Feelings of Resentment
“My children, let us fear coldness and enmity towards our brethren, as well as the various thoughts that accompany these attitudes” (Elder Efraim of Arizona).
As we prepare for death, forgiveness must be first. This is a common theme in the writings of the fathers. They urge that we not enter into death with any trace of resentment, anger, or bitterness. We must be at peace with God, the world, and ourselves. Most of all, we must be at peace with our family and community. But we cannot postpone this for another day. Death could come any time. We only have the moment, and at the moment, eternity depends on our forgiveness.
In May, 1996, a radical Muslim faction kidnapped seven Catholic Trappists in Algeria. After several weeks, they beheading the monks. Every church in France tolled its bells and the world grieved the loss. Yet, right in the heart of such ugliness, something beautiful transpired: forgiveness. A mother opened a letter from her son, who had been the abbot of the Trappist monks, Christian de Chergé. His note had been written shortly before his abduction.
“If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism…I would like, when the time comes, to have a space of clearness that would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down…for this life lost, I give thanks to God. In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, my last-minute friend who will not have known what you are doing…I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.”
Christian de Chergé had prepared his soul. He found such peace that he could forgive the very man who hung him. Indeed, his forgiveness was so strong, he considered his murderer a friend, a friend with whom he hoped to share paradise. This is the forgiveness of a Christian heart.
“‘Lord, if another member of the Church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (Matthew 18:21).
St. Peter asked a practical question. How often do we need to forgive one another? Every nominal Christian can forgive an offense the first time it happens. In fact, it feels good. Your brother offends you. You have an opportunity to swell up a little, be the better man, show off your Christian piety. He offends you a second time…it can be done, you might as well forgive him again. What if it keeps happening. What if that one person keeps offending you, keeps hurting you, or keeps ignoring you? Then, common sense seems to demand: get up and walk away. “You have been just! No man can ask for more!” Christ does ask for more. It is not an option. We must forgive our companions, again and again and again.
It is inconvenient that St. Peter made his question so specific. We like the idea of forgiving imaginary people for imaginary slights. St. Peter had to narrow it. Our Gospel passage refers explicitly to Christian community — indeed, to one’s local parish. This is about real people really bothering you.
“Bear with each other and forgive one another” (Colossians 3:13), St. Paul teaches about community life, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:31-32).
This is it. This is why you cannot work out your salvation alone, apart from real, Christian community. It is in Christian community that you learn to forgive. In learning to forgive, you open yourself to God’s forgiveness.
Christ gave this parable:
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt” (Matthew 18:23-30).
How can we refuse forgiveness for anyone? Has anyone offended us as much as we have offended God? Do we really understand this? Imagine, right now, a person who has hurt you. Picture his face. Think about your hurt. What did he do? What did he not do? Whatever it was, it was a drop in the bucket compared to all the ways we have wronged and neglected God — a small atom compared to the universe. God made the universe, and the universe killed Him. Even then, he forgave fully, not begrudgingly but with love, and with a longing for friendship. How much much more should we forgive those around us?
Hurt people hurt people. Oftentimes, we struggle to forgive because we lose sight of the person behind the offense. We do not know their motivations or the wounds that hurt them. When we offend someone, we quickly justify our actions. When others offend us, we rush to the worst explanation. Other times, and far more often that we realize, we project onto others (marriages are notorious for this). One person says ‘A,’ you hear ‘B’. Your friend said ‘so and so.’ Subconsciously, ‘so and so’ reminded you of your dad, your mom, or your former spouse, and all your frustration with someone in your past gets dumped onto the person in front of you. A great deal of our anger and misunderstandings exist because of these projections — our wounds blind us from reality. Until we work through forgiveness, we remain blind and disconnected.
Hurt people hurt people, and we are all hurt.
“My children, let us fear coldness and enmity towards our brethren, as well as the various thoughts that accompany these attitudes, which little by little lead the soul to demonic hatred” (Elder Efraim of Arizona).
“You must make every effort,” C. S. Lewis echoed, “to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart—every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.”
Listen to your thoughts. Look into your heart. Is there resentment? This is the work of the Christian: to recognize the thought, to confess it at the confessional, and pray through it until all bitterness is weeded out. Heaven is as close or far from us as our ability to forgive.
One letter written to one mother — Christian de Chergé’s words remind us of the bottomless depth of forgiveness for which our heart is capable. With God’s grace, we really can learn to forgive, and when we learn to forgive, we find peace.
“I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.”