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If I am soft to myself and slide comfortably into the vice of self-pity and self-sympathy; if I do not by the grace of God practice fortitude, then I know nothing of calvary love.
- Amy Carmichael
Marissa pulled her car into the driveway of her little blue house and sighed as a feeling of heaviness descended upon her. It had been a hard week. Actually, it had been a hard year.
As a young wife, Bible study leader, and mother of two boys, Marissa’s life was full of bustling social activities, church events, and carpooling. Normally she was an easy-going person who didn’t let daily ups and downs get to her. But over the past months, she’d faced many jarring challenges — the death of her mother, an unexpected financial loss, and health issues in her family. And now she was struggling emotionally. She found herself dragging through everyday, feeling unmotivated and overwhelmed. She was constantly frustrated with her husband and children. She realized she felt more like moping around the house and watching TV than leading her Bible study group or attending church events.
Unsure what to do, Marissa sought the advice of a Christian counselor. “I’m having a hard time coping with the challenges that have come at me this year,” she admitted. “I just don’t feel like I can handle my life very well anymore. I’m always feeling down and frustrated.”
The counselor leaned back in his chair thoughtfully. “I think what you need right now,” he told her, “is to pamper yourself.”
Marissa stared at him. “Pamper myself? What does that mean exactly?”
The counselor smiled. “Well, buy yourself something you’ve always wanted. Spend time at the spa. Eat chocolate. Watch your favorite movies. Go out with your friends. Sleep in. You’ve been through a lot this year. So just spend some time taking care of YOU for a while. You deserve it!”
The next morning, Marissa didn’t set her alarm. Instead of getting up for her prayer time and helping with the morning head-out-the-door hustle, she stayed in bed. “My husband can do it this morning,” she reasoned. “I’ve had a hard time lately, and I just need some time to sleep and relax.”
Instead of her normal daily routine of serving her family, reaching out to her neighbors, and serving her church community, Marissa spent the day watching movies and shopping online for clothes and household decor.
This pattern continued for several weeks. Marissa spent the majority of her time sleeping, watching movies, and shopping. Her relationships suffered, her spiritual life waned, her children became unruly, and her house became disheveled, until finally Marissa’s husband asked her what was going on.
With a shrug, Marissa told him, “After all I’ve been through this year, I just need to go easy on myself for a while.”
The well-meaning counselor who had advised Marissa to “pamper herself” had unwittingly contributed to an even bigger crisis in Marissa’s spiritual life. She was no longer turning to God for strength or perspective. She was simply giving in to self-indulgence, self-pity, and laziness, all the while believing that she was doing something healthy and good for herself.
Marissa’s story is not uncommon. Self-pity in one form or another is a major struggle for today’s Christian women. In my own life whenever I’m faced with a challenge or crisis, my natural tendency is to let frustration, depression, and self-sympathy take over. A subtle voice whispers to my soul, Go ahead and feel sorry for yourself — you deserve it! You have every reason to be angry and depressed! Poor you. Stay in bed today and nurse your wounds — you don’t have the strength to do anything else!”
It’s all too easy to fall for the lie that “pampering myself” and entertaining self-pity is the best way to feel better about whatever is going wrong in my life. But this is a dangerous path to walk. When I take the bait of self-sympathy, my spiritual life suffers tremendously and I no longer have the ability to give my best energy to those I am called to serve.
A number of years ago, I found myself in an intense spiritual battle with self-pity. Circumstances in my life were difficult and overwhelming. Financial challenges, health issues, and relational discord threatened to overwhelm me. False accusation and betrayal had robbed me of my perspective and joy. Emotionally, it felt like everything in my life was falling apart. And I didn’t have the strength to cope — let alone to triumph — through the challenges. When I read verses such as “in all these things we are more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:37) or “thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:14) I realized that something was missing in my spiritual toolbelt.
I began to ask God to show me what I needed in order to walk in the triumph portrayed in His Word. After all, if Paul could be victorious in “perils of robbers … in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger … and nakedness” (2 Cor. 11:26-27), couldn’t I learn how to be an overcomer through my much smaller difficulties?
As I began to seek God’s answer to this question, I awakened to a spiritual principle which has completely transformed my life ever since — the principle of spiritual fortitude.
Fortitude means gaining supernatural strength to be an overcomer — no matter what trials or difficulties come our way. It means not letting self-pity or self-sympathy push us around, but letting the triumphant strength and victory of Christ rule our actions and decisions instead. The Bible is filled with commands to “be strong” and practice spiritual fortitude:
Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong.
1 Corinthians 16:13
Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.
And let us not grow weary in doing good.
Endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.
