When your spiritual memory is selective

Brick Wall Version2Taken from Dead-End Desire: biblical strategies for overcoming self-pity. Available at Christian retailers, Amazon.com and the biblical strategies website (biblicalstrategies.com).

To overlook God’s awesome work in our past and develop a complaining spirit, we need only be selective in the way that we remember the past. We see this tendency in the Numbers 11 narrative:

Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the LORD; and when the LORD heard it, His anger was kindled . . . the sons of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt.” [emphasis added]

Did they just say they remembered eating for free? Talk about revisionist history. Were they not the slaves of Egyptian tyrants for 420 years? Weren’t the final years in Egypt unbearably difficult? How could they forget how bad their past was? The same way they forgot how good God was. Their memory was selective.

We learn a valuable lesson from the Israelites, easily missed in the first reading: our desires generate selective memories. Like an intentional case of Alzheimer’s, we choose to leave things out of the story so that we might get what we want. In this case, the Israelites wanted meat instead of manna. That, in and of itself, would not have been sinful, except that God was the one serving up the manna. Furthermore, God had a far greater lesson he wanted them to learn when they hungered in the wilderness. Moses points to it nearly 40 years later when he instructed the next generation.

And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you . . . testing you to know what was in your heart. […] And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

God wanted them to turn to him when they were hungry. He was the provider of every good and perfect gift. In God alone they would find their fulfillment, but the Israelites were convinced that a good steak would suffice. The purpose of our circumstances (especially the difficult ones) is always greater dependence on the Lord.

The people assumed that their less than desirable circumstances were cause to complain. Actually, they were an opportunity to depend more fully on God. Perhaps you’re shaking your head in disbelief, unable to understand how the Israelites were never able to grasp this truth. Careful. They weren’t the only ones to struggle with a selective memory. I know that same struggle, and I bet you do too.

We get so focused on what we don’t have, that it’s easy to forget what we do have. If I promised you the thing you really wanted right now, you might be willing to tweak your past a bit to get it. Just like the Israelites, our desires rewrite the events of our past. We too, can fall prey to a selective memory.

This past year my wife Kym started keeping a diary of the ways God had worked on our behalf. As the kids chimed in around the dinner table one night, I suddenly realized that I had already forgotten some of the things that I had praised God for just a few months earlier (go to page  61 to start your own praise journal). Selective memory is like a scalpel, cutting out your recollection of God’s work in your past. Once you’ve begun to forget, a complaining spirit isn’t far behind.

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When God asks a question

The LORD said to Cain . . . “Why are you angry and why has your face fallen? (Genesis 4:6) 

Throughout the Scriptures God asks questions for which he knows the answers. He uses these questions to move the listener towards change. As a friend of mine once shared,

A question stirs the conscience, but an accusation hardens the will (Ken Collier)

For Cain, as well as for us, the point is this: inherent in the why question is that Cain had a choice. God was stirring Cain’s conscience when he asked why he chose to respond with anger instead of obedience.

In our English language this is captured in the word responsible; a word we often use without considering its meaning.We are response able – able to choose the right response. I recognize that it often doesn’t feel this way. Self-pity and the ensuing emotions consume our thoughts and feelings; so much so that we believe them to be our only option.  God wishes to challenge our thinking and so he asks, “Why did you choose to respond in the way that you did?”

 Cain chose to feel sorry for himself; so do we. He was not the victim of his emotions or circumstances. Self-pity, while an enslaving habit, remains a choice.  Paul confirms this in the book of Romans: “Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living.” (Romans 6:16, NLT)

God’s question for Cain reveals this liberating truth: when you are embroiled in self-pity you don’t have to be. You choose to be.


Taken from Dead-End Desires: biblical strategies for defeating self-pity.

Available November 2012 through www.biblicalstrategies.com.

