The False Martyr Complex

job7I have a real life incident seared into my memory that has become a symbol for a common type of piety that I call a  false martyr complex. A friend stood in a communion line, head bowed, shoulders slumped, one  arm across her chest with her hand clenched. At first appearances she was a picture of perfect piety, suffering in reparation.  Yet, she had stood like this for years if not decades with little change.  As I stood in the opposite line, I did something spontaneous. I bent my knees, leaned over, caught her eye, smiled and waved! My child like behaviour actually worked momentarily. She straightened up, smiled, with twinkling eyes and snapped out of her martyr complex for a few minutes at least, nearly laughing out loud in church.images (3)

My friend was not as holy as she appeared to be, even though she lived a devout  lifestyle with a daily round of mass, rosaries, Eucharistic Adoration and frequent confession. Unwittingly, she fell into a trap. It was a religion that in the end focused on herself, her actions, her devotions and effort. She was at the front and centre, not God.

To make that shift from an egocentric lifestyle to a God  centered lifestyle is tricky business. The fundamental difference between  self-centered piety and true, vibrant life in Christ is when we give up trying to save ourselves and surrender to Jesus. When we consciously choose Christ, the switch is immediate from misery to joy, even if we seem to suffer just as much in our external lives.

Isaiah 53:5

 But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.

When we act like a victim sacrifice, suffering for our own failings or like a scapegoat who suffers as the result of 1126058others sins, we might like to think of ourselves as saintly martyrs but our suffering is anything but holy. There is no act filled with more pride. We are in fact stealing Christ’s job. Christ came to suffer and die on the cross for our sins. He is the sacrificial lamb who takes away all sin. He is like the scapegoat of the Old Testament, burdened by the sins of the people who by his death and resurrection, justifies  everyone by the power of His blood in the eyes of God the Father.

It takes humility to realize that our miserable, self-inflicted suffering does not save anyone, least of all ourselves. Accepting Jesus as our Saviour really goes against our grain as human beings because we want to earn our salvation, purify ourselves by suffering  out of a misplaced sense of guilt. Ironically it usually takes suffering to break down our ego and pride. Once exhausted by trying to save ourselves, we often must hit bottom before we are desperate enough to change, to let go of our pride and control and surrender in humility to Christ our Saviour. Only a sick man grasps the truth that he needs to be healed.

Yes there is a place for redemptive suffering but what most of us experience is far from redemptive because our suffering is not in union with Christ’s. Redemptive suffering is not long-faced misery but in fact joyful because it is life-giving and life affirming as we live in, with and through Christ our Saviour. It  might involve physical pain but  it is lived in the Light, in peace and in joy. When we are no longer the centre of attention but Jesus is the centre,  mental anguish dissipates like insubstantial mist under sunlight.

Matthew 11:28-30 (NASB)

 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” 

21 thoughts on “The False Martyr Complex

  1. Great post. Makes me think of Matthew 6: 5-6, 16-18: 5 And when ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men: Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.
    6 But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee.
    16 And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.
    17 But thou, when thou fastest anoint thy head, and wash thy face;
    18 That thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee.


  2. This post is just brilliant. Thank you Melanie. Well said and well done.

    It is such a pity that we do not hear sermons like this in church on Sundays. Christianity is not just a badge to wear on one’s lapel; it is a way of life.

    God bless.


  3. OM gosh, this is one of the best Catholic articles I have ever read, especially when one is a Catholic for a long time thinking they have it! Really great way to drive home the point that it is all about Him and not us and that we just have to let Him do the work in His is His best timing.

    Thanks for writing this!


  4. Re-write of last sentence: …… Really great way to drive home the point that it is all about Him and not us and that we just have to let Him do the work in us in His best timing.


  5. Suffering is a means to an end, not an end in itself. I just finished “A Story of a Soul” by St. T d. Lisieux where part of her little way was to use suffering for the benefit of missionaries and priest. We shouldn’t be burdened by the suffering, but rejoice in the opportunity to use it for the God’s Kingdom.


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