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For Pity’s Sake: 4 Pitfalls Of Pity

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You have the rare ability to see both sides at once. The glass is half empty and half full to you, lauded Mr. Baughn. You see shades of gray.

Mark Twain quipped that he could live off a good compliment for two months. That’s a gross underestimate in my case. Because those words from Mr. Baughn- senior year, English Lit- go back 25 years.

The reason I mention them now isn’t (mainly) to hail the power of praise or to encourage shades of gray. I bring them up, because they help explain why this pity thing keeps surfacing.

The Good Side Of Pity

Sympathy is good and it’s bad. In fact, if you don’t have pity at the right times, not to overstate, but you might be a cold-blooded psychopath. And the Bible commands us to have sympathy (1 Peter 3:8).

Rightly placed pity is godlike and divine. Jesus Christ had pity (Matt. 9:36, 20:34, Luke 7:12-15). We are to be like Christ. We are to have pity.

The Pitfalls Of Pity

But the glass is also half-empty. While we are to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15b)- we are to express our pity with discretion.

Being overly empathic, leading with our hearts not our heads- as when we don’t consider the long term and get lost in emotion- can hurt us and those close to us. Too much pity- or what this post is about, pity misapplied- might actually be harmful. Like when we know that our disappointment is clearly God’s appointment. Or if you always cave when your five-year old cries at bedtime, and decide he can stay up.

Pity is good. Like many good gifts it can be misapplied. And lately I’ve seen a lot of misdirected pity.

Here are four ways I think our pity may get misdirected.

1. Pity is misdirected when it is self-focused.

Self-pity is of the devil, and if I wallow in it I cannot be used by God for his purpose in the world. –Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest

Self-pity– the kind defined as a self-indulgent dwelling on one’s own sorrows or misfortunes- would land squarely in the first category.

I’ve written about this again and again. I suppose it’s because I’m too sensitive- that sensitive – and self-pity is one of my besetting sins. Time and time again this line from C.S. Lewis rings in my head: Indeed what is commonly called “sensitiveness” is the most powerful engine of domestic tyranny. How we should deal with it in others I am not sure; but we should be merciless to its first appearance in ourselves.

Merciless. Like we were to the carpenter ants that bored their way through the ceiling and dropped onto our living room floor. They were destructive. We showed them no mercy.

Be intolerant of your own self-pity. Strike it at its roots. Distract yourself if you must-write a letter or wash the floor like I did Sunday afternoon.

But show no mercy to pity directed toward yourself.

2. Pity is misdirected when it is used to hold joy captive.

I’ve been re-reading The Great Divorce. It’s C.S. Lewis’ imaginative, instructive tale of a bus ride through heaven and hell. Near the end, we meet Sarah Smith in heaven where she’s reunited with her (shrinking) husband Frank, fresh off the tourbus from Hell.

In this scene, Frank is bemoaning the fact that her joy- both on earth and now in heaven-is not contingent on his.

You who can be happy without me, forgetting me! You don’t want even to hear of my sufferings. Don’t, you say. Don’t make you unhappy. And this is the reward–

Stop it at once, she said.

Stop what?

Using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity. You see I know now. Even as a child, you did it. Instead of saying you were sorry, you went and sulked in the attic. Because you knew that sooner or later one of your sisters would say, “I can’t bear to think of him sitting up there alone, crying.” You used their pity to blackmail them, and they gave in in the end.


Those who choose to focus on their own misery will not be allowed “to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy.”

Pity must never be directed so as to hold joy- ours or others’- captive.

3. Pity is misdirected if it never spurs us on to action.

Let us not love in word or tongue but in action and with truth. –John the Apostle

So there’s pity and there’s pity. And we must distinguish between the two. Because only the pure, active one will endure.

Continuing from The Great Divorce,

The action of Pity will live for ever: but the passion of Pity will not. The passion of Pity, the Pity we merely suffer, the ache that draws men to concede what should not be conceded and to flatter when they should speak truth… that will die. It was used as a weapon by bad men against good ones: their weapon will be broken.

