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.

Jesus and the small group

Jesus did small groups. We tend to think that small groups are a creation of the last 20 years. Not so. Jesus was leading one 2000 years ago. His small group consisted of 12 men that he chose after an entire night of prayer (Luke 6:12-13). Jesus did life with the disciples. They interacted together so frequently that he actually referred to them as family (Mark 3:34).

There are numerous life-lessons the disciples learned from Jesus. But there was one lesson so significant that it surpassed all the others. It happened in the upper room.

The night before the crucifixion, Jesus gathered in the upper room with his disciples. He is there to celebrate Passover – a meal that had rich Hebrew traditions. There was tension that night, revealed through the disciples’ arguments with one another. Luke makes note of it,

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest (Luke 22:24).

The disciples were understandably mistaken about the next item on Jesus’ agenda. Earlier in the week the multitude had been proclaiming Jesus as their Messiah. Hadn’t Jesus said they would sit on 12 thrones over 12 tribes? Were there not twelve of them? (Matt. 19:28)

There must have been pushing and shoving for the head table—every disciple for himself. It is at that moment that Jesus moved away from the table. This is how John recalls it,

He rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 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 13:4-5)

Jesus does this act of service without a word. In fact, you’re left with the impression that if Peter hadn’t denied having his feet washed Jesus would not have spoken at all (John 13:6).

Having washed the last set of feet, Jesus puts down the basin.

Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them (John 13:13-17)

What if every time I entered a small group setting I positioned myself to serve, and not to be served? Could it be that serving others is a resource to gain victory over my selfish inclinations? Might this be the most important purpose when we gather with a group of friends?

There is something that happens when we serve one another—we discover what God has called and anointed us to do.

And in Jesus’ words,

If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them (John 13:13-17)