26 September 2012

The Psychology of Resentment

Are you resentful? 

You need not experience extraordinary suffering or be wronged in an unusually grievous way to feel the strong, seemingly unstoppable pull toward resentment. All you need to do is live a little in this fallen world. Before long you're given a good solid reason to resent someone. Often someone quite close to you. Family member, spouse, parent, long-time friend, etc. It feels impossible to love that person.

What causes such bitterness? Why are our hearts so immovably deadened toward that person?

Well, they wronged you, so you resent them. They hurt you. They did what they should never have done. Or didn’t do what they should have done. And you bear the wounds.

Yes—but what’s the reason beneath the reason?

The fundamental reason is your God-given sense of justice—itself a good thing. You have been wronged, and you, created in God’s image and therefore with a rightly functioning sense of justice, of fairness, cry out that justice be done. The playing field must be leveled. Fairness demands it.

The trouble is that as a law-abiding citizen you know you can’t do something physically to them, as you may wish to (let’s just be honest here shall we?). And as a Christian you know you can’t verbally or publicly do something to them (perhaps simply because you would rather keep your reputation and leave them alone than exact revenge and lose your reputation; the greater idol outweighs the lesser).

So what happens? Where does a gospel-vacuous heart go in such a case? Here is what happens: instead of doing something externally to harm them you do something internally to harm them. You harbor bitterness. This is the psychology of resentment. You exercise emotional punishment toward them internally when actual punishment can’t be exercised externally. You set up a law-court in your heart since an actual law-court is unfeasible.

But here’s what happens. The bitterness you harbor, the emotional punishment you exact in your heart, has precisely the opposite effect, over time, than you think. Bitterness does nothing to the offender, while it quietly destroys the offended. Resentment kills, hollows out, the resenter, not the resented.

How then do we conquer bitterness?

By soaking in two realities.

One, God is the judge. He has a law court. A real law-court. And one day every person on the face of the earth who is not in Christ will be the defendant. The Bible even says that Christians one day will themselves assist God in judging the world, even judging the angels (1 Cor 6:2–3). Eventual fairness, justice, righting of wrongs, is gloriously inevitable. Your day of judging your offender is coming. But it is not today. You will take up the gavel. Just not today. If you seek to exact premature judgment, you destroy yourself.

Two, and most crucially, you yourself have offended God. And continue to offend him, in a hundred ways you are conscious of and a thousand you are not, every day. But he didn’t harbor bitterness against you. He didn’t resent you. He sent his Son for you. God decided to lay down every reason to resent you. Having been forgiven this, how in the world could we resent another?

Here's C. S. Lewis, 'On Forgiveness'--
To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you. This is hard. It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single person great injury. But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life--to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son--how can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say our prayers each night 'forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.' We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse is to refuse God's mercy for ourselves.


Matthew said...

Dane, I appreciate this post as I have struggled with this resentment in my own life. But I would like to take this to teh practical level. We all have those people who have hurt us, and yes we are called to forgive. But at what point do we discern that someone--such as a mother-in-law--is due to their constant haggling (or whatever), in fact, destructive to our lives and relationships and exclude them from our lives and relational circle? Is it ever permissible to do this? Can this be done while forgiving?

Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks Matthew. Good question, and relevant, probably, for most of us.

It is a case of wisdom, not black-and-white formulaic answers. At times, the NT says "avoid such people" (2 Tim 3:5). Certainly we want to be careful about whom those we love are exposed to.

Nevertheless your main guideline is: At what point did God finally--to use your language--exclude you from his life and relational circle? Did he ever do that?

Unknown said...

I needed this today - for many reasons! Thank you for reminding me of the Gospel.

Joshua Rogers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joshua Rogers said...

You know a piece is good when it has you feeling like you're playing dodgeball the whole time you're reading it.

Flyaway said...

I had a difficult mother-in-law but I had a Christian friend I was accountable to. My goal was to be loving and kind to my mother-in-law. My friend, prayer, and hope kept me going. My mother-in-law accepted the Lord 6 weeks before she died.

Andre Oliveira Pinto said...

Good text!
We can't ignore - in this analysis - the culture, social environment and the education ... because we are created in different ways on different spheres. Resentment can be interpreted in different ways... but I believe that we will be free of resentment soaking in relationship with God!

Sorry my english... I'm from Brazil haha, but I like to teologic... I couldn't exit without comment! haha