From Shame and Resentment to Gratitude and Service
Rev. Chris Rice, Sermon 1/4/11
How can we move from the ever present shame and resentment that stalk us on a regular basis into a place of gratitude and service that allows God to really have his way in our lives? Jesus Christ has come to set the captives free and the Word of God shows us how.
Some of you may not like to hear this message today. I’m going to talk about being wronged, specifically, how to handle it when you’re dealt with unjustly. Maybe you feel like your anger is the last defense. The very last thing you still have. And that with your anger is bound your dignity as a person. I understand that feeling.
Our recollection of our memories, and our ability to tell our story is central to our dignity. If we can prove we’re right when we’re wronged, we can prove to ourselves the truthfulness of our daily claims. We can say, “Yes, I’ve still got it. I’m not crazy. I’m still trustworthy.” But life is full of incidents that test our decisions, and cause us to question our way of seeing things. There’s not just one way to see an event. There may be three or four. And very often, to get along we’ve got to compromise.
I love stories about redemption. Where someone wrongly accused, someone society has long lost behind bars, is set free and the story is set straight. Cornelius Dupree, Jr. was accused in 1979 of rape, robbery, and abduction. He was picked up two miles from the scene of a crime, paraded through a witness lineup, and locked up for 30 years before being paroled. But something else was going on. In Dallas Texas they were keeping their DNA samples. Through the work of the Innocence Project in New York this man’s case was reopened long after sentencing and DNA testing revealed his innocence. Dupree was not the only man accused in the case. Anthony Massingil was also found innocent but is still serving time for a different offense.
Jennifer Emily of the Dallas Morning News writes:
“Dupree was paroled in July – two weeks before preliminary tests came back clearing the men. A second DNA test confirmed the results of the first test in December.
The day after Dupree’s release, he married a woman he met 20 years earlier while in prison. He and Selma Perkins Dupree held hands as he spoke to reporters after the hearing. His brother, Steven Dupree, who was 8 when his brother went to prison, stood behind them.
“I’m kind of having mixed emotions. I feel that words won’t make up for what I lost,” Cornelius Dupree said, adding that both his parents have died. “It was only by the grace of God that I was able to sustain the long wait.””
Here is a man who claimed his innocence from the very beginning. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. A young black man headed to a party. He spent three decades behind bars. His younger brother was a child when he was locked up and now he stands behind him a grown man. If anyone has the right to be crippled by hate it is Cornelius Dupree. But he says somehow God’s grace sustained him through the waiting process. There was something more important than getting back at those who wrongly accused him. It was living life as a free man.
Perhaps the most difficult lesson to learn in life is that it really doesn’t matter what other people say about you. What really matters is what you know about yourself. If you are your own best defense then you can see where you’re going. If you are your own worst enemy then it doesn’t matter what you do, you are out to destroy yourself one way or the other. How can a person be their own worst enemy? By poisoning every hour of their day with resentment toward other people. By acting out of the shame they feel toward themselves. Some people have been so abused throughout their lives that they see any gift given to them as another con. When they hear tell of the grace of God in Christ they think they know what that means. That means listen to a lot of pleasant words and then get ready to give your money or your time.
Real spiritual conversion happens first with the admission of complete powerlessness, the belief in a God greater than myself, and my decision to turn my will over to God with complete abandon. There is no easier softer way. Admitting that I really don’t know what’s best for me runs contrary to every pore of my being, but that’s only the beginning. The real stuff of life involves navigating the 1001 reminders that I am not in control. Cars that don’t start. Broken door handles. Drafty windows. Dog poop on the shoe. Whiney children. Bad breath. Bubbly personalities. This is real life! It’s downright irritating and exhausting.
Life on the advertisements promises sunny landscapes with beautiful people and products that fix everything from spots on the clothing to incontinence to a beer that will make the work week worthwhile. There’s something downright appealing about the idea that a pill or a drink can make all my problems go away, beginning with the fact that I really don’t have to do much to receive it. I would dare to proffer that following Jesus means staring down the fact that there is no easy way out of life’s everyday problems. Jesus calls us from our shame and resentment out into the light of gratitude and service.
