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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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Winter’s Past. Go On Into Spring.

We have the power either of withstanding the spring, and sinking back into the cosmic winter, or of going on into those ‘high mid-summer pomps’ in which our Leader, the Son of Man, already dwells, and to which He is calling us.

C.S. Lewis

The last JoyPrO was about pain that’s real and pressing and all creation groaning and our way-long delayed spring.

That was last week.

Winter Is Past

But it’s 78° today. Windows open, shorts on and the daffodils are smiling at the doves.

Spring came this way slowly. But, as C.S.  Lewis wrote, the great thing is that the corner has been turnedThe winter is past, the snow is over and done. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, The corner has been turned- at least, outside.

And who in his right mind wouldn’t prefer spring over winter?

Don’t Sympathize (With Yourself)

But some don’t. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I prefer to wait in the cold and withstand the spring.

Don’t get me wrong, My heart thrilled in the breeze in the season’s first big bike ride today.  I mean the inner spring. The one Christ said wells up to eternal life. I mean, if I’m not careful, my soul lingers in woe-is-me winter. I’ve noticed that when my soul winters linger it’s because I’m stuck sympathizing with myself. 

Now sympathy for others is good and right. It’s beautiful. We are called to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15b) and to have sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Peter 3:8).

But our hearts are supposed to feel tender toward others, to be directed outside of ourselves.

I know- too well- that melancholy and self-pity are a slippery, wintry mix for my soul. They tend toward dark nights. When I sympathize with myself, I choose winter over spring. I choose not to turn the corner and I deprive my Help, my God, of glory.

But my inner self loves spring. Which is why I’m on a sophron quest, a self-control, sound-mind mission to not let my emotions rule me. It’s why I’m learning to distract my wintry thoughts by thinking on excellent and lovely things. To get a grip and push the brakes.

Get a Grip. (Talk to Yourself.)

It is a work. And a process- a Spirit-guided process.

But taking myself in hand is the only way I know to get my soul to spring. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote a book called Spiritual Depression.

Here he  explains why we must get a grip.

This other man within us has got to be handled. Do not listen to him; turn on him; speak to him; condemn him; upbraid him; exhort him; encourage him; remind him of what you know, instead of listening placidly to him and allowing him to drag you down and depress you…

We must talk to ourselves, instead of allowing “ourselves” to talk to us! Have you not realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? You must say to your soul, preach to yourself, questions yourself “Why are you so downcast?” (Spiritual Depression, p. 20)

Lloyd-Jones is only echoing the Psalmist’s 3,000 year-old cure for the downcast soul that can’t – or won’t- turn the corner from winter into spring.

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are so in turmoil within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. 

Let’s take ourselves in hand and leave winter behind.  Hope in God, O my soul. Don’t withstand the spring.

We do have that choice. The flowers don’t. The crocus can’t choose if it will come out in spring or not.

But we can.

Go On Into Spring

We can choose.  

There is, of course, this difference, that in the natural spring the crocus cannot choose whether it will respond or not. We can. We have the power either of withstanding the spring, and sinking back into the cosmic winter, or of going on into those ‘high mid-summer pomps’ in which our Leader, the Son of Man, already dwells, and to which He is calling us. It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer. (C.S. Lewis, “The Grand Miracle,” God in the Dock)

There is a season for everythinga time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. And God knows it’s not for me to determine the times and seasons he’s appointed. 

But spring has sprung and it is mine to choose if I will get on with it. If I will hope-in-God obey and rise and follow Jesus.

What will you choose?

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
    and come away,
 for behold, the winter is past;
    the rain is over and gone.
 The flowers appear on the earth,
    the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
    is heard in our land.

Song of Solomon 2:10-12

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For Poor Ornery People

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky

John Jacob Niles.

Do you know that old Christmas folk song, I Wonder As I WanderDo you like it?

I never did.

But it’s growing on me.

Just Plain Ornery

Because far too often, I’m just plain ornery.  I turn grumpy and stubborn when my will is not done and impatient and harsh when my rules are crossed.  Other times I crave man’s praise and sulk when thanks doesn’t come. Sometimes my skin’s too thin and my heart’s too hard. That’s when I crumble into an ugly selfish heap.

I do.

In every case, poor and on’ry pretty well fits the bill. And there’s nothing like the Christmas rush to provoke ornery, at least in me. Which explains why I’m humming this tune a lot these days.

It fits me- I. I am prone to wander from the joyful obedience of faith and I feel it.

I simply am not naturally nice.

Driving in a Hard School?

Which is why I’m filled more and more with wonder anymore- in awe that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Poor on’ry ones, maybe like you, for sure like me.

I’ve shared this quote before. But I stumbled on it again this week and let’s just say it was a Godsend  for this poor, on’ry mom to whom nice does not alway come easily.

If you are a nice  person- if Virtue comes easily to you- beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel…

But if you are a poor creature- poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels- saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion- nagged day in and day out be an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends – do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) He will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all- not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 10)

Is yours a wretched machine? Are you beset and tempted to sin, within and without? Poor and ornery? Keep on. God knows.

Known by God

Keep looking to Jesus. He knows. He’s familiar. Honestly, it’s why Jesus came. Christmas happened to show us that God not only knows us, He loves us. With great love.

He knows all about it. He knows our frame, David wrote. Which means, we are known. Paul slid that blessed truth in to build his don’t-be-led-astray case to the Galatians, but the clause is rich it could stand alone,

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…

Known by God. The Father’s children are known by Him. And loved by him to boot. What could be better?

Maybe only  this one other thing: He came to buy back us poor ornery one with his blood. Someplace else  it says that Jesus, had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

To make propitiation. That’s New Testament fancy for atone for our sins. ForJesus the Savior did come for to die. 

