Resentment, forgiveness and reconciliation

“Whoever loves true prayer and yet becomes angry or resentful is [her] own enemy. [She] is like a [person] who wants to see clearly and yet inflicts damage on [her] own eyes.”

Evagrios Ponticos, “On Prayer,” in The Philokalia, vol. 1 (New York: Faber and Faber, 1979), p. 63.

I have a friend who often quotes a saying from Twelve Step Recovery programs, “Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. This sounds like very ancient wisdom, far older than AA. Note, for example, the similar structure of the saying from Evagrios Ponticos quoted above.

Both point to something rather central in the Christian tradition, namely the premium placed on forgiveness. It’s right at the middle of the Our Father, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s also at the heart of many of Jesus’ parables and other sayings. It’s even an article of the Creed of our baptism, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus embodies costly forgiveness when he suffers and dies to give life to the world.

Forgiveness and reconciliation differ, insofar as reconciliation is a two way street. Forgiveness, by contrast, can be unilateral, and we are commanded to forgive whether the other person deserves it or not, whether our forgiveness changes the other person or not. Reconciliation requires reciprocity and aims at justice and the restoration of right relationship.

Not all hurts are alike, and forgiveness is often painfully difficult. For some kinds of wound, it can years of hard work and professional help. But notice something that both the saying from Evagrios and the one from recovery programs have in common. In both cases, the primary benefit of forgiveness accrues to the one who extends it. In the one case, it removes an obstacle to our relationship with God. In the other, it gets rid of something like a poison or cancer that is harming our own soul. I suspect, in fact, that both sayings point to the same underlying reality.

Forgiveness does not mean giving up on the quest for justice. It does mean forswearing revenge and giving up on the attempt to control the outcome. It means letting go of the other person and his or her power over us. It is ultimately for our benefit. Others may benefit, especially if we move past forgiveness to reconciliation. On the other side of forgiveness, we find the grace to let the past be the past, and rediscover our true freedom in God.

Bill Carroll

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