Remember what getting sick was like when you were young? You got spend the entire day sleeping, reading, and watching TV. Your parents waited on you hand and foot. They brought you hot soup and cold compresses. Everyone spoke in comforting, sympathetic tones. And the best part—no school. Even though you felt awful, there was something really nice about it. Those were the days!
It doesn’t work like that as an adult, does it? I remember the first time I got the flu in college. It was terrible. I don’t remember anything about the illness itself, but I can tell you that there was no soup, there were no compresses, and my school work still had to be done. As far as I could see, the upsides of being sick had vanished.
Perhaps that worst part of the experience was that I received very little sympathy. My roommate didn’t seem nearly as concerned for me as my mom would have been. And since I wasn’t receiving the sympathy I thought I deserved, I showed sympathy for myself.
There was a lot of whining and complaining. I moaned whenever I had to move. Every trip away from my bed happened in slow-motion. It was quite the production. If my performance had received a larger audience, I might have been nominated.
Ever been there? So had Elijah.
If you haven’t been there, then good for you. But my guess is that most of us probably have. And we’re not alone. The Bible shares the story of a prophet who had a similar response to his circumstances.
1 Kings 19:2-3
Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and even more, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” And he was afraid and arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.” He lay down and slept under a juniper tree; and behold, there was an angel touching him, and he said to him, “Arise, eat.” Then he looked and behold, there was at his head a bread cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise, eat, because the journey is too great for you.” So he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God. Then he came there to a cave and lodged there; and behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”
This section of scripture reveals that Elijah fell prey to destructive thoughts that had many of the same markers as my first adult bout with illness. Sadly, prophets and college students aren’t the only ones susceptible to this vicious form of thinking. It’s something that can affect us all. We’re talking about self-pity.
Self-pity distorts our focus
The name says it all. When we engage in self-pity, we use our minds to pity ourselves. Life becomes all about how wonderful we are, how good we’ve been, what we want, what we didn’t get, who doesn’t like us, and how we’ve been mistreated.
It’s like looking through a pair of binoculars. Binoculars magnify the objects on which they’re focused. They help us get a close-up view of one part of the picture. And we get to see all of the details of that one particular part of the picture really well. But when we use binoculars, we miss out on everything else in the picture.
Self-pity works just like that. Self-pity focuses on “me”—on my wants, on my problems, on my hurts. And we can become so consumed with ourselves, that everything else is blocked from our view.
This was Elijah’s problem. When Jezebel threatened to kill him, He became consumed with the way he was being mistreated. He said…
1 Kings 19:10
I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.
Notice how self pity had restricted Elijah’s view. He believed he was the only remaining person standing for God when, in fact, an upcoming verse reveals that there were over 7000 other people in Israel who were still trying to honor God (1 Kings 19:18).
But that’s not the only thing Elijah missed. His myopic concern for self had closed his eyes to the fact that God had recently given him an unbelievable victory over the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:16-40). He couldn’t see that God was graciously using him in powerful ways.
God doesn’t want our eyes on our circumstances. He wants our eyes on Him. When we focus on God, we’re able to see much more of the whole picture. We’re able to our lives from a different perspective. We’re able to see His goodness, His strength, His sovereignty. And we’re able to see that our problems are really all part of His plan. But it’s very tough to remember this if we’re overly concerned with ourselves.
Self-Pity Pollutes our Speech
Jesus said, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matthew 12:34). Once Elijah’s pity party began, it wasn’t long before the soundtrack cranked up. Elijah began complaining, “Lord I’ve tried to stand for you when everyone else was deserting you. And now you’re allowing people to try to kill me.”
Was Elijah in a tough situation? Yes. Was it fun having the queen of Israel make threats against him? Of course not. But was he without hope? Absolutely not.
He had the God of heaven on his side. And instead of saying “Woe is me! My life is so terrible,” he should have been thinking about the best ways to honor God in His situation.
But that’s not what he did. And that’s not what most of us do. Most of us like to complain. And some of us are really good at it.
“I don’t like this.” “How come I didn’t get more of that?” “Why don’t you treat me the way I want to be treated?” “When are you going to stop doing that and start doing what I want?”
For some of us, nothing is ever good enough. If we’re not careful, we can become so focused on ourselves that we end up treating others as if the only reason they exist is to serve us. We certainly wouldn’t want to hang around people like that, but we tend to ignore these tendencies in ourselves. Being a complainer is one of the quickest ways to drive others away and mar your testimony for Christ.
Complaining is also one of the surest ways to blend in with the crowd. If you want to stand out, if you want to make a strong impression for God on other people, you only have to do one radical thing. Refuse to complain. The apostle Paul said,
Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world
According to Paul, if you refuse to be a complainer, you’re going to shine like a light in the midst of a dark world. People will notice. And you’ll have the opportunity to be a testimony for God.
But this begins with our thinking. We have to get root out all the self-pity from our lives. We need to stop focusing on ourselves and our problems and start focusing on God, his goodness, and the best ways to fulfill His plan for our lives.
Calling Off the Pity Party
I want to suggest a couple of ways to reverse this destructive form of thinking. First, we need to recognize that we’ll never be able to change on our own. Like Elijah, we need God on our side. Or more correctly, we need to be on God’s side.
That starts with embracing Christ as Savior and Lord. If you’ve never done that, or if you’re not sure if you’ve done that, I’d encourage you to talk someone that you know to be a follower of Christ. Ask that person what the Bible has to say about getting right with God. You could also schedule a time with a member of our staff. There’s nothing more important than making sure you’ve got this issue nailed down.
Second, I would encourage you to begin cultivating a spirit of thankfulness. Start simply by making a list of all the things God has done for you. Keep that list by your bedside. Read it several times a week. Add one or two things to the list each time you read it. And here’s the important part–thank God for those things regularly. It’s hard to walk the path of self-pity if you’ve developed a thankful heart.
1 Thessalonians 5:18
Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
What are some other practical ways we can cultivate a spirit of thankfulness?