Jesus the Savior did Come for to Die

Can you say good news of great joy?

God came to earth as one of us, like his brothers in every respect. He suffered when tempted and we will too. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you (1 Peter 5:10).

He’ll fling that old, wretched machine on the scrap heap and then we’ll forever be free from sorrow, free from sin. Restored, confirmed, strengthened and established. No more poor, ornery. The God of all grace will bring it to pass. 

So fight the good fight of faith. Resist the devil, firm in your faith. Do what you can. Repent of your sin. And keep on. Get back up. Don’t buy the lie that no one knows your struggle or pain. Or that no one cares.

You are known by God and He does care. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Jesus our Savior did come for to die. 

To save sinners. Including poor on’ry ones like you and like I.

 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

1 Timothy 1:15

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As The Ruin Falls: A Poem For A Hot Mess

Are you a hot mess? A broken soul? Ruined and a wreck? Check, check, and check- all in the past two weeks, I’ve been. But there is a balm in Gilead. There is a poem for that.

But I am not a poet and- haiku and limericks, excepted- I do know it.

Still poems bowl me over in ways most prose can’t. A good poem cools a hot mess and soothes a broken soul.  A great poem kindles my heart and nourishes my spirit. The best of poems have undertones that you can’t quite name on the first read-through. I turn the page and say, I don’t get it all the way. But the words are tantalizing, and I return. I know it is there.

It was there, like that the poem,  As the Ruin Falls.

As The Ruin Falls

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

 

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love- a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek-
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

 

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

 

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains

You give me are more precious than all other gains.

C.S. Lewis, Poems, Edited by Walter Hooper

It was to these words I returned this week, as my ruins fell.

 

Let us not love in word or talk. (A scholar’s parrot may talk Greek.)

Like a partly-pieced puzzle left on the dining room table, I kept returning to those lines, trying to make more pieces fit. But turn the lines as I might, this line– And everything you are was making- would not conform to my prose-formed mind. Those words were an itch I couldn’t quite scratch, a word stuck on the tip of the tongue. I was deaf to its meter.

But I persisted. I kept going back to that poem until I could make the exquisite piece fit, until I could read that third stanza right.

I think it finally happened last night.

First, a word about stanzas one and two.  Because if we’re honest, we are here: fallen image-bearers, lost and ruined by the fall, all of us with pride-tainted, self-seeking, mix-motived love.  In our heart of hearts, we all know our flashy rhetoric about loving God- and his children too-sometimes feels like hollow, empty talk. A scholar’s parrot may talk Greek. 

Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth, the beloved disciple wrote. Because words are cheap. Then, when friends correct us and break our rules or dare make us wait. Then our love-talk rings hollow. We see how much our love was all about us.

Yes, there is a gap.

 

I see the chasm. And everything you are was making

Now enter the third stanza. The one with tricky line with you are was above. Those words threw me and kept me coming back to decode.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

I see the chasm. Everything you are-was making my heart-into a bridge-by which I might get back from exile, and grow man. That’s it in prose. The -‘s mark the pauses as I read. Read like this, I think I finally understand what Lewis meant.

I see God, the God I say we love, the God who is love over the chasm of my self-seeking, separating sin. And once I see Him, I am undone. Like Isaiah, I see my unclean lips. Lips that speak lightly of love. Flashy rhetoric.

 

My heart a bridge…And now the bridge is breaking

Do you see what so long eluded me?

That everything you are was making, is God’s mercy? That He is folding all of our hot-mess wrecks to build a bridge back to him? The sooner we see that the crumbling bridge is meant to loosen our grip on the things of earth, the fitter and more free for both heaven and earth we’ll be. We’ll see that the Great I AM- Lewis’ YOU ARE – our God, HE IS working all things together for our good. 

Those broken dreams, that cancer, those tests were a bridge he built (then broke) to bring us back to him.

We see the measures God would take- and everything you are was making our heart a bridge to get back– to cleanse and reclaim us sinners ruined by the fall. He would remove our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. 

I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  (Ezekiel 36:25-26)

There is a hound of heaven.  There is  a Creator who reclaims his own lost and ruined by the fall from sin’s hard exile. Ruined sinners to reclaim is why Jesus Christ came. So yes to Mr. Tolkien: Everything sad will come untrue.  The Man of Sorrows makes all things new.

But denial of self and death to the flesh hurt. Ruin and pains come before everything sad comes untrue.

 

Pains more precious

Once we’re back to God, once our warfare is completed and we are reclaimed and remade new, we’re still this side of heaven. The bridge will break. In mercy,  He will shake us from the chains that bound us. And surgeries and getting old and broken dreams just might be the ruins falling.

But His love is in the crumbling ruin, too.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.

The suffering that’s not worth comparing. The pain that builds in us a longing for a better place, where no moth and rust and thief destroy and where there is no crying or dying or heartache.

But we’ve got to be longing for that gain. We’ve got to be longing for his appearing and not looking back across the bridge to where the ruin fell.

 

Saints don’t look back

Lot’s wife looked back. Remember her, Jesus said in Luke 17:32. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.  And in Luke 9:62 he warned, No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

Saints look forward. Hebrews 11:15  says, If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.

So, no. Saints don’t look back. The faithful  recognize these pains- of dying to self and slaying pride- as a saint’s growing pains. And they welcome them as a mother welcomes a baby’s kicks in her once barren womb. It’s Christ being  formed in you.

The ruin- even our ruin-must fall. As it falls, will we echo Saint Paul?

Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:7-8)

Will we come to him and bless Him as the ruin falls?

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and pow’r.

Come, ye weary, heavy-laden
Lost and ruined by the fall
If you tarry ’til you’re better
You will never come at all.

-Joseph Hart