The Bible has strong words regarding resentment. “Resentment kills a fool, and envy slays the simple.” (Job 5:2) “The godless in heart harbor resentment; even when he fetters them, they do not cry for help.” (Job 36:13) “Mockers resent correction, so they avoid the wise.” (Proverbs 15:12) In serving the Lord there is no place for resentment. Paul reminded Timothy, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” (2 Tim. 2:24, NIV)
In my own experience, resentment and shame go hand in hand. When I feel slighted or wronged by another person’s actions it usually goes hand in hand with fear and shame. If I’m in a new place and I feel dependent on others, I feel at their mercy because I don’t really know what’s going on. I go inside my head with resentment and shame in order to find a safe place where I’m in control. Then things spiral downward from there.
Resentment keeps me in my head, trapped in fantasy that believes wrongly in God’s inability to protect me. In my resentment I became convinced anew that I’ve been wronged, dishonored, abused, and that nothing will keep this from happening again in the future. I feel self-righteous, vindicated, noticed, justified in my anger. My recourse is to imagine what I’ll do next time, how I’ll violently react and be justified.
Resentment keeps me from the truth in the present moment. God changes people and he sees them as they really are, not as I imagine them to be. Resentment blinds me from seeing God’s good work in people and believing the best about them. In resentment I lose the gift of forgiveness. I need forgiveness everyday. I need to give it to receive it. Resentment blocks that.
Resentment keeps me from prayer. Instead of praying for the person who wronged me, I’m once again caught in justification and revenge. He needs my prayers as I need his. Our proximity is no simple accident. I have much to learn about patience and forgiveness. I need it from others and I need to give it. God help me.
Resentment keeps me from God. Where God wants to use me in peace, hope, faith, love, resentment isolates me from all others (masks itself as humble and peaceful) and makes me a slave to fear. God’s perfect love casts out all fear. So really I’m a slave to self, shame and pain. All God wants is for me to be free and allow Him to have His way.
Even just a little resentment is toxic to me. I can’t handle a taste. I want to imagine more and then I’m gone in a rage fantasy where I assume I’m the overlooked entity of real value or I’m the despised one who could’ve have saved the show. Either way it’s all about me.
Now I know, this is just my own experience. If you can relate even just a little bit then bear with me. The Bible doesn’t just give us cute little warnings to stop resenting. It gives us powerful redemption stories, where given the opportunity to do great wrong, men and women of God love in return. In the book of Genesis Joseph is one example.
Sold by his brothers into slavery, then wrongly accused of trying to sexually abuse his master’s wife, Joseph gets placed by God into one of the most powerful positions in all of Egypt. Though he’d been mistreated by the Egyptian system, he accepted God’s call to save this pagan land and all the surrounding areas from famine. Given the opportunity to get back at his brothers because of his position and their need for help, Joseph tests them and then finally reveals who he is. After their reconciliation he receives the blessing of their father before he passes away. They have a huge beautiful funeral and then the brothers once again get scared. They think their brother now has the power to get back at them and so they send a message saying that their father sent word before he died that he wanted Joseph to forgive them all for all the wrongs they’d done to him. Then they finish with, “We are your slaves.” Joseph’s response was to weep before them all. What he says next is so powerful.
“’Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.’” (Gen. 50:19-21, NIV)
Given the opportunity to exact justice for himself, Joseph demonstrated mercy. Why? Because Joseph was living his life as a man for others. He saw himself as simply a steward of God’s will, and his many gifts as tools for responsible service. God uses sinful broken people to accomplish his work in the world. Everyone here in this room is full of God given potential. Maybe you’ve seen him use you today to help someone else. Don’t take that for granted. Take stock of where you’ve come from and know that God loves you and has not left you alone.
Your story matters. Everything that has happened to you in life can be used by God to share his faithfulness with someone else. God is not done with you yet. But what he is doing in you is not for you alone. You may feel that like Joseph you are in a strange new place. You didn’t ask to be here. And you’re just trying to make sense of what’s going on. God knows. If you’re willing to let go God will use you to help someone else. It often happens in places where you least expect it. Let me share a secret. Unexpected gifts are everywhere when we have grateful hearts.
