cannot see your need for grace unless you come in humility. This is even clearer when you consider Jonah’s response to God’s actions.

For the longest time I couldn’t understand Jonah. God saved his life when he was thrown overboard, gave him a second chance, and even provided for his comfort. It seemed absurd that he was willing to receive grace for himself but unwilling to extend it to others. Then one day it occurred to me that Jonah didn’t see these events in his life as expressions of grace, but rather, because of his pride, things he deserved from God. Part of the reason Jonah found joy in the plant was because he believed he deserved its shade. He didn’t see it as a gift from God, which would explain his anger when the plant died. It was his right, he reasoned, and it had been unfairly taken from him.

Contrast Jonah’s response to his loss of comfort with that of Job, who not only lost his comfort but his family and wealth, too. When Job was tried, he replied: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job understood the grace of God, and saw himself as an undeserving recipient. Jonah would never have said that; he believed you got what you deserved. Thus, he was angry when Nineveh was not destroyed. He believed the Ninevites should have gotten what they deserved, but God, in his grace, stayed his judgment because the city humbly repented.

Self-pity says: I am angry. I deserve to have my desires met.

Jonah’s unrestrained desires appear throughout the story. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh, so he boarded a ship going the opposite direction. He was asleep in the hold when he should have been helping save the ship. The destruction of Nineveh was his ultimate desire, which is why he was exceedingly angry when God withheld judgment. But Jonah’s problem was greater than a few unrestrained desires. He actually believed that the things he desired were things that he deserved. Self-pity says I believe that something I desire and deserve is being unfairly kept from me. We struggle with self-pity for the same reason that Jonah did. We have unmet desires, and we believe we deserve to have them realized. Your unmet desires might include things like love from your spouse, respect from your teenagers, or gratitude from a fellow worker. These are not necessarily bad desires, but when you begin to believe you deserve them, pride is leading you down self-pity’s road. When those desires go unmet, just like Jonah, you will become angry. This is why self-pity has an aversion to grace. It doesn’t want a gift. It pouts, believing it has not yet received what it has earned. Perhaps you’re sensing the freedom of this truth. I encourage you to embrace it. Stop waiting for what you think you deserve. Learn to be thankful for what God, in his grace, has given.

Humility says: I am grateful. I didn’t receive what I justly deserved.

This is most clearly communicated in the gospel message. We deserved death for sinful offenses before a holy God. But God, in his grace, gave his own Son to die in our place that we might receive the free gift of eternal life. We cannot earn it, and we do not deserve it. It can only be received as a gift of grace. Pride will reject this offer of help, but humility will accept it. Humility says, I believe that something I deserved, but didn’t desire, was graciously kept from me. In contrast to Jonah’s self-pity, note the apostle Paul’s humility. He believed that what he deserved was the judgment of God for his past actions; nonetheless, God graciously forgave him. His humility allowed him to transparently acknowledge his past failures, regardless of the social status of the listener. Before King Agrippa he states,

I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.

In his letter to the Corinthians he states the same:

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

Grace is the word Paul chose to describe the fact that God kept from him the judgment that he rightly deserved. Whereas Jonah in his pride believed he deserved the things he desired, Paul in his humility expressed gratitude that he did not receive what he rightly deserved. Humility prepares us to receive grace; self-pity cannot. Perhaps this is why Jonah’s story ends so abruptly. It is intended to remind the reader that, unless we humble ourselves, there is no hope of change. Self-pity will hold you captive.

Taken from Dead-End Desires: biblical strategies for overcoming self-pity


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