When I was a child my father insightfully prepared for life when he said, “Son, life is hard and then you die.” This “salt of the earth” axiom has proven true over and over again in my life, at least the first half (and I anticipate the second half coming to fruition eventually). This is reality on a postlapsarian planet. In a fallen world, you can expect for life to be a wearisome struggle that will tempt you in unique ways. Your carnal desire for comfort will often chafe at the restrictions imposed by the burdens of life and ministry, but you must remember that God has imposed these burdens on you for your good and His glory. The Christian life is not easy because it is not supposed to be. That being said, the responsibilities of life may be rigorous but they don’t have to be joyless.
As you deal with the realities of life and ministry, you must remember that the requirement of service is an instrument of grace designed by God to keep you humble and focused on Christ. Behind the exhausting and unrelenting demands of personal responsibility stands a gentle and kind Savior who is empowering your faithfulness with His grace and receiving your efforts in His love. He has not called you to serve because He needs your help or because you need to earn your salvation. You have been providentially entrusted with your own unique set of burdens and enlisted in a slew of specific ministry tasks so that you (and those around you) will know Christ more intimately.
As you engage in arduous kingdom work and tedious life responsibilities, you must be vigilant to shepherd your heart to avoid the temptations that fatigue can incite. If you are not careful—which is to say, if you do not submit yourself to the truth—the burden of serving will have a hardening effect rather than a sanctifying effect in your life. If you don’t comprehensively submit your life to the calling of God and the circumstances in which you have been placed to fulfill that calling, you will become embittered toward the ministry you’ve received from God. Usually, this kind of joyless bitterness takes hold of our hearts through the incursion of self-pity.
Self-pity may be the most unchristian response you can have toward the rigors of ministry since you deserve nothing from God and have everything in Christ. Self-pity often feels like the most appropriate response to our circumstances, but in reality it is just a self-justifying way of being mad at God because He didn’t let you control your life and keep your idols. In our self-pity we covet our own comfort and satisfaction as if it were the highest end to which we could attain. We feel sorry for ourselves despite the fact that we have been forgiven of our sins because we think too highly of ourselves and too little about our sins. We live and breathe as if we are the only thing there is to to live and breath for, which is the lie that your flesh has to perpetuate in order to stay alive. Self-pity is the ultimate provision for the flesh.
You know that your thinking has been infected with self-pity when you consider the burdens God designed as an undeserved grace in your life to be an undeserved hindrance to your happiness. The fruits of self-pity make it easily identifiable when we open our eyes to it:
- Self-pity causes us to doubt Christ rather than magnify Christ.
- Self-pity causes us to cherish sin rather than mortify sin.
- Self-pity causes us to avoid truth rather than meditate on truth.
- Self-pity causes us to seek relief rather than holiness.
Ultimately, self-pity will sap your service of all joy and foment a disorienting bitterness in your heart in the midst of your fatigue.
How do you protect yourself from something as subtle and self-deceiving as self-pity?
The battle against sinful self-pity can only be won when the weapons of truth are aimed at the object of worship. When your mind is flooded with the temptation to pity yourself rather than worship your God, you must mortify these thoughts with the truth. In other words, the lies that lead to self-pity must be demolished with the truth of Scripture. The truth must be the sword that cuts through the lies of self-pity, and it must strengthen your faith to be a shield against the satanic arrows of discontentment. You must go back to the truth of God’s Word to remind yourself that you are nothing more than an underserving sinner (Eph 2:1) and an unworthy servant (Luke 17:7-10) who has been granted the immeasurable grace of knowing God and serving Him as your Lord.
If the truth is your weapon against self-pity, then God’s glory is the measure of your victory. We endure the toils of this world and the labors of ministry because Christ is worthy. The ultimate motive for endurance is not the relief that we will experience when it is all over, or the reward we will receive when we get to the end. Make no mistake, the glory that will be shared with us throughout the duration of eternity will be, well, glorious! But even when we are totally glorified it will be obvious that any glory we possess is derivative not intrinsic. In other words, there is something even more weighty than the personal fulfillment of our salvation—the glory of the Triune God, which is most magnificently revealed in the Son. If the glory of Christ is the ultimate reality of eternity, it certainly should be our primary objective now. Christ is the greatest treasure and His glory is why we endure in ministry. This is the key to the battle against self-pity—Christ is worthy of all glory and we are not.
Fixing your eyes upon the truth of Christ’s glory will not only guard your heart against self-pity, it is also the key to finding joy in the midst of fatigue. Joy isn’t defined by fleeting feelings of burden-less comfort and personal self-fulfillment. Christian joy is the virtue of rejoicing in the character of God even if we don’t enjoy our circumstances. In other words, joy is theological not circumstantial. Sure, there are joyous times of relief when God lifts a burden or removes a trial. However, there are also seasons of burdensome joy when we rejoice in the Lord as we mourn with others, weep over our own sin, endure in a personal hardship, navigate the dynamics of a painful relationships, and so on. We can perform these unhappy duties with the joyful comfort of knowing that God is good and does all things good (Psalm 119:68). In other words, faith in the goodness of God and fixation on the glory of God are the keys to joy.
Life is exhausting, pain is real, and disappointment is common. Self-pity cannot relieve any of these burdens; it will only rob of you of the grace that God has attached to your blessed burdens. If you want to endure in fatigue-inducing faithfulness with joy, then self-pity is not the solution. Joyful fatigue is the result of enduring with no personal expectations except that God will be gloried and He will provide the grace we need to be faithful. Joy does not come from getting what we want or think we deserve. True joy is comforted in inexpressible ways by the glory God and content in all circumstances with the simple fact that through faith we know God.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.