Warning: Don’t RSVP to This Invitation

Self-pity sends out invitations to its party every time good things happen to others but not us. Invitations tend to arrive around weddings, baby showers and the holidays when we are struggling with singleness or infertility or the loss of a loved one. More invitations arrive when we have lost financial security, or good health and we notice nearly everyone else living carefree.

At the worst moments, self-pity appears like a stalker that refuses to take no for an answer — showing up unannounced with yet another invitation to its lame party. When we are forgotten by friends, passed over at work or under appreciated at home; this persistent wooer offers the hand of friendship. But, self-pity is not a friend worth having.

No one recognized this more than Helen Keller, who became deaf, blind and mute before turning two years old. Pity seemed Helen’s only friend. Yet she discovered Self-Pity’s defiling and unappeasable character only after a real friend, named Anne Sullivan, entered in with a truer compassion — one tough as nails and reliable as the North Star. Keller concluded, “Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it we can never do anything wise in this world.”

Jesus never offered his hand in friendship to self-pity. He told a story, in Matthew 20:1-16, about a wealthy landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After the laborers agree to work for a denarius a day he sends them into his vineyard. Three hours later he finds people standing idle in the marketplace and says, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” He repeats the same thing at the sixth hour, and ninth hour. At the eleventh hour he finds people standing about and asks, “Why do you stand here idle all day?…You go into the vineyard too!” When evening arrives, he gathers all the laborers together to pay them their wages beginning with those hired last. When he pays them a denarius, those hired first believe they will receive more, but each also receives a denarius. On receiving their pay they grumble, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!” But the landowner replies, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I chose to give to the last workers as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

This story irritated me for a long time. First, the story seems to reward laziness and irresponsibility. Second, Jesus appears unsympathetic toward the the community of laborers provoked to jealous strife by the landowner. Third, the behavior of the landowner seems really unfair! But as much as I hated to admit it — the landowner did nothing unjust in the story. Those who labored the longest were still given a fair wage for their day’s work — even one they had agreed to. Rather than praise the landowner for his abundant generosity toward the least deserving, I was inclined to criticize him for his merely legitimate treatment toward the most deserving.

I knew I shouldn’t continue to feel irritated after logically working it out, but I was and I didn’t understand why exactly. The only answer I could come up with was not flattering. I realized that I considered myself a first hour worker, not an eleventh hour worker. Thinking otherwise I would not feel irritated but grateful. Self pity can only grow in the soil of self righteousness but gratitude grows in the soil of humility.

Jesus is no fan of self-pity. First, as a teacher, he tells parables like this one that leave no room for it. Second, as an example, he refuses Self-Pity’s invitation at every turn. Even on the night Jesus was betrayed, He never once felt sorry for himself. He knew Judas would betray him. Instead of having a pity party, he hosted a foot washing party to show his disciples how they ought to love one another. Jesus even washed Judas’ feet at the last supper. Third, as a redeemer, Jesus was really the only first hour worker…ever. John said, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” Jesus has been working faithfully from the dawn of eternity. Unlike the first hour workers in the parable Jesus rejoices that we, who are much less deserving, get the same eternal inheritance as he does. Forth, as abiding savior, Jesus offers us His Holy Spirit, the truest comforter who pursues us at all hours of the night even after we’ve foolishly entered the deadly party of self-pity and can’t find our way home.

Featured Picture Credit

Coming to Peace with Death

My father died on April 28, 2016. It pained me to see his body shut down, piece by piece until all that remained was a crumpled figure, barely recognizable, gasping for air. Pancreatic cancer defiled his body. I prayed God would allow death to arrive sooner than later and end my dad’s suffering. I welcomed death, but never as a friend — only as a useful enemy.

Compassionate people have given me words meant to comfort, saying “death is part of life”. While I appreciate their kindness, I don’t respect their logic. I thought death was, silly me, the end of life. Illogical clichés, no matter how well intentioned, don’t offer the hope we need.

Personally, I don’t find much comfort when people try to paint a pretty face on death. It’s lipstick on a pig. Death is ugly, cruel and selfish to the end. Death steals every asset, ability, and eventually every memory. We must be careful when explaining the tolerable side of death because we can slip into the same irrational and risky behavior of people suffering from Stockholm’s syndrome. (Stockholm’s syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages develop positive feelings toward their captors and even defend them because they mistake a lack of abuse with an act of kindness.)

Every culture has attempted to make peace with death. Eastern cultures have tended to view our physical life as an illusion, turning death into a hero that will set us free from the illusion of life. Greek and Roman philosophers accepted the reality of the material world; but like eastern thinkers, obliterated individual identity after death. Marcus Aurelius said, “You came into this world as a part: you vanish into the whole which gave you birth, or rather you will be gathered up into its generative principle by the process of change.” (Epictetus, Discourses III, 24, 84-88.) Modern atheists sing a similar song about the “circle of life” and find solace in the idea that our bodies will fertilize the earth and get recycled by the cosmos. Pragmatists have tended to make peace by placing their hope for immortality in the memory of the living. In all, the common compromise with mortality is the surrender of the individual’s conscious identity after death. Death is not defeated, only redefined. The peace offered is, at best, a truce not a victory.

The question remains, “Is such a peace treaty with death worth the paper it’s written on?”  Woody Allen quipped, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”¹

Christianity never seeks a truce with death. The Bible unapologetically describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). It clarifies that the only acceptable terms of peace will be death’s total surrender. Death must give up all power and authority. The eternal peace Jesus will win comes as a result of total victory, not compromise. It won’t be a cease fire with the enemy (like the Korean War), but an annihilation of the enemy (like the Allies’ victory over the Nazis).

We can trust the peace Jesus promises because he has already personally defeated death — the most powerful and ruthless dictator — on the cross.  Jesus fought to win, not to obtain a truce. He removed death from the throne at His resurrection and has made death His footstool. One day Jesus will make death our footstool too, as promised in 1 Corinthians 15:20-26:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

If God never calls death a friend, neither should we. Death stole everything from my dad. When I buried my dad he made a small package. His urn weighed 10 pounds — nearly the same weight as when my dad entered the world. The words of Ecclesiastes pierced me, “All are from the dust, and to the dust all return” (Ecclesiastes 3:20). Real hope springs from the fact that God refused to compromise with death but instead waged war to win a total victory; so that those who are allied with Jesus can know that they will never be left in the dust. The only one left in the dust will be death.

Featured Image Credit