I was with a rough sleeping outreach worker this week in a coastal town in the south of England. It was about 1.00am in the morning and we went to an area where he knew someone was living in a tent.
As we approached the tent with our torches illuminating the ground, I noticed the words ‘BUM’ had been chalked on the nearby path with an arrow pointing at the man’s tent.
In speaking with the man, he said he had seen the graffiti but did not know who wrote it. Maybe it was local kids, maybe someone just trying to be funny, or maybe someone who is genuinely fearful or angry about people sleeping rough.
The man was more keen to talk about the people who had been kind and generous to him. He told us about his Buddhist beliefs and how he wanted to take the opportunity to share a more positive message. So he had written various sayings on stones and left them near the path.
The one which most struck me was this:
‘Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die’
I had heard this quote before but in this context its relevance really struck me.
Resentments are a big issue for so many people.
For people affected by homelessness, there is often bitterness towards ex-partners, family or institutions and agencies they feel failed by. At the drop-in meal we run at our church, I was talking this week with a man who listed how badly treated he has been by a number of charities and different councils. He said:
‘Now, I don’t trust anyone’
However understandable these feelings were, he agreed with me that this resentment was not going to help him address his situation.
But of course resentments are also a big issue for many others in far more comfortable situations. Bitterness with former friends, family, neighbours, colleagues or institutions can corrode both our relationships with others and our own sense of well-being.
Christ Church is unique as it is both an Oxford college and a cathedral. But despite being one of the world’s most prestigious educational and religious establishments, the dispute has tarnished reputations, cost millions pounds in legal fees and has left everyone involved diminished.
The element which most struck me in the podcast was the almost total absence of any reference to the Christian faith. It seems the prestige and privilege of the institution has extinguished any sense that authentic Christian spirituality could be relevant to resolving the dispute.
Resources which help us process resentment and find forgiveness are critical for our well-being. It is not about excusing bad behaviour but helping us limit the damage that our bitterness can create.
I don’t want to sound pious but I have genuinely found prayer to be transformative in addressing bitterness. I have a list of people who I hold resentment towards, or who I know hold resentment towards me. Somehow, praying for these people has helped detoxify these feelings and has allowed me to let go of negativity. Seeking to bless them has blessed me.
The best resources
Of course, some situations will make this a far harder practise than others. But more than ever, I believe that Christianity offers the best resources to help us find forgiveness and address resentment.
The atonement that God offers through Jesus goes beyond symbolism or mindfulness techniques. Jesus’ death provides both a sacrificial example and a metaphysical triumph over the power of wrong-doing. As 1 Peter 2:23 puts it:
‘When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness: by his wounds you have been healed.’
Christ Church College Oxford is an institution named in honour of Jesus. It has become globally renown, incredibly wealthy and a bastion of privilege. But, in its recent bitter disputes, those who lead the college have not displayed the values of grace and forgiveness at the heart of the Christian faith. Instead, it has wasted millions of pounds in a toxic power struggle.
In contrast, the man I met sleeping rough has shown the opposite values. He is not a Christian, in fact he is an adherent of another faith. But, in response to those who have belittled and insulted him, he has conveyed values which resonate deeply with the way of Jesus. Someone who has almost nothing exemplified a grace and truth we can all learn from.