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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 Best Advice Mom Gave

He can crush me, exalt me, or do anything else He chooses. He simply asks me to have absolute faith in Him and His goodness. Self-pity is of the devil, and if I wallow in it I cannot be used by God for His purpose in the world.

My Utmost For His Highest, Oswald Chambers

Good 

It wasn’t teaching me to whip up apple pie in a flash, and always from scratchReal butter for crust, and always topped with cream, fresh-whipped in a frost-covered bowl. But that know-how has come in handy.

It wasn’t showing a sulky furrowed-brow little lass that A smile is the prettiest thing a girl can wear. Surely, no one was more qualified to teach that than a girl nicknamed Mary Sunshine. Some friends call me Smiles.

It wasn’t explaining that A quality product doesn’t need cheap advertising. Mom gave that sage advice on Sunday in May when I chopped half my new blue jean skirt off and wore my new mini to church. Dad was our pastor there.

 

Which taught some even better lessons.

 

Better

Like, Better to bend than to break. My mom lives like a willow. She bends with the wind and rolls with the punches. With mud on a fresh-mopped hardwood floor and with a thirteen year-old’s mini. I can’t bend half so low.

And as vital as it was to instruct me and rest of her honest-to-a-fault brood, If you can’t say anything kind, don’t say anything at all- this wasn’t the best. Though that wisdom from Mom has maintain the unity of the Spirit so many times.

Nor was it her steadfast prayer, her constant refrain, God, give me a pure heart. Which was, I think, as crucial for a preacher’s wife as for a farmer’s wife as for a teacher and mother and friend. I pray this now, too-for Mom and me.

As valuable as these lessons are, they’re not the best.

 

Best

The most precious advice mom gave is this: To have a friend, be one. Although she didn’t say just this way, I knew what she meant: Stop thinking of yourself, Abigail. Look around and love others. 

To an introspective, insecure ten-year old in a brand new school in a brand new town, her words hit home. She didn’t let me pine away the weekend, feeling left out and alone. Let’s have a hayride and invite your class. Be a friend, she said.

To a still introspective, somewhat more secure fourteen year-old in a brand new high school in a brand new town, her advice still struck a chord. So without knowing a soul, two weeks before school began, joined the brass and met Tom and Chris and Pete and Angie in marching band.

Then, as a still introspective, and slightly lonely newlywed, I remembered what Mom said and a dinner group was forged with Shelly and Jay and Jen and Steve. Fifteen years and oodles of grace later, the group still gathers one Friday night each month.

When alone and unknown in a new church and alone and unknown in new job and more often now, well-known and let-down, Mom’s words to her introspective ten-year old, still echo through, her words about being a friend.

Plus these other two.

 

The Words That Blow My Self-Pity Away

To have a friend, be one is first. Then these two join forces with that advice. Together, they’re my Three Self-pity-busting Musketeers.

Don’t wait to be served, serve. Don’t wait for thanks, thank. To have a friend, be one.Those three are all for one and one for all. And the one they’re for is healthy, happy, humble me. Because self-pity is the weak side of pride- wounded ego, not-getting-what-I-deserve- pride. And this self-pitying pride cannot abide humility.

It cannot abide the God-Man Christ, who took on the form of a servant. Self-pitying pride can’t believe he really said, It’s more blessed to give than receiveAnd that truly blessed is happy. And happy is what a giving, serving, befriending me is bound to be. 

So when Mom’s words come to me, by grace, I go. They come when I feel left out and I go invite a friend. They come when I start to feel unvalued and I go send a thank-you note. The woe-is-me monsters still come and want to throw me a pity party. But I’m learning to look outside of me and go. 

I don’t wait. I can’t. Because if I do, I know melancholic me will join that party. So I don’t wait for someone to comfort or reach out or thank me. I’m learning that when I want thanks, the best thing to do is give it. And when I want to be served, the best thing to do is serve. Because I know it’s more blessed to give than receive.


Four days ago, an introspective eight year-old burst in the front door and burst into tears. Between massive, shoulder-shaking sobs, I gathered that a bump on his nose garnered teaching on the bus ride home and that he missed recess because of late work and-horror of horrors- outdoor gym class.

The world conspired against Gabe Thursday.

Imagine my surprise when my wounded second-grade warrior entered the kitchen ten minutes later, hands full of comb and brush and spray and gel. And with “One pass to the barbar.”

Mom, I know you like me to do your hair. Can I fix it for you now? 

And so I was blessed by the best 40 minute barbar job any girl could ever get.

But the bigger blessing was knowing that this regal treatment came from a son who was learning to look outside of his pain.

Who was somehow learning that focusing away from his pain to show others love is the best way to brush a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad, day away.