Now here’s another story, and this is more of a cautionary tale. In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus tells a story of two lost sons and their father. You may remember the first son. He says to his father, “Give me my share of the estate” and then he gathers his stuff together and leaves for a far off country where he squanders the money in wild living. Then a famine strikes the land and he’s forced to hire himself out feeding pigs. He was so hungry that all he wanted was what the pigs had to eat, but no one gave him anything. You may remember that it says he came to his senses and then had a plan to go back and divest himself of all his rights as a son and simply become his father’s slave.
He thought this would be just. He believed he had given up any right to his father’s respect because of the way he treated the household. This was his plan just to stay alive. But what happens in the story?
“So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:20-24, NIV)
The son does not get to finish his prepared statement. His divestment is interrupted by the father’s command for the party to begin. Instead of getting the dung scooping duty he gets the royal treatment. And this is completely unexpected. You’ll remember this is the story of two lost sons. There is an older brother who is none to excited about this son’s return. We all love this story of the young prodigal returning. We can obviously see that we’ve all done bad things to run away from God. But we need to see ourselves in the older brother as well.
The older brother, returning from the fields, hears the music from the party and asks what is going on. He hears that his brother has returned and that his father has honored him like a royal guest. He gets so angry that he won’t even go in to the party. So the father comes out to him to plead with him.
Henri Nouwen writes,
“The more I reflect on the elder son in me, the more I realize how deeply rooted this form of lostness really is and how hard it is to return home from there. Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being. My resentment is not something that can be easily distinguished and dealt with rationally.
It is far more pernicious: something that has attached itself to the underside of my virtue. Isn’t it good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? And still it seems that my resentments and complaints are mysteriously tied to such praiseworthy attitudes.
This connection often makes me despair. At the very moment I want to speak or act out of my most generous self, I get caught in anger or resentment. And it seems that just as I want to be most selfless, I find myself obsessed about being loved. Just when I do my utmost to accomplish a task well, I find myself questioning why others do not give themselves as I do. Just when I think I am capable of overcoming my temptations, I feel envy toward those who give in to theirs. It seems that wherever my virtuous self is, there also is the resentful complainer.” (The Return of the Prodigal Son, pgs. 75-76)
Where do we find our freedom from this resentment? In the father’s love. The father’s final words to his elder son in the story are, “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:31-32, NIV) The father’s love and his house is largest enough for both wayward sons and resentful ones.
In my own life how do I get unstuck from resentment? When I notice particularly nasty thoughts and possibilities of thoughts coming in my head I will stop, surrender before God, pray for the grace to forgive, use the Lord’s prayer or the serenity prayer and then reach out with a phone call or by speaking to someone else.
Getting unstuck involves first being vigilant, taking resentment as seriously as lust, and second, reversing course to seek help. My thoughts are not just thoughts, they are potential actions revealing my heart and my need for God.
I have often thought that I played a good game by being so introverted. I enjoyed my thoughts and feelings more than being with others. I thought I possessed all I needed and I grew to like all my thoughts to myself. Now I’ve come to see the dark cave of resentment as a special kind of hell. I look around and see that my lack of desire to interact with others has affected us all. Others go on without me. They learn by my isolation to count me out.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Henri Nouwen says,
“Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift.”
Gratitude is a conscious choice. Some of the most helpful advice I’ve ever received involved simply sitting down and writing out two lists on a piece of paper. On one side I was instructed to write down everything I was afraid of. On the other side everything I had to be grateful for. I have done this many times and it has never failed to help set my thinking straight. In a very short time I come to remember that most of the things I’m afraid of are not matters I can control anyway, and everything I’m grateful for is because of the grace of God! Since I’m not in control, and all of life is gift what have I to get resentful for?!!
If we really want God to change us we have to let the Word of God renew our minds and change us.
“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (Eph. 4:30-32, KJV)
Let’s pray together now:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen (Prayer attributed to St. Francis)
Peace be to you all and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 6:23)
Yours in His Service,