On Tuesday this week ABC Radio’s Life Matters, broadcast a program on holding onto grudges. The presenter, Hilary Harper, interviewed a clinical psychologist, Dr Marny Lishman who said that a new UK study has found that the typical adult holds about six long-term grudges, with around one in 10 people holding onto a grudge for 20 years or more. It’s a podcast you can still listen to if you look up the ABC website and it’s worth listening to.
I mention this by way of making a connection with our Gospel reading for this week where Jesus speaks about loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate you. In a previous congregation some years ago I was confronted by an elderly man after the Sunday Service who was clearly agitated by what I had said in the sermon. I had focused on forgiveness, recognising that forgiving isn’t easy and that in fact it’s a real challenge for us. However it is also life-giving. Well, this man said to me, ‘You need to stop preaching about forgiveness, it’s just not possible.’ When I asked what it was in his life that he found too hard to deal with, the man just turned and walked away. Something had deeply scarred him, and he couldn’t or wouldn’t even consider the idea of forgiving the person who had hurt him so profoundly. The sad thing is that I could never find a way of helping him, however gently I tried.
When I reflected on this I could see that this man had tried to wrap himself in a protective cloak that was slowly choking him emotionally. Holding onto grudges can have long term consequences for our physical as well as emotional health. Put simply, holding grudges damages us. And yes, facing the cause of our grudges and dealing with them can be hard, even painful for us, but it can also open up our lives to the presence of God, for wherever forgiveness is truly offered God is present.
Offering forgiveness is often a process that takes time and is some of the hardest work we can do in this world. It’s not something we can force or require of those we have wronged. In his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Desmond Tutu understood that you can’t compel people to say sorry, but you can ask them to tell the truth and sometimes, not always, telling the truth can open us to make that movement of the heart that heals. I believe that sometimes we can forgive too soon when we are not really ready for it. There is a great little book called ‘Don’t forgive too soon’ written by two Jesuit priests that I would recommend. Too often the emphasis is on our forgiveness when we should also focus on holding people to account and working to make the world a safer place for all.
However, I have also found that making the effort to pray for those who hurt us and asking God to help us deal with our hurt or anger about what has been done to us, can also be a beginning in facing things and start us on a journey toward letting go of our hurt and turning to release the other as well.
In his book, ‘No future without forgiveness’ Desmond Tutu says that holding onto grudges can embitter us, so forgiving can be liberating for us as well as for the other. And what helped Tutu in the face of the systemic injustices of Apartheid was the Biblical conviction that we are all children of God in need of forgiveness, love and acceptance.