Assume God’s responsibilities and you’ll neglect your own

One of the common themes I’ve observed as a pastor is that people often fail to do what they should do, because they’re trying to do what only God can do. We are not equipped to carry out God’s role, but that doesn’t keep us from trying.  Here are some examples:

  • God sees the future; we can’t see it, so we worry instead (Psalm 139:16)
  • God knows a person’s inner desires and intentions; we can’t know them, so we develop a judgmental spirit questioning their motives (1 Corinthians 4:5).
  • God can change a heart; we can’t, but we try; we seek to control and manipulate others through our words and emotional responses (Ezekiel 36:26-27; Titus 3:5-6).

When we attempt to do God’s job we end up defaulting on our own. Look back at the emphasized words in the previous points. God told us not to worry (Phil. 4:6), not to judge the heart (1 Cor. 4:5), and not to control and manipulate others (2 Tim. 2:24-26). When we attempt to do what only God can do, we fail to do what he asks us to do. The Bible teaches we are totally inadequate to carry out God’s responsibilities (Romans 11:33-34).  This is why we not only do them poorly but complain because the burden is too great to bear.

This is prime territory for self-pity to grow, as God’s dialogue with Moses revealed (Num. 11). So how do we overcome this tendency? By trusting God with those less than desirable circumstances and believing that he can accomplish something purposeful through them (Romans 8:28).

This was a truth that carried Joseph through betrayal, slavery, false accusations, and nearly ten years in prison.  At the conclusion of his story he reminds his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20)  Joseph had grown in contentment. He didn’t need his brother’s approval to feel successful. He found it easy to love them and forgive. He didn’t need pleasant surroundings or positive conditions. It’s not our circumstances that make us prone to self-pity; it’s our dissatisfaction with those circumstances. Self-pity takes root in the soil of discontentment.


Taken from Dead-End Desires: biblical strategies for defeating self-pity.

Available November 2012 through www.biblicalstrategies.com.

 

How the character of God holds self-pity at bay. . .

Living with suffering is hard work; it’s easy to lose your focus. Once your focus is disoriented it becomes difficult to hold self-pity at bay.  Suffering can come in many forms; not all of them physical. Our mind struggles with harsh and critical statements that seem unjustified. Our emotions vacillate between confusion, anger and grief when circumstances in our life seem to contradict the hand of loving God.

When the apostle Peter heard Jesus speak of suffering that was needful for him to endure, he tried to protect Jesus. He said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Jesus’ answer was quick and to the point: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but the things of man” (Matt. 16:23). 

Jesus focused on a specific aspect of the character of God—his wisdom. God thinks differently than man thinks. The wisdom of man is short-sighted and pragmatic (1 Cor. 2:8, 13). God’ wisdom is eternal and directed purposefully. The ability to focus on the character of God (not the wisdom of the man) is a quality Jesus develops (Heb. 5:8). He exercises this ability most fully in the garden of Gethsemane.

When confronted with the suffering (separation from God) he will experience on the cross Jesus asked if there might be another way. Mark recounts it this way: “And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36).

Abba is a family term. It might be best rendered in the language of our day as “Daddy.” When my kids want the quickest access to my heart this is how they address me. It’s the term that every dad knows—like they’re saying, “Dad, I know you love me. . .” Jesus is clinging to this aspect of his Father’s character: his love. Then he adds, “. . . all things are possible for you.” He is acknowledging that the Father has the power to act if he would so choose.

Both with Peter and with his Father Jesus embraces suffering without questioning the character of God. In fact, it’s fair to say that he affirms and focuses on the character of God in the midst of his suffering. This is the means through which we avoid self-pity when times are hard. We trust the character of God not the wisdom of man.

