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. It feels impossible to love that person.

What causes such bitterness? How do our hearts become so immovably deadened toward that person?

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.

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). 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? 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.

Soak in These Realities

How then do we conquer bitterness?

By soaking in two realities.

First, 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). Fairness, justice, and 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.

Second, and most crucially, you have offended God. And continue to offend him, in a hundred ways you know and a thousand you do not, every day. But God didn’t harbor bitterness against you. He didn’t resent you. He sent his Son for you. God laid down every reason to resent you. Having been forgiven, 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.

  • Natalia

    Very good. I needed to read that today. But it’s still difficult to do. Please, be praying for me.

  • FOREBarca

    Good one this. Thank you.

    I live with a guy who constantly puts down the church, puts down pastors, and puts down other people. I too have been his target. As with Natalia, I find it hard to forgive him on a daily basis especially when I have been called “f***kn weird” or when you have been called a “piece of s***.” I have stood up and asked him to stop such abuse, and he mostly stopped such vituperations. Yet, and above all, God reminds me that he alone is the judge, that the burden of proof to convict him was criminally minimal. Yet God forgave his enemies. Moreover, I am reminded that I offend God daily, and yet I tangibly experience grace every minute, every hour and every day. So, there for the grace of God do I knowing that my roommate is forgiven continually in the present perfect. But it is still difficult to exercise forgiveness so incessantly.

  • Steve Cornell

    Can I offer a bit of a different lens on this? Have you ever thought of forgiveness as an act of worship? Jesus placed forgiveness in a context of worship in saying, “When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:25).

    Resentment entails “holding things against” and is a root cause behind most personal and societal problems. It’s the tendency to bear grudges. Many people go through life collecting grievances (perceived or actual) and then they store them in their memory bank — specifically, in their grudge account. Rather than forgive an offender, we might choose to nurse our anger; sludge in our grudge; to lick our wounds. We might even commiserate with others in their grievances by swapping grudge stories. Sometimes we throw pity parties for those who seek solidarity in the right to be angry and unforgiving.

    But Jesus’ words “Forgive him” are hard to hear when you’ve been badly hurt. I recall more than once, people responding, “Forgive him?!” “Not after what he did to me!” Does Jesus ask us to become morally neutral about the wrongful and damaging behavior of others? Is he asking us to pretend nothing happened and let our offender off the hook? One thing is clear from Jesus’ words, whatever else forgiveness involves, it’s the opposite of “holding something against” someone. Forgiveness requires an act of “letting go” or “releasing”— a refusal to “hold against”.

    Yet this act is not a superficial or feigned act of erasing or ignoring the action of the one who wrong us. Letting go of an offense does not require morally neutrality about right and wrong. We’re not required to let the offense go into some imaginary zone of forgetfulness. Instead, forgiving is an act of worship. It takes place in the presence of the God who is the righteous judge of all the earth. Forgiveness is an act of releasing the offense to the God who said, “Do not take revenge, …but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

    When sinned against, it’s easy to only see the horizontal significance of what occurred. “This is about me and the one who hurt me!” we argue. But for those who worship God, forgiveness is an act of worship. This is primarily about God and secondarily about me. The rest of Mark 11:25 reminds us that our grievances must be drawn into our relationship with God: “…if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

    When Jesus placed the act of forgiving others in the context of God forgiving our sins, was he suggesting some form of conditional or earned system of forgiveness? Is there a quid pro qo arrangement (favor for favor) in the gospel? No! This is the opposite of the gospel because our salvation/forgiveness is based on God’s unmerited favor in Jesus Christ. It’s not that we earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others, but that God expects forgiven people to forgive. When forgiven people don’t forgive, God is not worshipped— He is dishonored (See: Matthew 18:21-35).

    This is where worship connects with forgiveness. When we forgive, we “let go of” instead of “holding on to” or “against.” It’s an act of releasing to God the actions and consequences of the wrong done to us. God holds the sole prerogative of vengeance (Romans 12:19). If the one who hurts us is to be punished, it’s God’s right to punish him. When sinned against, turn to God and worship Him by acknowledging His authority as judge. Acknowledge your acceptance that any judgment of the one who committed evil against you is his right.

    When forgiveness enters worship in this way, we’re not surrendering or neutralizing our sense of morality and justice. This is not a cheap “letting off the hook” of the one who hurt us. It’s not a mental exercise in forgetting or a feigned effort to trivialize the evil by saying, “O well, were all sinners aren’t we?” It’s an act of worship. On this view, forgiveness is not solely about me – what happened to me and who did it. It’s about God—who He is and His authority as Judge.

    Forgiveness is an act of releasing to God what rightly belongs to him. Since God is “the Judge of all the earth who will do what is right,” releasing to God places the offence in the purest context of judgment. Forgiving is releasing the grievance and the offender to God’s all-knowing perspective and to the perfect balanced of justice and mercy. This honors God by placing matters into His hands and His timing. This must not be corrupted into a “God will get you” mentality. Worship is not an effort to use God; it’s an act of humbling yourself before Him.

    When forgiveness becomes worship, the offended person humbles herself before God honoring and confessing Him as judge and trusting Him to uphold His judgment as He chooses and in His time. In this act of “letting go” or “releasing to God,” the one who forgives is also released and empowered to live out the radical prescription of Romans 12:20-21: “On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. …. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

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  • Inchristus

    This is very helpful. The two focal points believers must have are crucial.
    Regarding offering/granting forgiveness, may I offer the following? Chris Brauns’s book Unpacking Forgiveness, my review (here), a synthesis between Brauns’s work and N. T. Wright’s (here), and my two posts on Miraslov Volf’s work Free of Charge (here and here).

  • James S

    I have always been interested in considering that we shall help The Lord Jesus to judge the world at the end. I am fascinated by how Jesus said the the Queen of Sheba will witness against those of His generation who wouldn’t listen to Him, yet the Queen traveled an incredible amount of time and distance just to meet and temporarily sit under the wise teaching of Solomon.

    I have at times gotten a sort of deja vu or a strange chill during real life situations in which I think I will one day be called on to give witness testimony of what just happened.
    I look forward to it.

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