When it comes to Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, I’ve often been surprised by how many people sympathize with the elder brother- the one who didn’t share the father’s joy at the wayward son's return. Many people feel that the elder son has been slighted, and that justice hasn’t been served. The younger son got off too easy, they maintain- he should have had to pay his dues a little while longer before being welcomed back into the fold. And then there’s the father. He could have been much more appreciative of his dutiful son, and not so quick to embrace one who had broken his heart and publicly shamed him.
I think that the elder brother’s response often resonates with those who wrestle with family resentments. Resentments between relatives can run very deep, and touch upon all sorts of issues. They might recall a time when someone was hurt or ignored. For example, a relative who cares for a sick family member may become resentful if others don’t pull their weight. Children are resentful at how their parents raised them, especially if divorce is involved, and parents are disappointed in children who fail to meet expectations. Bitter sibling rivalry, even in adulthood, is common. Anything related to money, especially wills and inheritance, can give rise to resentment, as can matters of religion, particularly if different faiths or traditions are involved. And then there’s the question of in-laws- and I don’t think I need to elaborate there!
Harboring resentment is hurtful and damaging in numerous ways. To begin with, it’s exhausting- physically, emotionally, and spiritually. With time, it spreads like a cancer, affecting more and more people within our web of relationships, making us bitter and unlovable. It can make us self-righteous and "holier-than-thou." "I am right and they are wrong," we assure ourselves. Resentments can also come to define us: we become known as the unappreciated child or the wronged spouse. As the years pass, and especially as our memory becomes more selective, we demonize the offending party, which is unfair to them, and a denial of reality. Worst of all, should we cling to our resentments, we deny ourselves of God’s forgiveness. "Forgive us our trespasses," Jesus taught us, "as we forgive those who trespass against us."
If resentment is so destructive and exhausting, why do we do it? Why don’t we just kiss and make up? Several reasons. To begin with, harboring resentment makes us feel superior. We’re the "good guy" and they’re the "bad guy." It’s easy to look good at the expense of others! Or maybe we’re afraid of appearing to be weak. If we try to heal the wounds, we think, people will perceive us as a doormat or a punching bag. Besides, sometimes it’s fun- in a wicked sort of way- to "get even" with sweet revenge. It’s also nice to receive sympathy from those on our side of the debate. And frankly, resentment is just plain easier. It means that we don’t need to accept responsibility for a situation- we can simply blame somebody else for our troubles.
Let’s face it. Resentment has its attractions, and it can become an addiction. However, if we want to get on with our lives and stop perpetuating the grief and being trapped in the past, we need to make a conscious decision to stop. It’s sort of like a game of Monopoly that’s been dragging on and on. We may be thinking to ourselves: "This is a really stupid game and I’ve got better things to do." But then we pass "Go," collect our $200, and we keep right on playing. If it’s a two-player game, it might go on forever until one person gets up and says "I’m just not playing anymore. It’s no fun and I’m wasting my time." Stopping the game is called forgiveness. And it’s tough.
It’s also widely misunderstood. Forgiveness is a decision, not a feeling. It’s also not pretending that nothing has happened. "I forgive you" is not the same as "That’s okay, don’t worry about it." Forgiveness doesn’t overlook destructive behavior as can happen in co-dependent or abusive relationships. Nor is it offered to coerce another person or change their behavior, because the only person we can change is ourselves. Finally, forgiveness is not the restoration of trust, a canceling of consequences, or a denial of pain or the need to grieve, especially when we’ve been deeply hurt. Instead, forgiveness enables our pain to be transformed.
Consider the story of Carol. She was married with three young children when she discovered that her husband was having an affair with her best friend. Shortly thereafter, Carol’s husband divorced her and married "the other woman." For a long time Carol was devastated, inconsolable, and filled with rage. Yet years later, an old acquaintance bumped into Carol, and was delighted to encounter a woman who was joyful and filled with peace. How had she moved past the rage and shame? Forgiveness- forgiveness inspired by God, and encouraged by the support of patient friends. The "jilted woman" was no longer the title of her biography, but only one chapter in the book.
Carol’s ex-husband probably never learned of her forgiveness. If he had, he might have rejected it, responded with indifference or rage, or blamed Carol for the whole situation. Real life isn’t like Hollywood: Not every act of forgiveness ends with a hug and a reconciliation. But reconciliation is God’s job; it’s forgiveness that’s up to us. Furthermore, Carol’s husband probably didn’t deserve her forgiveness. Carol is Catholic, however, and she knows that Christianity isn’t about getting what we deserve. It is about justice, but a Christian justice tempered by mercy and grace. Simply understood, justice means "getting what you deserve." Mercy means "not getting what you deserve." And grace means "getting what you don’t deserve." Forgiveness isn’t deserved either. It is a gift, and it heals. May it bless your family.