A martyr, of course, is someone who sacrifices much for a cause he or she believes in. People who are killed for their faith are martyrs. This is great and noble, but there is another kind of martyr that isn’t so great and isn’t so noble — the selfish martyr.
The selfish martyr is someone who believes that they are owed because of the sacrifices and pain that he or she endured. Some parents who sacrifice a lot for their children somehow believe that their children now owe them something. Perhaps a wife, who has sacrificed greatly due to a problematic marriage, feels that she is owed for her sacrifice, pain, grief, and burdens she’s had to carry.
This sort of martyr is very dangerous and creates a tangled paradox that has detrimental effects on his or her relationships. To feel like you are owed for your love, care, generosity, dedication, faithfulness, provision, and even the resulting pain and suffering is an absurdity. It is like the kid in school who says, “I’ll like you, if you’ll like me.”
These people complain and mope around, feeling sorry for themselves, trying to convince everyone that they are good people who are now owed something.
Let’s say a wife cheats on her husband. The husband, who remains faithful, sticks with the marriage, works it out, and through great pain and suffering is able to salvage his marriage. Then he suddenly uses this fact as leverage. He is the martyr here, he believes. He deserves more. And he deserves some consideration because he was the one who remained faithful and stuck it out. So now, he demands special consideration from his wife and uses his “goodness” like a whip.
This sort of selfish martyrdom is deceptively destructive. Love and sacrifice is not some sort of commodity that can be doled back to you with interest. If you start feeling this way, then maybe you should check your heart’s condition. You’ll overload your relationships with this sort of attitude. You’ll think that you’ve done enough…and now you deserve a reward of some kind. And you’ll use your love and sacrifice as a weapon, as leverage to get your way, and to demand what you want. You are a selfish martyr.
That is highly manipulative and wrong. Your love is only love if you give it freely with no thought of reward or gain. Your sacrifice only has meaning if it is indeed a real sacrifice. If you think you are owed for your sacrifice, then your love was more of an investment, a loan, not a sacrifice. Once you start feeling like you’ve done enough, that you should somehow now be repaid, then you devalue your love and sacrifice, becoming in truth a selfish martyr. The truth is, if you feel this way, then we must wonder if it was really love to begin with.
Pastors can get this way. They love and sacrifice for people to such a large degree that at some point, if they’re not careful, they begin to think that they are owed by their congregation. The truth is…they are owed nothing. If someone takes your love and sacrifice and abuses it, runs over it, spits on it, or otherwise despises it, then that is okay. You didn’t do it to gain anything anyway. So it doesn’t matter how they treat you. The same ought to be true for husbands, wives, friends, and parents.
The Apostle Paul understood this when he said, “And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved” (2 Corinthians 12:15). That sort of love is hard to live up to, but true love works this way. It doesn’t expect to be loved back or it is not love.
To whine about how much you’ve given, sacrificed for, loved and so forth is being that selfish martyr. Love and sacrifice are a free gift. You love and sacrifice for your kids freely. If they choose to spit on it, that is their choice. It was for them to do with as they wish. It might be a bad choice, but it is their choice nonetheless. And it might hurt you — and probably should — but you must avoid feelings of entitlement.
Naturally, this sort of attitude is hard to take. People don’t like to have their efforts ignored or trampled over. But let’s face it, real love and sacrifice must be freely given. To demand return for your love is to admit that you didn’t really love.
Worse, this sort of selfish attitude contributes to all sorts of social paranoia. It will scar nearly every relationship you involve yourself in. It will skew your thinking so that you can’t even see the good in people around you at all. You may even believe that the world is out to get you.
So avoid the selfish martyr. If you don’t see yourself as a martyr, then you might be doing it right.
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