June 6, 2018
“Are you keeping alive anger at a person who you haven’t seen in years?” I have asked this question of hundreds of people over the years and surprisingly ‘yes’ is a far more common response than ‘no’. It’s easy to do. Someone wrongs you and you feel hurt or betrayed by it, then over the course of time, those feelings of hurt become anger and eventually that anger takes root and becomes resentment.
Resentment is old anger that we hang on to. I’ve talked with folks who harbor resentment toward a parent that has been dead for decades or a person who betrayed them in their youth that they haven’t seen in many years. The anger they have is something they revisit occasionally in their head and reflect on.
That reflection doesn’t lead to resolution, rather it keeps the resentment alive by adding fuel to the fire. The crazy thing about resentment is that it rarely stays contained. Anger is like the dandelions that grow on my lawn. If I only have one at the beginning of summer, I’ll have a whole yard full before the fall arrives. The bigger and stronger the resentment, the more likely it is to spread. I had a good friend whose father was a violent alcoholic.
Hearing the stories about the man’s behavior, my friend had every right to carry a burning rage toward his father, which they did. That rage, however, began to infect other areas of his life.
He gradually became angrier and angrier, until as an older man he was bitter and terrible toward everyone he encountered. After he began to deal with his past, he came to realize that the anger he harbored toward his father had simply spread to other areas in his life. The crazy thing about the anger my friend had, was that it did not affect his father at all. In fact, his father was long dead. Rather, it affected him and those around him.
Maintaining resentment is like buying mouse poison to kill the mice in your house, then eating it yourself. It doesn’t kill the mice. It kills you. The crazy thing about this is that anger is a secondary emotion. We feel anger after we feel something else like hurt, loneliness, sorrow, betrayal, etc.
Whatever the negative feeling is, it comes first and we feel anger afterward. In order to let go of resentment, it’s often the case that we have to forgive and let go of the old offense.
This gets harder and harder the more resentment has taken root in our lives. I’d liken it to having an infection. An injury becomes infected if it is left unattended and sickness is allowed to fester. Dealing with it means draining and cleaning the wound. This is the case for resentment. We must first deal with the core feelings in order to dissipate the resentment that has grown out of the injury.
What makes this especially hard is that the anger is often justified. This results in folks holding tight to their anger because they feel like they ought to do so. The problem is that it’s unhealthy.
Forgiveness is the pathway to freedom from the powerful grip of resentment. This can be difficult and require the assistance of a counselor or pastor, but the freedom obtained is worth the work required to get it done.