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The greatest challenge facing Christians in North America today is not external. It is not an action by the Supreme Court, or the threat of losing tax exemption, or the political and financial pressures to compromise basic Christian ethics.

It’s an internal challenge – the temptation to see yourself as part of a persecuted minority that finds its identity in being wronged.

What Is Ressentiment?

This is the challenge of ressentiment--the Nietzschean concept warned about by James Davison Hunter. According to Hunter, ressentiment is

". . . grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged. The root of this is the sense of entitlement a group holds. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person's and the group's identity."

You can see ressentiment on display in the discourse surrounding some of our most pressing political debates, from the LGBT community, to gun rights advocates, to ongoing discussions on race relations. You can see the same approach among many Christians, who form organizations and set up media outlets to solidify support and rally the base around the protection of rights or the opposition of all kinds of injustices  – some real and some perceived.

Please note that some of these injustices are real. There are legitimate grievances expressed by the LGBT community. I have spoken out on the real and enduring issues raised by African American brothers and sisters. We do well to recognize recent infringements on the religious rights of Christians who do not affirm same-sex marriage.

So, do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that there is no injury against these groups. Nor am I equating these grievances. There are indeed issues of injustice, some more pronounced than others.

But ressentiment goes beyond recognizing and opposing injustice. Ressentiment is when the community thrives on its sense of being injured. The group rallies around its identity in being wronged.

Betraying Your Christian Hope

The political landscape in North America is heavily influenced on rights, wrongs, and a mindset of entitlement. Too often, Christians have fallen into, what Hunter describes as, a "discourse of negation"--a strategy for cultivating solidarity around a group that is afraid of further injury or that needs to mobilize against the newest threat.

The problem with ressentiment is that it is, fundamentally, a worldly way of addressing the challenges we face.

  • It lacks faith because it assumes the worst in every person, casts opposing viewpoints as belonging to enemy oppressors, and takes umbrage at every perceived slight.
  • It lacks hope because it assumes all is lost unless every injustice is corrected right now.
  • It lacks love because all it can do is keep a record of wrongs.
  • It lacks grace because it grows from the roots of entitlement.

Hope in Future Justice

So, what is the solution? Hope.

Christian hope is a sword that cuts through the marrow of ressentiment. Hope challenges our fear of injustice going unnoticed by reminding us of the future when God will right all wrongs.

This does not mean that Christian hope should lead us to a quietist approach to life and politics, as if all we should do is quietly endure abuse or injustice, without speaking for the truth. No, rejecting ressentiment does not mean advocating retreat.

But hope means that we keep ever before us the truth that any loss experienced is only temporary. Any political setback is just that – a setback, not a defeat. Pressured, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not in despair. Persecuted, but not abandoned. Struck down, but never destroyed.

Christian Hope and Cheerful Courage

Christian hope challenges ressentiment with cheerful courage. We betray our faith when we are united more by bitterness and grievances than by cheerful confidence in God's good purposes for the world and our love for the people who may injure us. When we are united by outrage, we look and sound just like the world.

I recognize that what I am saying here applies primarily to Western cultures. In a society where Christians feel entitled to privilege, ressentiment is one of the primary temptations. In other societies, where persecution is rampant, and injustice has become an accepted reality of everyday life, the greater temptation for Christians is despair. However, even in those societies facing those circumstances, the darkest times are the moments when hope shows itself as a piercing light.

Missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin challenged believers to look back to the resurrection when facing discouragement, for

"the way we understand the past is a function of our whole way of meeting the present and the future. The community of faith celebrates the resurrection of Jesus as the ground of assurance that the present and the future are not under the control of blind forces but are open to unlimited possibilities of new life."

Hope in the Darkness

Hope is what leads someone to soldier on, especially in the face of evidence that says the cause is lost. Matthew Lee Anderson is right to point out the distinctive vision of Christian hope:

"It was not their love which made the early Christians such an irrepressible force. In the midst of an over-stretched empire that had grown decadent and fat off of its own success, and which had ceased to see any life beyond its own horizons, it was the hope of the early Christians that allowed them to kiss the dying, to hold their own bodies in chastity, and to turn their martyrdoms into murals."

To maintain faith when the signs indicate things are working out as one would like is not hope. To rest assured in in the coming victory is hope, even when all seems to be failing, and this is the hope that grabs the attention of a world that knows only false hope in the wrong future.

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8 thoughts on ““Ressentiment” – The Danger That Destroys Your Hope”

  1. Curt Day says:

    If ‘ressentiment’ can destroy our faith, then an imbalanced hope can prevent us from acting.

    Yes, our injustices will be addressed in the future–that is the good news. The bad news is that some of the injustices suffered by others and which implicate us will be addressed in the future too. But not only that, while we Christians are given hope as a way to mitigate what we must suffer through, it is wrong to expect the injustices suffered by nonChristians to be mitigated in the same way. That kind of expectation translates into apathy for the suffering of others. And that apathy does not serve to honor the Gospel.

    In addition, we should note that statements like It lacks love because all it can do is keep a record of wrongs where the ‘it’ refers to ressentiment do not always hold true for the world, and even when it does, it is sometimes because Christians haven’t been involved in justice issues.

    Finally, the statement It lacks grace because it grows from the roots of entitlement where the it again refers to ressentiment needs to be reexamined because expecting justice to correct injustice has as much roots in entitlement as expecting to be paid for one’s work on the job.