2 Timothy 2:3
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Even the Proverbs 31 woman’s primary attributes are valor and strength. When it says, “Who can find a virtuous woman?" in verse 10, the word “virtuous” actually means “valiant, mighty in battle and strong” — the same valiance demonstrated by David when he slew the lion and bear with his hands, and killed the most threatening giant in the land. This kind of strength doesn’t just endure trials with a good attitude, it sprints towards the battle with an unwavering, conquering spirit that will not accept defeat (see 1 Samuel 17:48).
What a far cry from the “I need to take it easy on myself and nurse my wounds” attitude that so many of us fall into today!
We often believe that we have the right to wallow in self-pity and spiritual weakness because of the unique challenges we are going through. We get defensive toward anyone who would suggest that we can rise up and be an overcomer. We like the idea of being soft toward ourselves, not demanding too much of ourselves, and getting special attention because of our fragile emotional state. But when we choose this attitude, we miss out on one of the greatest spiritual tools that God desires to give us — the strength to be more than a conqueror.
It’s important to realize that spiritual fortitude is very different than the “human willpower” and “reach your full potential” ideas that tell us to dig down deep and overcome difficulties in our own strength. Spiritual fortitude can only come when we exchange our weakness for the strength of Jesus Christ; when we stop leaning on our own ability, and start tapping into His supernatural, enabling grace. Paul said, “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10 NASB). Spiritual fortitude means coming to the end of our own strength, laying our weakness at the feet of Jesus and declaring, “Lord, I can’t — but You can!” in every challenge that we face.
SPIRITUAL FORTITUDE CAN ONLY COME WHEN WE EXCHANGE
OUR WEAKNESS FOR THE STRENGTH OF JESUS CHRIST
Exchanging self-pity for fortitude can be a challenge, especially when we have developed the habit of “being soft to ourselves” whenever a difficult circumstance comes our way. I’d like to share some practical ways that have most helped me choose fortitude over self-sympathy. I believe these principles can help you do this same — no matter your unique situation.
During the season of my life when I was learning about fortitude, God opened my eyes to see that many of the crisis points in my life were not coming from Him — they were coming from the enemy of my soul. The enemy was relentlessly attacking me in many areas of my life, wanting to keep me off-balance and wallowing in defeat. But God did not want me to resign myself to accepting these attacks. Rather, He wanted me to call upon His name and allow Him to come to my rescue.
James 4:7 says, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” I hadn’t been resisting the enemy’s blows because I had assumed they were coming from God — or at least being allowed by God for the purpose of discipline. And yet, when I really thought about it, I had to admit that the result in my spiritual life wasn’t the life-giving victory that God’s loving discipline brings. Rather, it was the hopeless despair and discouragement that the enemy brings. I had always thought the most God-pleasing thing I could do when bad things happened was to simply accept them and move on. But God was showing me that when the enemy attacked, He didn’t want me to accept it. He wanted me to stand up and fight by the power of His Spirit.
As I began to learn the difference between trials that were being allowed by God and attacks that were coming from the enemy, I learned to rise up and push back whenever the enemy hit. Instead of just praying about my circumstances, I began to rebuke the enemy from interfering with the calling of God upon my life — in the power of Jesus’ name. As I learned to consistently resist the enemy in Christ’s authority, the result in my life was dramatic and astounding. No longer was I getting sick every time I stepped out in ministry. No longer was I defeated and overwhelmed by financial catastrophes. No longer was I continually pummeled by false accusation and betrayal within the Body of Christ. It wasn’t that I never faced challenges or attacks, but I now had the spiritual tools to push the enemy back, instead of letting him have his way in my life.
I NOW HAD THE SPIRITUAL TOOLS TO PUSH THE ENEMY BACK
If the enemy has been hounding and attacking you, take some time to learn about your position in Jesus Christ, and the authority that He has given you through the power of His name. Learn the difference between God’s tests and the enemy’s blows. And study what it means to put on the “whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11).
Some of my favorite messages on this topic are Unstoppable, Hold the Position, and We Will Not Fear (available for free download at www.ellerslie.com) and The Snake Story by Otto Koning (available at www.embassymedia.com).
Throughout Christian history, there are countless testimonies of men and women who faced crushing circumstances and trials and yet triumphed through them in the power of Jesus Christ. Some of these stories have been huge inspirations to me when the voice of self-pity has come knocking. After all, if these men and women faced persecution, imprisonment, starvation, and martyrdom with an overcoming attitude, surely I can rise up and do the same in the face of my own trials, by God’s grace! Here are some of the stories that have been most impactful to me in gaining a clearer understanding of what spiritual fortitude looks like:
If I Perish by Esther Ahn Kim — the powerful story of a young woman who stood boldly for Christ in Korea during World War II, and faced tremendous persecution as a result.
