There is a young woman here in this cafe doing what I have not allowed myself to do in so long. She is crying, and for the first time, I am envious of someone else’s tears. Too many days have passed since I first found myself uninspired by life. Life! The very existence from nonexistence. 1 from 0. Something from nothing. How could I be so uninspired? I’ve found that it’s not all that difficult when deeper still is a dissatisfaction with the Creator of life himself. It is this dissatisfaction that has silenced my heart from praise and repentance and hardened it instead to self-pity.
Deficiency and Distress
The thing about the term “dissatisfied” is that it is more often an identifier than a descriptor; we are more often dissatisfied with something than we are simply dissatisfied. Yet as much as our displeasure functions as a signpost, pointing us to the deficiency of its object, often our dissatisfaction is more telling of its subject. In self-pity, our dissatisfaction reveals much more about the deficiency within ourselves.
I spent the first half of 2016 in the eve of this realization, grumbling under the assumption that the problem lay within my circumstances, not me. I was the victim. I was the one robbed of joy. I was the one like Habakkuk with fig trees unblossomed, vines and fields both fruitless and barren, and stalls emptied of their herds (Hab 3:17)—I was ruined. But unlike Habakkuk’s songful praise (vv. 18-19), my song ended there; and where this song ended, dissatisfaction grew. Into bitterness, it abounded.
This bitterness surfaced most soberingly one summer night at small group when, to close out a sermon discussion on our church’s new Psalms series, one brother led the rest into song:
And now let the weak say, ‘I am strong’
Let the poor say, ‘I am rich
Because of what the Lord has done for us’
Give thanks with a grateful heart
Give thanks to the Holy One
Give thanks because he’s given Jesus Christ, his Son
But I couldn’t. Who could give what she has not? From the mouths of thankful ones, praises continued beautifully, tenderly around me; yet I remained as I was, voiceless and unmoved because of the coldness embedded deep within. I could not give thanks, no, much less sing an insincere tune of what the Lord had done, because I could not see what in Christ he had done for me; and I was unwilling to admit that I couldn’t. I was ashamed that more than “ruined,” I was ungrateful for the cross.
It’s no wonder, then, when afterward asked which psalm(s) we turn to the most, I was stopped immediately by Psalm 40:17a, “I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me”—words formerly an anthem but now jagged against my heart. For in my wintry discontent, in the cold, stark, cavernous hollow, I wondered, “Lord, do you really take thought for me? Do you really love me?”
A Story Like Our Own
At the core of Jonah’s story lies this very question: God, do you really love me? Because if God did in fact love Jonah, would he send Jonah to Nineveh, the Assyrian city?
To his displeasure, Jonah is indeed commissioned to go to Nineveh to preach a message of repentance so that God would display his mercy to a wicked people. But Jonah does not obey. He knows too well the wickedness of this city. He knows, too, the goodness of God. Jonah doesn’t want to see this city repent. He doesn’t want to take part in their flourishing. So he runs away, boarding a ship headed toward Tarshish, opposite Nineveh.
By the breath of God, a storm begins to brew and the waters rage on account of Jonah’s disobedience, so he is thrown by the sailors into the rough waters where a great fish swallows him whole. For three days and three nights, there in the dark pit of the fish, Jonah is quieted to contemplation. How could everything once good spiral downward to this dark, lonely moment? There in the belly of the fish, Jonah is brought to repentance and praise, and, immediately after, he is vomited ashore.
Jonah heads to Nineveh to obey the commission initially assigned to him, and as expected, Nineveh breaks out in repentance. But Jonah is displeased. I told you that you were gracious and merciful, God. I told you. I knew you’d let them off. Now let me die. The Lord responds with one thing, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jon 4:4), and, at that, Jonah leaves.
Seated outside the city limits, Jonah stares at distant Nineveh in the heavy heat when suddenly a vine springs up and relieves him from the scorching sun. But it just as quickly withers into the night. Again Jonah is displeased, and again he finds it better to die than to live.
One thing. The Lord responds once more to Jonah’s outrageous plea with one thing: “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” to which Jonah replies, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die” (v. 9). His bitterness remains the same, and his heart, too, unchanged.
The Sin of Self-pity
Self-pity is readily decried as a sin, however compelling its subtle song, and by all means, it is a sin. But there’s more to it than a quick and sometimes dismissive call to repentance lets on, and God’s response to Jonah’s anger demonstrates just this. For self-pity has many dimensions—anger, sadness, bitterness (i.e., unattended anger), disappointment, and doubt, to name a few—and they all point to some truth of God and the world.
Self-pity rightly recognizes that things too frequently are not the way they were meant to be—that Jesus, too, grieved the death of his beloved friend, weeping at the sight of Lazarus’s body laid to rest, and that our exhausting work, too, was part of Adam’s curse to labor for our bread by the sweat of our brows. Jonah’s anger rightly recognizes that wickedness of any form is undeserving of God’s grace. We are not wrong to grieve life’s injustices in appropriate measures. But to borrow Ed Welch’s words, “Unattended desires become selfish desires that move into needs.” Jonah’s anger—and ours, too—left unattended before God becomes selfish and self-righteous anger. It becomes entitled anger. It becomes idolatry.
That’s what self-pity essentially is. It’s idolatrous because the initial interrogative, God, do you really love me?, is actually the declarative reframed, God, you don’t love me; therefore, I need to fend for myself. It’s in the name; we pity ourselves because we believe we’ve no one else to be pitied by. Our own God has betrayed us. So, as with any idol, we long to be validated. We long to be justified, because in our injustice, we feel forgotten, abandoned, neglected, ignored. We, like Jonah, pity ourselves to assure ourselves that our hardships are indeed known.
A New Ending
In the midst of Jonah’s sulking misery, the Lord’s final word is this:
“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (vv. 10-11)
As we translated Jonah in my Hebrew course, my professor Mike Kelly commentated, Why so upset? It’s a transient thing. The plant was there for a purpose, and it served its purpose, and now it’s gone. Don’t be upset about it. The ancients reading this book were likely thinking, Where is the Promised King? Who are these foreigners? They were perhaps doubting that God had spoken through the prophets. But God reassures them of something greater: his covenant. These Ninevites are serving my purpose. I’m in control. They’re part of my plan. But in the grand scheme of things, they’re like this plant that grew by the moon and perished into the night. They’re transient, and they will not thwart my plan for Israel.
In the immediate face of our hardships, we can be bitter like Jonah, but, in the end, these things, all these things that come unexpectedly, that leave unexpectedly, the rise and fall of great things, of terrible things—these are all transient things. They’re all transient and none of them, not a single one of them, will thwart God’s promises for us, because even the vilest evil could not thwart God’s plan for salvation. Every evil came to naught when Christ plunged into depths deeper than the pit of a great fish and took it all on the cross. By his great injustice, we are redeemed.
So these frustrations? These wasted opportunities? These disappointments and regrets? Or perhaps these deep pains and sufferings? Take heart, for these, too, do not stand against God’s promises for us—his promises to forgive and save us; to heal and cleanse us; to justify, adopt, and sanctify us; to guide and protect us; to be our peace and joy; and to bring us one day into glory to our true home. For all of his promises are yes and amen in Christ—in him who bled, died, and rose again for us, him whose interrogative, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?, was really the declarative, I will be forsaken by my own Father so that you will be welcomed in.
No, we are not to be pitied, because we are loved.