‘And what is the other kind- the action?’

It’s a weapon on the other side. It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good.

 

Pity in this “passion” sense is not necessarily noble. It might just be a knee-jerk response or a veiled way of rejoicing that I am exempt from that particular suffering. That I am healthy, my husband has a job, my boys get decent grades. My pity may simply be an expression of my joy in not suffering that way.

Clearly the, “add-a-sad-emoji-and-be-glad-it’s-not-me” expression of pity is not a crowning virtue. This “pity” demands nothing from us and may just be an expression of underlying selfishness. It is certainly not heroic.

To add a sad emoji can be a kindness. But if out pity always stops there and doesn’t leap to bring healing and joy, it’s merely sentimental.

But if it’s never action and truth, it’s not enough.

4. Pity is misdirected if it doesn’t reflect God’s just mercy.

Virtuous pity, or what Thomas Aquinas calls ‘misercordia’, is married to justice, regulated by reason, and structured by doctrine. –Joshua Hren, “The Problem of Pity”

Joshua Hren’s Touchstone magazine article is super insightful. In it, he draws from Dante’s Inferno to explain why we must discriminate among pities, and “learn to measure our mercy against the just mercy of God.”

Hren cites a scene in Canto V, where in the circle of the carnal, Dante meets Pauolo and Francesca. As a result of their illicit affair, “these lovers glide through Hell’s whirl like grotesque mating doves.”

When Francesca sees Dante, she recognizes his pity- and, Hren writes, “pounces on it, telling her own ‘piteous tale.'” As she explains her sob story of “how love had led them there,” Paolo stands beside her as both of them weep. Seeing them, Dante felt, “my sense reel / and faint away with anguish.”

With that, he begins his descent into the Inferno, prepared “to face the double war / of the journey and pity.” In other words, Dante realized, misplaced pity is, in a certain sense, the enemy.

Hren, and Dante long before him, recognize that many (wrongly) think that pity should be indiscriminately expressed toward the other, whether that person has cancer or a married friend confides that keeping a secret life is so trying.

Hren concludes, “we ought not to pity the sinner to the point that we try to rearrange the architecture of Hell.”

Jesus Hurt Peter

The germ for this post came on Easter Sunday as I sat reading just past our pastor’s sermon text.

My eyes stopped at John 21:15. It’s in the context of the conversation that Jesus had with Peter after the bread and fish breakfast on the beach.

Here’s the part that arrested me:

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Knowing all things, Jesus could have said, “I’m sorry Bud, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” But our Lord, who was moved with compassion at times, didn’t pull his punches. He said, for the third time, “Feed my sheep.”

But there’s more: Jesus’ next words to Peter explained how he would die a martyr’s death. No mention of pity here.

But we know Peter loved Jesus. And Jesus loved Peter.

Therefore, pity must not equal love.

Break My Heart For What Breaks Yours

For the record, midway through the writing of this post, my husband loved me without showing an ounce of pity. Jim knows the tell-tale signs of my self-pity and they were starting to ooze Sunday afternoon. So, in love, he showed no mercy. Don’t go there, he simply said.

Sometimes pity’s a beautiful thing. Other times it’s ugly. And I only know one way to determine which it is: Break my heart for what breaks yours, is how the song goes.

But maybe the flip side is, don’t let my heart break for what does not break yours. Or at least, don’t hold back from speaking truth in love even if it hurts. Like Jesus did to Peter.

By the way, only an abounding, discerning love can do this. With so many shades of gray, that kind of love is the only way to avoid the pitfalls of pity.

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:9-11

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The Solution to Pollution is Dilution

When good speakers prepare, they anticipate the questions their listeners might ask. Last weekend I was blessed to speak at a women’s retreat.

And there was one question I was not ready for.   

Perfectionism, Stagnation, or Growth?

