Finding Forgiveness & Overcoming Resentment
“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
I stumbled over this part of the Our Father, clutching my rosary, as I nearly always did. “But God, I hate him. I don’t want to forgive him. Please, please help me. Help me forgive him. Let your forgiveness flow through me, because I simply cannot do it on my own,” I begged silently, charging forward with the rest of my prayers.
It was 2019, and I was sick and tired. Resentment against wrongs done to me years before by a family member were eating me up inside. By all objective standards, I was entirely in the right in the situation. I had chosen the right thing, taken the hard road, acted courageously under immense pressure. The other person, by contrast, had repeatedly made poor choices, acted selfishly and shortsightedly, and continued to demonstrate immaturity and insensitivity. To his credit, he had apologized for the original wrong, and I had coldly accepted it from my ivory tower of righteousness. I felt the words were entirely inadequate to reverse the past, however, and although I tried my best to be civil, polite, and tractable in the difficult and often awkward and unavoidable interactions over the following years, the relationship festered like a sore.
I seethed and raged inside, spending all my spare time in imaginary arguments. I was anxious and tense, and the ever-present fear and anger caused me to lash out at my loved ones, completely innocent parties. My nightmares chiefly consisted of interactions with this person, and they plagued me multiple times a week. But even I could see that the person my anger was hurting the most was myself. My resentment was a rusty, poisoned dagger that I kept twisting deeper and deeper into my own heart. It roiled me to know that as I wasted yet another day rehearsing past conversations, analyzing motives, reciting the litany of offenses to myself and anyone else who would lend a sympathetic ear, he was, as far as I knew, blithely unaware. Going about his regular life and not wasting a second thought on the immense hurt he had inflicted and its lingering, constant pain.
There is a scene in the extended edition of Peter Jackson’s 2001 film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, where in the mines of Moria, Frodo discovers the creature Gollum, drawn by the power of the ring, is following the company. “He will never be rid of his need for it,” Gandalf explained to Frodo. “He hates and loves the ring, as he hates and loves himself. Smeagol’s life is a sad story. Yes, Smeagol, he was once called, before the ring found him. Before it drove him mad.” In my resentment, I, was Smeagol, and I was transforming into Gollum as the years progressed. My hatred had become “my precious,” and like Gollum, I hated it and loved it. I clutched tightly to it, longing to throw it away and be free, but completely unable to let it go.
“What do you want me to do God?” I pleaded through tears. “I cannot go on like this. I’ve been to years of counseling. I have told him I have forgiven him. I try to be kind to him. I pray constantly for him, countless novenas, lighting candles, offering up my masses for his intentions, begging the intercession of the saints for him and for myself, calling down your blessings from heaven on him, even though you know I really don’t want to! What more can I possibly do?”
Then suddenly, God spoke: “Ask him for forgiveness.”
I was horrified. “What do you mean, ask him for forgiveness? I have done nothing wrong! You know well that this entire situation is his fault! Everyone says so. Everyone says time will heal.”
God was silent, and I was left to some uncomfortable reflections. In truth, time was not healing the wounds. It had been years since the original hurt, and I was frequently as angry about the situation as I had been at the beginning. And in reality, I was running out of time. I couldn’t afford, for the sake of my other relationships and for the sake of my own soul, to wait any longer for healing.
“God please,” I begged. “Please, any other way. Not this. I can’t ask his forgiveness. Forgiveness for what? What have I done wrong to him?”
God remained silent. I reflected further. In truth, I had done nothing wrong to him physically. Outwardly I had been polite. I had tried my best to be fair, to get along, to make the best of things and put on a good face. But spiritually, I had wronged him greatly with my resentment.
The spiritual economy is a mysterious thing. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22). In my anger, I was heaping hot coals of judgment over my own head, not his. And while I certainly did not wish any physical harm on him, just like the man who commits adultery by looking upon a woman with lust in his heart, was I not, in fact, committing the far worse crime of spiritual murder by looking upon him in anger?
In a last-ditch effort to be freed from God’s seemingly ludicrous request, I went to my parish priest, a wise man long familiar with my situation and struggles. When I told the priest that I felt God was asking me, who had done nothing wrong, to ask this other person who was clearly in the wrong for forgiveness, rather than soothe my fears and pride, the priest smiled and simply said, “I think that would be a very beautiful thing.”
I left the priest’s office feeling dejected, but also filled with a small bubble of hope. “Lord, if this is what you ask of me, I will do it though I do not want to. But I cannot do it without You.”
