Forgiveness – A New Year Resolution you can keep
Too many New Year resolutions falter because they fail to address what really needs changing: the internal disposition that compels us into unwanted habits.
A few years ago, we got a letter from an irate reader. We were tempted to point out his clear misinterpretation that led him to conclude almost the direct opposite of our intent. But we recognised in his words the wounded heart of a person imprisoned by resentment. Dialogue or debate would be a fruitless exercise, so we chose instead to apologise for causing upset and promised to pray that he would find peace in his situation (a complex divorce and remarriage).
The incident reminded us how unresolved emotional injuries can lead us to act in ways that damage others and isolate ourselves. We would have been prepared to engage with this reader and help him in his situation but his anger and resentment discouraged us.
Resentment is toxic to relationships. And not just to the one who is the focus of our resentment – it has a globalising character that spills out over all our relationships, making us prickly to be around, rash in our judgements and vicious in our complaints.
If you have a heartbeat you will also have emotional injuries; it’s part of being human. Over time we adopt protective strategies in an attempt to prevent further injury. Resentment is one of these strategies but it rarely works in our favour. Resentment prevents us from accessing the relationships of love and belonging that we need in order to heal. It’s a false antidote to our hurt; a bit like drinking poison and expecting the other person to suffer.
Chronic resentment will play havoc with our emotional and physical health. It will also sabotage our efforts to become better people through resolutions to avoid vices like over eating, over drinking or gossip. These unwanted behaviours are often rooted in our need to manage the pain, anxiety or guilt associated with resentment.
As Christians, we know the answer to resentment is forgiveness. Jesus not only talked about the need to forgive but modelled it often, most poignantly on the cross when he forgave his tormentors. Forgiveness is not only about showing mercy to the person who has wronged us; our forgiveness offers us a pathway to healing and fullness of life.
While it is relatively easy to commit to forgiveness intellectually, it’s another thing altogether to convince our wounded hearts to cooperate. This tension between the head and the heart in our own lives has led us to recognise that trying to force forgiveness (an act of our will) without acknowledging the resentment that is resisting it (a matter of the heart), will sabotage the process.
In fact, any time we wilfully attempt to do something we find hard in a relationship, without addressing the wounded heart locked in resentment, we will likely fail in our goal or later regress. The only way to establish permanent change is to also address the underlying emotional injury that drives the unwanted behaviour.
So our suggestion for a New Year Resolution that will stick? Forget the typical surface behaviour ones and instead commit a to examine an emotional wound you carry. Look especially at childhood frustrations like jealousy towards siblings or disappointments in the inadequacies of a parent.
Set aside some quiet reflection time and pray/write/think/draw your emotions and thoughts. Name it, expose it to the light and let it go. Sometimes all it takes to free us from our hurts is naming and listening to the voice of resentment that so fiercely defends them. Forgiveness often spontaneously follows along with healing and freedom.
And that’s a resolution with benefits you can keep!