One of my seminary professors who left a profound impact on my life was Dr. Fred Barshaw. Prior to becoming a pastor, Fred served as a public school teacher. Gifted in understanding the learning process, he received the esteemed “Teacher of the Year” award for the state of California. Fred’s strength was his application of the Word to real life situations, and I was drawn to the unique ways he found to communicate. During my final year of seminary, Fred began his battle with cancer. I graduated and headed into ministry on the other side continent. Several years later, I was developing material for a class, when I realized my lay out and presentation looked strikingly familiar. I went to my filing cabinet, pulled out my notes from one of Fred’s classes, placed them next to my own and immediately recognized the similarity. Having not intended to so, I realized I was teaching just like my teacher. I picked up the phone and called Fred, wanting to communicate my deep sense of gratitude for his investment in my life. Cancer had taken its toll. He was short of breath, and spoke with a hoarse whisper. Because he was so weak I expressed my appreciation quickly. Then I asked him how I could pray for him. There was a long pause, and then the words: pray that I would be faithful to the end. I did. Thirty days later, Fred Barshaw met Jesus.

Our response to suffering will take one of two roads. We can focus on the character of God and pray for faithfulness; or focus on the difficulty of our circumstances and indulge self-pity. Your focus will determine your ultimate outcome.

Trade in pride for humility

Millicent Fenwick understood loss. Born in 1910, she lost her mother five years later when a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Fenwick went on to serve as the editor for Vogue magazine and as a New Jersey congresswoman. She gives the most colorful statement about self-pity you’ll ever read:

Self-pity . . . the most destructive emotion there is. How awful to be caught up in the terrible squirrel cage of self.

If you’ve seen a squirrel cage you understand the analogy. I remember seeing one at my aunt’s homestead years ago. It had a small box for sleeping and a large rotatable cylinder for exercising (kind of like a treadmill for squirrels). If the squirrel accelerated, the cylinder would spin faster. The squirrel would burn up energy, but never get ahead. This makes the cage a great analogy for trying to overcome self-pity on your own. You feel like you’re running in place; lots of energy expended, but when you stop there’s no progress.

If you could take a spiritual MRI of someone who is struggling with self-pity you would find pride as the stimulus. Pride whispers “you’re entitled.” When you don’t get what you think is deserved you feel sorry for yourself.

The solution is to change your way of thinking; then connect your thinking to your actions. This might sound simple enough, but it’s not. Feelings keep getting in the way. Our emotions tell us to crawl back in the squirrel cage and run a little faster. It’s just us and the cage, and no way out. With our thoughts consumed with self, we don’t know how to think about others. We just keep running.

Fortunately, we have Jesus as an example. He surrendered his sense of entitlement, and chose a spirit of humility instead. Paul captured it this way,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

The ESV Study Bible helps us understand the meaning,

Prior to the incarnation, Christ was in the form of God . . . “Form” here means the true and exact nature of something, possessing all the characteristics and qualities of something. Therefore having the “form of God” is roughly equivalent to having equality with God . . . and it is directly contrasted with having the “form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7) . . . Remarkably, Christ did not imagine that having “equality with God” (which he already possessed) should lead him to hold onto his privileges at all costs. It was not something to be grasped, to be kept and exploited for his own benefit or advantage. Instead, he had a mind-set of service. “Christ did not please himself” (Rom. 15:3). In humility, he counted the interests of others as more significant than his own (Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (2283). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles).

As God, Jesus had the right to rule. We were his creation, not vice versa. But Jesus didn’t grasp that right, he surrendered it. In so doing he put on humility, thereby finding it possible and preferable to serve others with the best of attitudes. Like Jesus, we can choose the spirit of humility over the sense of entitlement.

Genuine humility shines brightly when pressed into service; self-pity will not endure. The genuine article will always outshine the knock-off.

So today, serve others with a spirit of humility. Stop running in the squirrel cage of your self-centeredness.

How Jesus overcame self-pity

In the gospel record we find a number of instances where Jesus could have chosen to feel sorry for himself. When we examine the surrounding circumstances and his response, we gain a greater understanding for how we should respond in similar situations to avoid self-pity.

Change your role.

Our culture prizes being served. Google “pamper yourself” and expect to find over 7 million hits. You won’t read much about serving the poor and needy there, but one phrase is sure to show up: you deserve it. Search the web for that phrase and you’ll find 133 million people giving advice.