Evidence Not Seen by Darlene Deibler Rose — the amazing testimony of a young woman missionary who became a widow and prisoner of war in World War II and clung firmly to Christ even in the darkest of times.
The Pastor's Wife by Sabina Wurmbrand — the remarkable account of a woman who suffered tremendously in Romania during the Communist takeover, because of her unwavering commitment to Christ.
The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom — the incredible story of two women who faced horrific circumstances and death because they defied the Nazi’s and protected Jews.
There are many more, but these stories in particular are a wonderful place to start. As you read them you can’t help but say to yourself, “I have no excuse for self-pity in light of how triumphantly these women suffered for Jesus!”
The other day as I stood in line at a drugstore, I noticed that the man in front of me was purchasing three pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. “It’s been a tough day,” he told the checkout clerk, “so it’s going to be an ice cream fest tonight!” The clerk nodded and responded, “I know what you mean! Last night I ate two whole containers of ‘chocolate cherry chunk’ because I was depressed after my girlfriend and I had a fight.”
Most of us have felt this same tendency toward self-indulgence whenever life gets tough. We somehow feel justified in indulging the cravings of our flesh whenever we are feeling down, tired, or frustrated. Whether it’s Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, an all night movie-fest, a rant session on social media, or a frenzy of social activities, we are prone to look to frivolous things for temporary comfort, instead of the supernatural comfort of Jesus Christ.
While there is nothing wrong with enjoying good food, special treats, fun activities, or taking time to unwind after an intense day, we all too often use our personal struggles as an excuse for self-indulgence and catering to the whims of our flesh.
There’s a far better way to refuel and gain strength for the daily battles we face.
Just look at the example of Christ. At times during His life, Jesus needed rest and refueling. The Bible describes several occasions when He periodically withdrew from the demands of the crowds and the intensity of His ministry. But He didn’t lounge on the beach or turn to entertainment to find the rest and new strength He needed. Instead, Jesus resorted to a mountain alone to pray or rose up early in the morning to spend time in God’s presence (see Mark 1:35, 6:46).
Jesus carried more weight on His shoulders than any of us can ever even imagine. Yet He knew that the only way to gain strength for the battles He was called to fight was to spend time alone with God. When we find ourselves in need of rest, perspective, and new strength, it’s tempting to try to do things that have no eternal value, yet will distract us temporarily.
Always remember, when we take time alone to refresh and refuel, it should flow from a motive of becoming even stronger and more equipped to serve Jesus Christ, not simply to escape from the responsibilities of serving and godly living or to cater to our selfish whims. Practical refueling can be helpful and important: a long walk, a refreshing bike ride, an hour journaling outside in God’s creation, an encouraging chat with a trusted friend, or a family vacation can all be wonderful ways to gain clearer perspective. But it’s important not to give into the voice that whispers, “You deserve some self-indulgence right now. Forget about everyone else. Put your spiritual life on hold for a while. Do what you want — take time for YOU!”
WHEN WE TAKE TIME ALONE TO REFRESH AND REFUEL,
IT SHOULD FLOW FROM A MOTIVE OF BECOMING EVEN
STRONGER AND MORE EQUIPPED TO SERVE JESUS CHRIST
Personally, I have found that the best “me time” is actually not “me time” at all, but “God time.” Prayer journaling, worshiping, and reading Christian biographies produces far more lasting refreshment to my soul than an hour on social media ever could. Remember, there should be no area of our life that is exclusively ours. Rather, every area of our lives should be exclusively God’s.
When we say “no” to personal indulgences in order to say “yes” to time in God’s presence, we find all of the lasting joy, peace, and strength we need in Him.
Next time you feel like you are in need of some “me time,” take a moment to consider what will refresh your soul. Run to the feet of Jesus instead of to the comforts of this world. When you do, you’ll experience the kind of strength and refueling that neither Ben nor Jerry is able to provide!
Catherine Booth once wrote to her struggling daughter, “Do not give way to lowness while you are young. Rise up on the strength of God and resolve to conquer!”
Are you facing struggles of any kind? The solution is not to be soft toward yourself, but to practice fortitude, by God’s grace. Remember that He has given you everything you need for life and godliness (see 2 Peter 1:3). So ask Him to equip you with the strength to be an overcomer. Let Him showcase His triumph and victory through your life, even when your emotions are screaming otherwise. Life in this world will never be easy. But in all of the difficulties life brings your way, He has called you to fight the good fight, to finish the race, and to keep the faith (see 2 Timothy 4:7). And if you are willing, He is ready to infuse you with the grace to do just that, starting today.
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