So thanks, Mom, for all your good advice. And for the way you lived it. We’re learning to live like you.

She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. 

Proverbs 31:26

*This post was first published on Mother’s Day, 2018. But it’s as true today, on mom’s 70th birthday, as it was then.

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On Influence, Inferiority & The Goodness of a Well-timed Word

Encouragement is the oxygen of the soul.

George M. Adams

Do you know the joy of a well-timed word? The sweetness of an apt reply?

Those sort of words met me this morning. Some timely words caught me by surprise before I even left my bed. But before I share those words, I’ll quick explain the season.

We’ll make it short and start last night. I spent a good part of the night in fighting the sulks. The triggers were clear: low blood sugar, the time of month, and a visit with a friend enrolled in a degree program in which I’d love to be.

Even though that credential could open more ministry doors and lend influence and credibility to current ministry, for now that door is closed.  This opportunity is not knocking. But hearing the joy behind my friend’s open door at once exposed an old idol and scraped up feelings of inferiority.

Inferiority. Influence. Idol?

My idols are familiar to me. I’m on to my influence idol.

Influence in itself isn’t bad.  In fact, we should seek to have influence, provided it’s focused on making God in Christ- not ourselves- look grand. Jesus explained influence like this: “Let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Influence is light. Christian influence is living  in ways that reflect God’s glory and have a positive effect on the character of those around us. We’re mirrors and our words and our blogs and our giving and good works can help others worship God.

I like to be influential. I like to know I’m building the kingdom of heaven and making God look good. But influence turns idol when craving it means I’m ungrateful for the gifts he’s given and discontent with my lot in life- which God alone holds. (See Psalm 16)-

Good Thing Or Ultimate Thing?

There is a holy ambition. Romans 2:7 is about “seeking glory, honor and immortality.” A while back, I shared 9 Quotes For Glory-Seekers and #3 was an oldie-but-goodie from Matthew Henry:

There is a holy ambition which is at the bottom of all practical religion. This is seeking the kingdom of God, looking in our desires and aims as high as heaven, and resolved to take up with nothing short of it. Those that seek for the vain glory and honor of this world…are disappointed, but those that seek for immortal glory and honor shall have them.” (Commentary on Romans 2:7)

For the record, the things we turn to idols aren’t necessarily in and of themselves bad things. They can, and usually are good things: food, children, nature, influence. Good things.

But, like Tim Keller says, idolatry is turning a good thing into an ultimate thing.

We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life.

And so my influence idol was exposed. I know: UG-LY.

Wield Faith’s Weapon

But God’s grace teaches me. So I wielded the weapons, preached truth to myself and did the next thing. 

Translated: I unloaded the dishwasher, wrote out a birthday card, chopped some kohlrabi and snipped yellow wax beans, all the while reminding myself to give thanks and DIGLI.

I reminded myself that God arranges the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. (1 Corinthians 12:18) and that He scatters grace and mercy as he wishes on whom he wills. That God loves inequality and dispenses his gifts and open doors as he wishes and that it’s for me not to envy and wallow in inferiority, but give thanks and keep on.

Because gratitude drives out self-pity and thanks trump grumps.

Friday was my early morning, the only day woke at 6:00. So I got into bed, set the alarm, and-with a mix of success and lingering sulks- I turned out the light.

How The Well-Timed Word Came

Beep-beep-beep-beep. I hit the button and let the radio talk. Here’s what I heard:

Hi, I’m Joni Eareckson Tada with a funny story.

Not long ago at a conference, I was introduced as “Dr. Joni Tada.” When I wheeled up to speak, I confessed to the audience, I said: “Friends, I may have been given a couple of honorary doctorates from seminaries, but hey, look, I’m only a high school graduate. I’ve never even been to Bible College!” Most in the audience looked a little surprised, and there was a time that fact used to embarrass me, I wouldn’t have told anybody that I had no real scholastic degrees. If a person’s wisdom and expertise were measured by their M.Div.’s or their PhD’s or even their bachelor degrees, my goodness, then I’m not competent to speak alongside Christian leaders who have actually earned those degrees…

Did Joni see last night? It was as if she was sitting beside my bed, speaking straight to me. As if she knew comparison and inferiority and envy were on the march to cripple me.  Because I didn’t have the right degree.

The Word from Joni, and God

Then Joni told how someone had shared timely words from 2 Corinthians 3:5-6:

Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

The 4- minute spot continued. By now I was on the edge of my bed lacing my running shoes, letting these delightful, timely words land.

