January: A new number on the calendar, another opportunity for those New Year’s resolutions. But sometimes the December festivities leave us a tad tired (and that’s a polite way of putting it). Maybe the Christmas tree is still up. If Christmas was a good season, it really is a sweet reminder, too precious to take down quickly. (I don’t understand those Christmas tree burnings that are scheduled even before Epiphany, January 6, the coming of the magi, when in some traditions Christmas is celebrated. February, is it, the right time to consider taking down the tree?) The tree needles still look pretty good, right? Even though we’re after solstice, the lights and decorations console during these dark days. Perhaps keeping the tree up a little longer acts as a bit of a safeguard against the midwinter blues that could be just around the corner—maybe. Couldn’t hurt.
And yet, hey, it’s January, so let’s do new. Let’s do how life should be as best we can. Let’s not quit, right? Now which resolutions could we have a fair chance at keeping? And which ones seem just a little big, not quite doable, not just yet? Possibly it doesn’t take us too long to pick one or two resolutions that should lead to a much better version of ourselves. There—got it! Let’s try this one. . . .
But just then it hits you. Just when you think you’re over it, it hits you, maybe even harder than you imagined it could. You remember each incident, feel the pain anew. Man! Why? Wasn’t that over and done with? Forgiven and forgotten? After all, you have a life to live! A good life. You do not, not, want to have a grudge raising its ugly head to crowd out your joy. But there it is, the same old nasty resentment festering larger-than-life as if you’d never even begun to deal with it. So not fair!
And in an instant those one or two warm New Year’s resolutions freeze, and if we’re not careful, vaporize. Our beautiful let’s do new is starting to look like a “here we go again,” and if we’re not vigilant, new might look like an impossible pipedream. Blessed are the vigilant for they guard their hearts and so reap many blessings—mirth being among them.
But maybe we’re not vigilant, or not vigilant enough. Maybe we’re stuck on the idea that we have a right to feel badly about what happened to us. If so, at this point we might like to say something like the line from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov about telling yourself the truth—in this case, about how badly we feel: “Above all, don’t lie to yourself.” But in this state, where we presumably do not lie to ourselves about our unpleasant feelings, neither do we get closer to love. Nothing is solved, not yet. Nor are we being terribly truthful, because resentment has the power to become a broken record, replaying over and over, crowding out the fact that our hurt feelings are only one piece of a very big story, a story that could have the most excellent outcome if we would only let Grace have its way with us.
The fuller passage from Dostoevsky’s brilliant book penetrates deeply into the nature of lying to yourself, uncomfortably so: “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” God forbid—God forbid that we should suffer such a fate as Dostoevsky describes. Because if we do not release a resentment, every single resentment every single time, we lose everything.
Oh, how quickly the slender tendrils of resentment coil themselves around the living branches of a fresh hope. How swiftly and tightly they achieve it! Their pretty leaves amidst the blossoming bush almost look like they belong there—until you look closely. Then you see that if these vines are left to continue their parasitical ways, they’ll strangle the life out of every last blossom and right down to the heart of the plant. They’re merciless. Newness is thwarted, swallowed alive.
Unless we take a lesson from these deadly pests and become as ruthless—become even more ruthless, but in a careful surgical way—and deftly remove every twist of the offending stem without damaging the good plant, we will lose our souls. Don’t be deceived by the gentle-looking leaves. Eradicate the villainous thing. Take out the very root. Discover how the very thing you tend to resist—really don’t want to do—is the very thing that you must do. A most skillful surgery is required to separate your resentments from your soul. And your life depends on it.
Release the hurt, rewire for good thoughts, renew for life—life in all its abundance.
Easier said than done, true. And only done when we decide to do it regardless of our emotions. You know: that timeless truth about how blessing follows obedience (see Luke 11:28). But if we’re a wee bit prideful, insistent we’re in the right, etc. etc., we’ve gotta swallow a fair bit, and only then do we discover the hilarious living reality that we all need Grace, that we’re all invited to the Party, every one of us undeserving-to-be-made-holy guests of Grace are invited to the Party. Only then can we laugh out loud, thinking, “Man am I glad I wasn’t a total idiot! Man am I glad I didn’t miss out! Wow—this is, well, this is actually more like I’m meant to be. Like . . . free! Like . . . joy-filled! Man, give me those dancing shoes!”
Forgive, every single time. Forgive not because what happened is excusable. Forgive because the inexcusable needs to be forgiven. Only then can we rid ourselves of those toxic thoughts, the clinging resentments. Do it seventy times seven, as Jesus said (Matthew 18:22), meaning without number, every time we need to. Yes, we will need to, again and again. But then maybe we are helped in knowing how seriously we need forgiveness ourselves?
To repeat, here’s the source for the thought that can nudge us a little closer to choosing to forgive the next time it’s a challenge. As C. S. Lewis has said in his essay “On Forgiveness,” if we think we can’t forgive someone, it’s because we have no idea how badly we need forgiveness ourselves, forgiveness for the inexcusable. In my book Letters to Annie the grandmother, Omi, age 69, says this to her granddaughter Annie, age 5 (Letter 8). And in their dual journeys over 25 years, these two souls have ample opportunity to ponder their struggles with forgiveness. They discover that forgiveness is the blessed gift that they primarily give themselves.
I love Paul Gordon’s song “Forgiveness” in the Broadway musical of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. If you haven’t heard this before, or would just like to hear it again, here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-y4hvTzHEA In this song we hear of the strength we need to have in order to forgive, and of forgiveness as being our deliverance. How counter-intuitive to resentment: the humility needed to forgive is in fact “the mightiest sword.” Humility: as T.S. Eliot writes in Four Quartets, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless” (“East Coker,” ll. 97-98).
My hope for myself and my readers this new year is this: that we would become more attentive to toxic thoughts. To remember the horrifying cost of unforgiveness—our very lives—and consequently, with God’s help, which we will need, choose to forgive. And through it all to become more disciplined in guarding our hearts, the source of life (Proverbs 4:23). Release, rewire, renew. . . .
Any meaningful New Year’s resolution, I think, stands or falls on our willingness to release resentment, to rewire for life, and so to renew. “Forget the former things. . . .” Don’t dwell on the past sorrows because God is doing a new thing, making a way where there formerly was no way, a way that leads to life (Isaiah 43:18-21).
Wishing us all a Happy New Year–one full of deepening joy, indescribable peace, surprising hope, and widening love!
To learn more about fairy tales and other stories that help us in our struggles with forgiveness, remember to pick up your copy of Letters to Annie.
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Watch for my February blog: “A Valentine for Annie.”