You will always be susceptible to self-pity whenever your starting point is someone serving you because you think you “deserve” it. Not only will others not meet your expectations, but you will desire the wrong thing. You’re looking to be served and not to serve. The disciples had this problem. Mark records they were arguing about who should have the best seats in the kingdom. Jesus response was instructive for them and for us.

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

The lesson we learn from Jesus is to replace a failure to be served with a desire to serve.

Deepen your desire.

You would think that Jesus’ words and actions would have been enough to bring about change in the disciples, but they were not. On the night before his crucifixion the disciples are at it again; this time in the upper room. Perhaps it was Jesus’ triumphal entry earlier in the week that got them thinking it was time to divide up the kingdom.

Imagine the situation from Jesus’ perspective: Three years of selfless ministry, his death only 24 hours away, and still they’re arguing. That’s enough to push anyone into the self-pity chasm. Look at Jesus’ response.

Jesus . . . rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him (John 13:3-5).

Remarkable. Chances to indulge our self-pity are viewed by Jesus as opportunities to deepen his desire to serve.

Purge your response.

What if you’re not recognized for your service? Is a bad attitude justified? God is purging. He wants you to develop the heart of a servant, not simply the actions.

A friend of mine is fond of saying, “The hardest part about being a servant is being treated like one.” Agreed. Most of us can enjoy doing a kind deed for someone, but when the deed is taken for granted or we fail to be appreciated it’s easy to have a self-pity attack.

Even when his acts of kindness were rebuffed, Jesus didn’t succumb to self-pity. He kept serving. This response inoculated him against potential bitterness. It’s hard to have a complaining spirit when your ultimate goal is to serve others.

Self-Pity: Thinking too highly of oneself

Self-pity causes us to see ourselves as better than we really are. We tend to think of self-pity as thinking too poorly of ourselves, but the opposite is true. We are thinking too highly of ourselves. Self-pity is a preoccupation with self. Because it is birthed from the “pride” family of sins, it comes with a sense of entitlement. This is revealed each time we are denied something we believe we deserve, or when we receive something we don’t believe we deserve.

Jonah’s conversation with God in the 4th chapter of his prophecy reveals this clearly. He had been denied what he really wanted to see – a front row seat to the destruction of Nineveh. He entered the city from the west; courtesy is submarine ride through the Mediterranean Sea. His message was simple: “Forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” A few days later he exited the city through their East gate, climbed a mountain and sat down to watch the destruction. Only one problem: the people of Nineveh repented. And God, being true to his character, showed mercy. The destruction was called off. This angered Jonah; because he thought the people of Nineveh deserved to be destroyed. Check out the conversation,

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:1-4)

 Jonah knew the character of God. He appreciated second chances when they were extended to him; he just didn’t believe the people of Nineveh deserved the same deal. God saw it differently.

In the hot desert winds God showed Jonah grace again. He appointed a plant to grow up and provide shade for Jonah’s aching head. Jonah must have smiled. He liked God’s grace when it was directed towards him. You get the impression he thought he deserved it. But grace is never deserved, so the next day God appointed a hungry worm. The plant could not survive the worm’s appetite. Jonah’s cabana was gone. He was angry again, but God’s grace lesson wasn’t over. God sent a wind from the east. To avoid the sand in his eyes, Jonah would have to turn back to the West, and stare at the city of people he didn’t think deserved God’s grace.

Self-pity pours from this chapter. Jonah was angry at everything and everyone. He complained incessantly. Twice he declared he’d be better off dead than alive. Beneath the surface of Jonah’s self-pity you hear his sense of entitlement.

He deserves grace for his wrong choices.
He deserves shade for his aching head.
He deserves to watch the destruction of his enemies.

He deserves, deserves, deserves. And when he doesn’t get what he deserves he mires down in self-pity. Sadly the book bearing his name ends right there – with Jonah staring at God’s grace, but unwilling to grant it.

His life is a vivid reminder of the suffocating isolation that self-pity brings.