I’ll tell you about the question that stopped my cold in a minute. But let me start here where I started with the group: growth. I don’t take for granted that we all embrace a growth mindset.

But keeping growth as the goal guards against two life-choking dangers: perfectionism and stagnation. Perfectionism says I can’t believe I messed up. How could I have done that? It won’t bend. It demands 100% in ourselves or others- now. And when failure inevitably comes perfectionism crumbles in defeat.

But stagnation is equally stifling. It wallows and argues that change is simply impossible. That’s just the way I am, it reasons, I can’t help it. John Piper calls it spiritual fatalism and says it’s when we feel that genetic forces and family forces and the forces of past experiences and present circumstances are just too strong to allow us to change. 

A focus on growth prevents both perfectionism and spiritual fatalism. To say that we can amend the soil is to embrace growth.

How’s your soil?

“Amending the Soil” was the theme- it was all about how we can change the “pH of our hearts” for greater fruitfulness, productivity and growth.

With that growth groundwork laid, we moved to a list of “faith fertilizers,” found in 2 Peter 1:5-7. Add-ins like patience and love and self-control that change our heart soil so good things- or more good things- can grow. 

Then we landed on verse 8: For if these qualities are yours and are increasingnote: increasing and growing, not perfected and arrived at- they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Adding these qualities changes our “soil” for good. 

Now I asked the ladies to describe the current state of their heart soil. Was it muddy, weedy, rocky, or clay? Exhausted, high-yield, wild, or dry? 

The responses were what you expect from hard-working women on a weekend retreat: plenty of exhausted souls, two weedy women and one wild woman. Sharing time was going swimmingly.

Until Shelly chimed in with the question that stopped me cold.

What about contaminated soil?

What about contaminated soil? I’m surrounded by toxic relationships at work and at home. How am I supposed to change those? 

Alrighty then. Easy for me to talk about growth and change and growing in grace. But I was not prepared for this. 

Back to the garden metaphor for a minute. My dad adds coffee grounds to the soil around his blueberries to help the plants grow. But what if there’s a can of paint buried next to the blueberry plants seeping its poisons into the roots? 

What about polluting influences and toxic people we can’t escape? How does growth come then?

The Solution to Pollution? Dilution.

Thankfully, my friend Susanne came to my rescue: The solution to pollution is dilution, she said with a grin.

Susanne’s a nurse and she knows. You can’t always remove toxins from the blood, but you can dilute them. You can insert an IV and dilute with fluids.

To go back to the garden metaphor, it means if you dilute a pollutant enough, the resultant intensity of the pollution is reduced; therefore adding clean material to a contaminated product will reduce the toxicity of the resultant mix…diluting the intensity will reduce the potency of a problematic pollutant with dilution.

Shelly was right. We can’t remove all the corruption around us. Workplaces, families of origin, debilitating diseases- all be out of our control.

But we can “reduce the potency of the problematic pollutant.” We can do that.

Change what you can change.

We can’t always change our circumstances. Our world is polluted. It is contaminated and polluted and we feel it. Little ones get infected and we weep. As much as we’d like to insulate ourselves and those we love from contamination, we just can’t.

But we can change what we can change. We can dilute the toxic influences in our soil with good influences.

We are not spiritual fatalists, so toxic relationships” need not hinder growth. We can phone a friend and say, Help me please or text a group, Please pray. We can open the Bible and let its pure words cleanse our contaminated souls.

It won’t be easy. It will take God’s power energizing our effort to “reduce the potency” of the pollution we can’t escape. But we can–we must- dilute.

But there will come a day. 

But there will come a day when we won’t have to deal with toxic people and debilitating diseases, with polluted water and contaminated land. All mysterious will be bright at last.

All will be healed and clean. There will be no toxins seeping or wounded weeping then. And there will be abundant fruit. 

But while we await that glorious day, the best solution to pollution might just be dilution. 

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face…

Revelation 22:1-4a