Let me play out a scenario that recently happened in our marriage. Perhaps happens fairly regularly in many marriages.
My wife recently went through a busy season where she was gone quite a bit, either doing training or running our kids to various activities. Since she was really busy, she could not do some things around the house she normally does. That wasn’t a big deal…for the first few days.
I started stepping in to cover for her in her busyness. That’s what couples do, right? Yet, after doing this for a while, I noticed something welling up within me. It was self-pity. I found myself saying things in my head like, “I’m getting sick-and-tired of doing dishes all the time” or “Why didn’t she do this differently so it was easier for me?” In subtle ways, I felt entitled not to have to put up with this, and pitied myself more and more. I wallowed in the fact that I was having to do more work than I normally do.
Yet, it didn’t end with self-pity. My self-pity quickly morphed into self-righteousness. Not only was I saying, “I’m tired of having to do dishes all the time,” but I began to say, “I’m so self-sacrificial that I will keep doing the dishes even though she doesn’t make it easy for me.” So, the more I pitied myself for doing these deeds, the more “righteous” I felt about doing those deeds.
These attitudes walk hand in hand: entitlement, self-pity, and self-righteousness. If you keep looking deep enough, you will always find entitlement hiding behind (or underneath) self-pity and self-righteousness.
Look at the Pharisees. Jesus regularly condemned them for their self-righteousness. Jesus rebuked them for standing in the temple and praying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” (Luke 18:11–12, NIV).
Now, take a moment to ask yourself why this Pharisee thinks he’s better than the tax collector. Look at your own life and think about those times when you have thought you were better than someone else. Why? Often it’s because you have been “working hard” at something—much harder than “that person.” Perhaps you feel you've made better choices and worked hard enough that your gifts are wasted on more routine chores or less prestigious endeavors.
We rarely engage in self-pity when we're doing easy, enjoyable things. If you are lounging on the beach, reading a book, and someone near you is diligently picking up trash, you're not really bothered by the arrangement because you are doing something you enjoy. It’s only when we do things we don’t want to do that we experience self-pity. We pity ourselves for doing unpleasant chores, because we feel it's not really our job. Deep down, we feel entitled to have other people do jobs we don't like or haven't had to do before. Maybe that's dishes and laundry, maybe it's paying bills or pumping gas. It starts with a sense of entitlement. And when our privilege of being served is lost, we feel it's an injustice. "Look at me, left alone to wash dishes, again!" Self-pity often reveals a misplaced sense of privilege.
And then, we make it worse. Our self-pity grows into boasting—either internally or externally—in our “self-sacrificial” actions. We become prideful at being so humble. As a result, we think we deserve special praise and are better than those who are not “sacrificing” as much as we are—we declare ourselves more righteous than those around us.
Self-pity and self-righteousness destroy relationships—every relationship, because they are about pride and self-centeredness at every turn. Not only will these two attitudes corrode our relationship with our spouse, it will also erode our relationship with God (again, don’t forget about the Pharisees). Since these attitudes are so dangerous, we need to make sure we are looking for warning signs in our life.
One major warning sign is a lack of joy. Or to say it more negatively, when self-pity and self-righteousness take hold in your life, they foster attitudes of bitterness and anger—and these attitudes steal your joy. You’ll get angry about doing small tasks for your children and spouse. You’ll hang onto mistakes they’ve made for days—or weeks. You’ll notice yourself muttering under your breath while picking up laundry or taking out the trash.
When you begin to notice either self-pity or self-righteousness welling up within you, what should you do? First, you should start wondering why you feel entitled to avoid these chores in the first place. You should let go of your expectation to be praised. You certainly should let go of any pride in being more sacrificial than others. Ultimately, you should repent and turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and joy. When we slip into the spiral of self-pity and self-righteousness, the only way out is to find forgiveness in Christ, rest in His righteousness (not one we’ve tried to create), and live in joyful gratitude. That’s the only way out of the spiral.
When we look to Jesus we are reminded that: “he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6–8, NIV) and he did all of this with JOY (Hebrews 12:2, NIV).
Through Christ, we can find this same joy. We no longer have to worry about earning our salvation. We’ve been freed to serve him because we love him and find life in him—which is why rightly following him never leads to self-righteousness, only thanksgiving, gratitude, and joy. We’ve also been freed to find that same joy in emptying ourselves and taking the form of a servant in our families.