“But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” Jonah 4:9 NIV (But please do read the whole of chapter four if you have time.)
So, having explored what self-pity is not, in my last few entries, I wanted to try and give an example of what it actually is occurring in Scripture, and poor old Jonah is the victim I’ve picked. Now I am quite an expert on self-pity, having mastered it slowly over a number of years and then having been (mostly) released from it.
I can recognise now that the hallmarks of self-pity are that it is prolonged (though we often dip in and out of it), that it becomes an attitude we live by, that it is almost entirely self-centred, that it smacks of an attitude of entitlement or of self-loathing, and that it twists the facts cleverly to make everything look as though we are at the centre of a vortex of unfairness.
In short, self-pity is permanent sulking. It is our ego throwing a toddler tantrum every time something doesn’t go our way and imagining rightly or wrongly that the world is out to get us. It is all encompassing and often even manages to defy logic. We have persuaded ourselves somewhere deep inside that nothing can go right for us and that the world is not giving us the fair deal we deserve.
Jonah is the daddy of all sulkers. He sulks himself onto a ship, he sulks himself into being thrown overboard and after being rescued miraculously and performing his prophetic duty like a pro, then reverts back to sulking, even about the success of his mission. I told you this is what would happen! is the gist of what he says to God, in one of my all-time favourite Bible verses: “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:2-3 partial NIV)
Jonah is such a practised sulker, he can even take offence at God’s goodness whilst praising him for it. And even though he knows that the city will be spared, he still storms off and sits in the desert “to see what will happen”. He was sent to Nineveh to ask the people to repent and they did. Instead of outward compassion, Jonah displays the giveaway characteristic of someone stuck in the rut of self-pity: he turns even his own successes into failures. Believing that the Lord relenting makes him look foolish is more important to him than thousands being saved from death. This is an ego in extremis. And yet, I have great sympathy for Jonah. I relate to his sufferings, so much so I even wrote a short book about him (yet to be published).
But the thing that lifts my heart about Jonah is, that even sitting in the sun sulking, God is patiently trying to teach him compassion via the lesson of the plant he sends and then withers. The Lord is trying to show him a way out, trying to help him understand the heart of the God he serves, which, (another mark of self-pity) actually Jonah already knows, and judging from the verses I quoted, better than most. He is just choosing anger over compassion because it is easier, because it is ingrained and because his own heart isn’t ready yet to be freed from the stranglehold of ego. The only thing that can perform that kind of often slow emotional and spiritual surgery is love, and God is there with him and us, writing the book on it.
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