Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Beware of Self-Pity

One of the most notable icons of courage and faith in the Jewish Pantheon of heroes is Elijah. His life was filled with exciting deeds of heroism. Miracles happened in almost everything he did. Even to this day, Jewish people not only revere him for his place in their remembered history, they expect him to have a leading role in the final events of human history. He is expected to return to earth three days before the coming of the Messiah, during which time he will right all the wrongs perpetrated on God's people. He will announce and prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.

When Passover is celebrated each year, the door is left open for Elijah. A place is set for him at the table in front of an empty chair.

There is not a more colorful or courageous kinsperson in our background than Elijah. But after all his mighty deeds, he was at last thrown into an unusual state of fear and an uncharacteristic fit of depression by a threat on his life by none other than Queen Jezebel. Yes, Jezebel, whose name has become a synonym in our vocabulary for the most sordid behavior of females of our species. The Bible says, "He was afraid, and he rose and went for his life" (I Kings 19:3). He did not stop until he was completely outside the jurisdiction of Jezebel.

He holed up in a cave and in utter despair complained to God: "All is lost; I am the only one left who believes in you". (I Kings 19:10) Even Elijah, who was so brave and strong so many times, was not brave and strong all the time. Like all the rest of us, his life was more like a roller coaster than an escalator. He felt alone and abandoned, but he was not abandoned by the God in whose name he had done so many might deeds. It is good news to know that our lives are not judged by one significant downtime. There is some sin and failure in all our lives. (If you are an exception to this axiom, I would like to meet you!) Given that we all ride the roller coaster, what can we do to keep the "down times" from becoming a permanent position in our lives?

Elijah's initial response to his obvious failure of nerve was characteristic of most of us human beings when we are weary, depressed, upset with God and oozing pessimism from every pore. He immersed himself in self-pity. Let me suggest that it often brings some initial relief to feel sorry for oneself when wounded by life. When the bottom drops out of your life, go ahead, take big swallows of self-pity. It will deaden the pain of failure and despair, but get the cork back in that bottle as soon as you can because it is emotionally and spiritually dangerous to drink it every day.

Self-pity is one of the most addictive, destructive and common behaviors that we can adopt in the face of adversity. It is a common coping mechanism because it feels so good, and there is such an abundant supply. You never run short. It the long run, self-pity will do to your spirit (and your body) what drugs will do to your mind, body and emotions. Only those who are intentional are able to avoid getting hooked on self-pity when they have been hurt.

When Victor Hugo was exiled from his beloved France, he spent 18 years in the Channel Islands. For this man who was once the Royal Dramatist, exile was worse than death. Each afternoon at sunset Victor Hugo would climb to a cliff overlooking a small harbor and look longingly out over the water toward France. Legend has it that each day when he finished his meditations there, he would pick up a pebble and throw it into the water. The children who knew him finally asked him why he threw a stone in the water each day. Victor Hugo smiled gravely and said: "Not stones, children, not stones. I am throwing my self-pity into the sea". Little wonder that during those 18 years of adversity he gave the world his greatest works and most profound insights. Beware of self-pity!

There are times of exile in all our lives. These are battles we do not win. In every life there is some failure and defeat - moral, spiritual, financial - you name it. It is there. Life is not an escalator. There are no short-cuts to our dreams and goals. Not many people get to see a blinding light on their "road to Damascus". The good news is that God does not expect us to become complete overnight or in a week or a year. The journey is long and sometimes dangerous. It is full of ups and downs.

Beware of self-pity. Never give up. Trust how God works in the "long run". An old friend once reminded me that "when you are down to nothing, God is usually up to something". These are times in which that thought is important to survival.