    Certainly, we can’t correct all of the justices here. We can’t even correct a small majority of them. But we need to do what we can to to correct injustices in the world, especially the ones that threaten the lives of others. And yes, we need to bring love and grace into the correcting of the world’s injustices especially inthe light of the fact that need such love and grace because of how we have failed God and been unjust to our neighbor. But articles like the one above need to present the dangers of ‘ressentiment’ in a different way lest we forget our neighbor while safeguarding the hope that is in us.

  2. Curt Mitchell says:

    You might consider the idea that hope cannot truly exist in the heart of someone who has been taught that we are subject to the whims of a random existence, where we depend on the effectiveness of our pleadings to God and are relying on a faith that we had to muster. The reality of being chosen by a purposeful provident God who gave you the faith to believe, and the understanding that you are NEVER outside his plan and care, provides the only real hope available on this earth. It also frees one from the need to throw a gratuitous bone to a political group by including gun rights advocates in this story.

  3. martin says:

    Our pastor recently spoke about persecutions we might face and how we are to respond – in love. But, he also spoke about suspect persecutions we bring upon ourselves when we erect walls between those we disagree with. He punctuated his sermon by saying “Bake the Darn Cake”.

    Those we disagree with already know where we stand. We must be careful to not allow our differences to cast a veil that hides a gracious response. The recipients of our actions have a lot to say whether our responses are borne out of love or implacable viewpoints.

    1. Curt Mitchell says:

      I’m amazed at the pastors who see removing the offense of the Gospel as a way to reach people for Christ. If we only said this, or gave in to that, they might believe. Or one of my favorites “building bridges to people” that they can cross to faith is particularly galling. If the disciples had only had the outlook of many modern pastors, they could have all died of old age rather than being tortured and killed for speaking truth to a spiritually dead world, John the baptist could have kept his head, and the Bible could have left out all that teaching about no one seeking after God. (makes you wonder about the need for a “seeker church”, huh?)
      Look, we are commanded to reach out to a lost world with the Gospel. We are not told to apologize for it or try to soften it. to the called child of God it is the most wonderful news imaginable. To the unregenerate it is hate “speech”. Frankly, apart from the effectual calling of God preaching is foolishness. Or at least I read that somewhere. The Gay community doesn’t hate us because we refuse to bake a cake or arrange flowers. They hate us because we are Christian.
      As believers, we have to decide whether Jesus was payment or bait, then act accordingly. I believe he was payment for “his people” and that all the compromising, begging, and repackaging in the world will not add one soul to his kingdom any more than crushing aluminum cans to be recycled will extend the life of this earth. both things are really just a pitiful way to feel better about ourselves. Jesus added every single Saint to the roles of Heaven at the cross, and we are to share that truth with the masses and watch with amazement and joy as he calls them forth. Jesus did not die to bring peace between the Saints and unbelievers, and he says so in Matthew. He came to bring us peace as we suffer the cost of telling an unpopular and impossible to believe story while standing on his truths. As Americans, we really don’t get what that is like, but I suspect we are about to.
      P.S. If you really think that John the baptist would have baked the cake, you’re delusional !!

  4. Peter says:

    I’d be interested to know, Martin, whether your minister would, “officiate the darn wedding.”

  5. martin says:


    Lest you judge my pastor as some kind of flaming off-beat, rebellious, unbiblical shepherd of his flock – no, he would not. The Evangelical Covenant Church has reaffirmed its policy to not perform same sex weddings.

    Some Christians would not give a wedding gift to a same sex couple. Some Christians would not attend a same sex wedding of a relative. Others refuse to bake them a cake. If same sex couples already know an individual’s negative viewpoint on their wedding, how do you think they would view any of the above – as kindness or as belligerent disagreement? Speaking truth in love is appropriate, but actions speak for themselves.

    I’m looking for a Bible verse that prohibits baking cakes for same sex weddings, but can’t find one. However, I have found one that prompts me to love my neighbor as myself. What that means to each of us may differ in our application.

    Just my thoughts on a difficult issue.

    1. Peter says:

      I certainly wasn’t “judging” your minister, Martin. I was just asking a fair question based on what you stated was his directive to the flock. The distinction between baking a cake with a male-male topper to celebrate a sinful union that mocks God and officiating the ceremony to affirm it is lost on me. I’m guessing you don’t condemn your minister for not “loving his neighbor” when he refuses to conduct the ceremony. I think it would be wise of your minister not to counsel his fellow Christian brothers and sisters who happen to be bakers, florists, musicians or photographers that they are failing to “love their neighbor” when they refuse the same. Don’t you?

  6. Mike says:

    This is the ideology that tells us to wink at those, especially Christians who committed some gross injustice within the church community, especially with the huge amount of authoritarian and sexual abuses there are out there in evangelical culture these days. This is the philosophy that demonizes public accusers who go to a blog or any medium where someone will hear them, as just being bitter, while letting the offenders continue forward unhindered and unchecked.

    Might I suggest that if you do not want people filled with ressentiment, as you say, then let us police ourselves as a society and as a church and don’t automatically rally the troops to defend a buddy whenever an accuser comes forward. This is where this culture comes from. It isn’t just a whole bunch of malcontents who want to hate everything. It is people who feel they aren’t being heard by a church who only wants to hear happy news or no news at all.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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