No, I haven’t spent 4 years in Bible school. But I have spent over 50 years in a wheelchair, most of those years studying the same books and scholars as my friends who graduated from The Masters University or Wheaton College…Look, I’m just a quadriplegic! But that’s just it! God delights in teaching us powerful lessons through our weaknesses and limitations…

Plus, it’s my weaknesses that keep pointing me to the source of all authority and ability, God and God alone. Praise the Lord; He is the one who makes us competent as ambassadors of the new covenant! God takes our inadequacies and, as we lean on him and learn from the trials he sends, he makes us competent.

Now you may think, ‘who am I that anyone should listen to me? Why should anyone care what I have to say?’ Oh friend, don’t fool yourself; in Christ, you are completely competent. 

That was the how the well-timed word came to me, On the only day last week I woke to the radio, after the only night I had a fight like that, here was Joni, giving an apt answer, the perfect truth to address my immediate need. Here was Joni, speaking a timely word to me.

And friends, degree or no degree or three degrees, be encouraged to know: Your competence comes from God. 

But more, I hope that in every good and well-timed word, you hear a loving Lord.

A man has joy in an apt answer,
And how delightful is a timely word!

Proverbs 15:23

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Days Like This (& New Mercies To Pick)

Mama said they’ll be days like this.  (They’ll be days like this my mama said.)

Mama knew about beaten-down days. About days when bad news comes and high hopes go. When relationships feel so strained it hurts to say Hi or to try to relate at all and we look down and wait for the other show to drop.

Days like this when no wind fills the sails and infection’s weight makes us just almost ache.

Days Like This

A 7:00 am text set me down a sad way. Even though her reason for cancelling had nothing to do with me, Still, I took it personally and started second guessing. You know how these, why-so-downcast-O-my-soul days can be.

Thirty minutes later, the email. Not any email.- the “Hey! When can we talk?” email. The sort that make your heart sink to where the other shoe dropped and you want to meet immediately to get the dread deed done.

Then my husband caught me by surprise and took me to task for a mistake I’d made a week back. His correction was right on and true blue. And stung a little still.

By 9:00 the day had officially become one of those days. One of those days that turns into a downcast, hot-mess of a day.

Pickin’ Mercy Off The Trees

But we don’t take days like this sitting down. Children of the Father of mercy  don’t write off a whole day as a bad day before the noon bell rings. Or anytime, for that matter. We don’t throw in the towel and give in to the sulks because this is the day that the Lord has made.

And because God gives his kids mercy to match the hard in these days. In fact, his mercies never come to an end. And if they never end, it means they’re there every single moment. They’re there in the morning and the whole day through. Ripe for the picking.

But we might have to fight to see them. There might be sweet mercy fruit hanging on the trees, but it’s not ours till we go pick it. Looking for mercy in days like this takes some spiritual pluck. Pluck like what weeping Jeremiah showed when, in the throes of disaster, he wrote,

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22–23

I surely wasn’t singing that tune this morning. It was all I could do get showered and dressed and to the group where I needed to be.

Mercy to Match

Four hours after that “can we talk” email summons, the hard talk was had. It was a firing of sorts- bad news. But I swallowed hard and forced a smile and started back to the car. And just as the first tears were welling, a few cars before mine, I looked up and there was Deb,

Deb’s my friend Jen’s mom. She’s s a sweetheart. Still, when Deb smiled and asked, “How are you today?” the words didn’t come at first, because I knew words would release tears. But Deb cared and words came-thankfully, more than tears. Then, Abigail, how can I pray?  and Deb hugged me and we were on our way.

Mercy waiting in the parking lot.

Then to the post office where no line- more mercy- greeted me. So when our town’s friendly-face-of-the-USPS- Ted- asked how I was, I looked up and gave a real answer. God’s still good, I said, but it’s been one of those days. To which Ted spoke some of the kindest, most encouraging words a guy selling stamps could ever say.

There it was again- mercy for today.

Defy Yourself

The more I looked, the more big and little mercies I found that afternoon. The more my focus changed from woe is me self-pity to great is his mercy.  They really were all around and it was, as so much of the Christian life is, mainly a matter of focus. Of fighting to behold God’s glory and so be transformed (2 Corinthians 3:18). Of  choosing to think on what is true and noble and good (Philippians 4:8).

It got easier to see them, and have hope. But I had to do defy my downcast soul to do it. Like the Psalmist in Psalm 42: 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.

We must not be content in days like these to listen to the lie that says, Go ahead. Sympathize with yourself. Its okay to sulk this one away.

Talk Back to Yourself & Take Back the Day

We must, says Lloyd-Jones, take ourselves in hand. 

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?”

Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: I will hope in God for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (Spiritual Depression, p. 20)

Mama said there’ll be days like this, and God said He’d send fresh, ripe mercies on these days.

But we might not see his mercies until we defy ourselves to lift our eyes and look.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,  “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.

Lamentations 3:22-25