It was the middle of the liturgical season of Lent when I saw this family member again. Screwing up all my courage and praying one last Hail Mary, I pulled him aside. “I know that once you apologized to me years ago, but I…I don’t think I have ever apologized to you.” The words tumbled out of me. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for not handling the situation more graciously, for all the times I made it more tense or awkward. I’m sorry for resenting you all this time.”
He looked surprised for a moment and then smiled. “Thank you,” he said warmly. “Thank you. That really means a lot.”
And then it was all over. We went on about our days, and we didn’t speak of it further. But I felt lighter, as though some bitterness had left my soul. As time went on, I found “my precious” occupied my thoughts less and less. It was as if the situation that had so haunted my nightmares and waking thoughts, looming like some malevolent leviathan over all my joy, had finally shrunk to its proper proportion. Yes, it had happened. Yes, it still sometimes hurt. And yes, there continued to be occasional moments of difficulty. But it no longer controlled my life; its dark power was broken. God has blessed me so abundantly that His grace far outweighs the sin and harms inflicted by myself and others. This resentment, all the hurts, and all the pain, were utterly drowned in the redemptive power of His Blood.
So what advice can I offer to those who may be struggling with a resentment, either against another person or even against themselves?
First, realize that the feeling of forgiveness is a process. It is not a one and done thing. It is a daily choice, and sometimes it can take years. As much as we would like the words of absolution, either given to one another or spoken over ourselves by a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation to work like a magic balm, many times the hurt remains. It is as though a little neighbor boy has broken the window of your house – he has sincerely apologized, but the window remains broken.
Second, practice radical acceptance. You may never receive the apology or amends you deserve, and the situation may never fully be put to rights. Blessedly, however, your spiritual healing and inner peace is not dependent upon the action of any other person in this world but has been purchased for you already by Christ, Himself. He cannot force this healing and peace upon you, however. You, and you alone, must accept it from Him. The Serenity Prayer says it best:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
You must learn to accept this sinful world as it is, as He did, and not as you would have it. This is a lifelong process, but once you begin to attempt to put it into practice, the results are dramatic.
Third, pray without ceasing. Pray rosaries, light candles, offer up your Mass, spend time in Adoration, pray novenas for the intentions of the person who has wronged you and for yourself, pray constantly that God’s grace and forgiveness may flow through you. Look to the lives of the saints, and rely on their intercession and friendship. St. Jane Frances de Chantal was a wonderful friend and intercessor to me during this time. In France in 1601, Jane, who had already lost her mother at a very young age, her stepmother, her sister, and two of her own children, tragically lost her husband in a hunting accident. Although her husband forgave the man prior to his death, Jane struggled for years to forgive him, falling into deep despair and spiritual dryness. She courageously fought the poison of resentment, however, eventually forgiving the man so completely that she became the godmother to his child.
St. Maria Goretti was another great help to me in overcoming my resentment. In 1902, Maria, the 11-year old daughter of a poor Italian tenant farmer was attacked and brutally raped at knife point by her 18-year old neighbor, Alessandro. During the attack, she seemed to fear more for her assailant's spiritual safety in committing such a crime than her own physical safety, imploring him to remember it was a sin against God that would send him to hell. She died at the hospital from the wounds she received less than 24 hours later, but not before forgiving Alessandro. Alessandro was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his crime, for a long time unrepentant. One night, however, he had a dream of Maria gathering flowers and offering them to him. This dream changed him forever, and upon his release, his first act of freedom was to go to Maria's mother and beg her forgiveness. When Pope Pius XII canonized Maria in 1947, Alessandro was there, crying tears of joy. The lives of St. Jane Frances de Chantal, St. Maria Goretti, and Alessandro are true testaments to the transformative power of heroic forgiveness, and they are stories that should inspire all of us.
Fourth, seek advice. This may mean professional counseling, it may mean speaking with trusted mentors, friends, or family members, it may mean reading about the lives of the saints who overcame serious resentments, or it may mean consulting your priest or spiritual director (or, as in my case, all four!). Do not be afraid to ask for help. It is our duty as Christians to exhort and encourage one another, and this path to sainthood is not something we are called to walk alone.
Finally, make amends where necessary. Very rarely does any conflict occur where one party is entirely blameless. And if you’re harboring a resentment, you are not blameless. You may have done nothing physically wrong to the other person, and you may not have caused the original conflict, but by stoking the fires of your anger, in some mysterious way you are causing spiritual harm to both yourself and the other person. This was the final key to healing for me, and it took me years before I came to a place where I could understand and accept this. But it was only by doing so that, by the grace of God, I finally found freedom.