Singles Q&A: Is It Self-Pity or Grief?
- 2006 23 Feb
EDITOR'S NOTE: This month we continue our question and answer format with author and contributor Carolyn McCulley.
QUESTION: What's the difference between self-pity and grief? For example, if you knew a person in your church who had lost a husband or children (sickness or accident), you could be reasonably sure that that person would get a lot of pastoral assistance. No question. But if the average Joe or Jane Single turned up in your pastor's study presenting with a near-identical set of emotions, what's the bet that they would be told that they were awash in self-pity and that it was time to get over it? What often appears to the outside world to be self-pity, is often grief. Grief is the human reaction to loss, and it is not stretching the use of language to say that there are a lot of singles grieving the spouse/children they never had, just as much as the person I described above would be grieving the husband or child they had lost 'for real'. So, my point is … what models do we have for singles to 'grieve well', and not have it descend into self-pity?
CAROLYN: I received this letter right before Valentine's Day and I've been thinking about it ever since. For those who might be wrestling with these emotions currently, I hope this is a timely topic to tackle. My prayer is that you will be more hope-filled when you finish reading.
First, I want to acknowledge that I am sympathetic to this question. Though I’ve written a number of past columns extolling faith toward God in our singleness, I don't intend to give anyone the impression that it is easy to be single or that I am without empathy for the difficulties of living with a hope deferred. I've been single my entire life and have seen many seasons come and go, seemingly without an answer to my prayers. In fact, one reason I wrote my book was to capture this "wrestling with God" and how in that wrestling He has instructed me and provided for me in my singleness. I had to face the refiner's fire, so to speak, and was still singed as I wrote. And that experience continues! The Lord is faithful to provide fresh illustrations in my life as I write articles or speak at various conferences. I say that with a wry smile because it's never easy to walk through these tests, but I do see, in part, what God is accomplishing through them. I wouldn't volunteer for them, but I'm learning to trust God's wisdom ... bit by bit, step by step.
With that understanding, let’s look again at the question. Though grief and self-pity can resemble each other, there is actually a wide gulf between them. How can you discern between them? I think the most telling difference between self-pity and grief is our attitude toward God in the loss. At times I have been awestruck as I've watched those who have experienced tremendous losses respond with worship to the Lord. Most recently, I witnessed this in a church in New Orleans. But I've seen it, as well, among close friends who received the diagnosis of cancer, who lost jobs or spouses or homes, or who had to bury their children. Their grief was real, but they did not allow it to obscure their faith in God. I've known some friends who have "died well," and whose witness in the dying made a tremendous impact on medical staff, family, and friends. I've also seen it among my single friends who have watched their peers marry and have children – or the children they once babysat get married and have children! – while they remain solitary.
Yet, it is a very real loss to have dreams die. Marriage seems so commonplace that to remain single when you desire otherwise truly is a form of suffering. While those who grieve for a tangible loss seem to work through it within a defined season, there is a circular aspect to mourning extended singleness. Though we may be doing well from one holiday to the next, the cumulative effect of facing yet another Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, or Christmas alone can trigger the grief once again. I know these holidays also trigger the same experience for those who have lost a loved one, but my observation is that grieving seems to diminish over time while it can actually increase over time for those with deferred hopes. Yet, I believe the Lord would want to interrupt that pattern of mourning with the joy that overflows to us by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
How is that possible? Let's consider again the difference between grief and self-pity. Self-pity turns our gaze inward, focusing only on ourselves. It says, "I am worthy of so much more! Why has this been withheld?!" It is a response of pride; therefore it is accompanied by an inconsolable, demanding spirit that fuels the emotion. Self-pity leads us to assume the worse: "Lord, don't you care?" (Luke 10:40; Mark 4:35-40). True Christian grief says, "I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. … Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men" (Lamentations 3:19-33).
In your question, you asked what my pastor would do if a single adult showed up in his office with these emotions. I can tell you exactly what he would do because I've been that single! (And this has been my experience with a number of my pastors, not just one.) First, they listen compassionately to my struggles. Second, they ask wise questions to help me discern my functional beliefs in any given situation – what I actually believe about God, myself, and others. Then they remind me of what is true because of the Cross, the reality of what lies ahead for every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ: "Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
The bottom line is this: If the wonderful, glorious promises of heaven and all that has been secured for us in the manifold mercy found at the Cross don't penetrate the fog of our grief, we can be sure self-pity has hardened our hearts. We simply will not escape trials in this life because we are still living with the consequences of the Fall – there are ramifications of sin everywhere we turn. But that's not the end of the story! Let's not get so focused on this brief life that we forget the best is yet to come – and it will never be taken away from us. We may receive marriage in this life, but it is a temporary gift. The gift of salvation is eternal, not due to our sin-stained merit but due to the Lord Jesus Christ's sinless merit. As he explained to His disciples about His crucifixion and resurrection:
"Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, 'In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me'? I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy" (John 16:19-22, emphasis added).
I hope these musings have encouraged you. There is a vast difference between being told to "get over it" and being equipped with the truth that helps us vanquish both self-pity and grief. My prayer is that this entry has accomplished the latter. I have no other counsel to offer, but I never tire of offering it.
Carolyn McCulley handles church and ministry relations for Sovereign Grace Ministries and is a member of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD. This column is adapted from her book, "Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred." (Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187). Carolyn welcomes your comments at email@example.com. Or visit her website or blog.
Your questions answered! Carolyn will periodically answer Crosswalk.com reader questions in her monthly columns. While we can't guarantee that each question will be answered, we do hope to hear from you! Please send your questions regarding singleness and related topics to Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.