Ressentiment

FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS
volume 18, number 43, October 24, 2019

“Build up, build up, prepare the way. Remove every obstacle out of the way of My people.” For thus says the high and exalted One, who lives forever, whose name is holy, “I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirits of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite,” Isaiah 57:14,15.

Isaiah the prophet was preaching around 750 B.C. to the two kingdoms of Israel, calling God’s covenant people to repentance, lest they face the wrath of God by means of foreign invasion. Israel and Judah chose not to repent and the Northern kingdom of Israel was overrun by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., and the Southern kingdom of Judah was taken into exile in 586 B.C. at the hands of the Babylonians. Isaiah, however, gave God’s covenant people the prescription for renewal. They were to prepare the way, like a road construction company which blasts through rock, leveling the grade of the road, building bridges, clearing the debris from the road so that cars and trucks can move speedily. Isaiah said that to have renewal God’s people must remove every obstacle out of the way. They must deal with their sin. They must humble themselves before the Lord. After all, God dwells in the high and holy place of heaven and He also dwells in the hearts of the lowly and contrite, those who tremble at His word, who pursue holiness in every area of their lives. The result is revival and renewal, and this is similar to the prescription of 2 Chronicles 7:14, “. . . and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

Just the other day I remembered a most important book I read in 1983, Idols for Destruction: Christian Faith and Its Confrontation with American Society by Herbert Schlossberg. The thesis of his book is that idolatry and its associated concepts is the best framework to explain and understand our society as it is today. I decided to peruse this book again and remembered a French term ressentiment he used which I believe is even more descriptive of where we are today with the division in our nation. Schlossberg points out that when Nietzche wrote his attack on Christianity he transliterated ressentiment into German because he could not find a German equivalent. Max Scheler, when building on Nietzche’s work, did the same thing; and when Scheler’s book was translated into English ressentiment was used because our word resentment was too weak to convey what Nietzche and Scheler were saying. Here’s Schlossberg explaining what is meant by ressentiment. 

Ressentiment begins with perceived injury that may have a basis in fact, but more often is occasioned by envy for the possessions or the qualities possessed by another person. If the perception is not either sublimated or assuaged by the doing of some injury to the object of the feeling, the result is a persistent mental condition, stemming from the repression of emotions that are not acceptable when openly expressed. The result is hatred and the impulse to spite and to say things that detract from the other’s worth. . . This phenomenon differs from mere envy or resentment because it is not content to suffer quietly but has a festering quality that seeks outlet in doing harm to its object. Ressentiment has its origin in the tendency to make comparisons between the attributes of another and one’s own attributes: wealth, possessions, appearance, intelligence, personality, friends, children. Any perceived difference is enough to set the pathology in motion. . . The other’s very existence is a reproach.[1]  

My friends, are you guilty of ressentiment? This is a deep seated sin which controls and dominates much of the socio-political discussion of our day. We are a deeply divided nation on religion, politics, race, and economics. We are deeply divided in the church. We are deeply divided in our families, in our places of work, and in our neighborhoods. 

When someone injures you – whether it is a racial slur or worse, a physical attack; whether it is someone cheating you out of a business deal; whether you were unfairly fired from your job; whether your parents abused you; whether you were sexually assaulted, then more than likely  ressentiment begins to grow in your heart. When you see someone with more money than you, with a nicer house, or one who has accomplished much more in the world than you, then you are on the precipice of ressentiment. The same is true if you view people with more intelligence than you, or if their children have turned out better than yours, then you may be consumed by ressentiment. This idea of ressentiment is pervasive. When a waiter does not serve you in a restaurant up to your expectations, then you may become incensed. And when you, as a white person, say, “Can’t we get past this race thing? This is not the 1960’s,” and you find yourself secretly seething when black people bring it up again, then you may be guilty of ressentiment. And to my black friends, if you still hold a grudge because of what happened in the past, then maybe you are given over to ressentiment too. 

This is a deadly sin, my friends and we must deal with it or we will never see revival. This is pretty scary stuff because we all love the status quo. We don’t want anything or anyone rocking our boat. I am convinced that the devil has driven a wedge between black and white people in this country and those of us who are Christians, should be able to get past this, but we are generally failing miserably. In our minds we know the gospel is the only thing which can break down the middle wall of division between “Jew and Gentile” (Ephesians 2:14,15). We pay lip service to this truth but I am pretty sure a good many of us are sinning with ressentiment. 

What is the answer? At the end of Genesis, when Joseph had risen to power after his brothers mistreated him and sent him away into slavery, Joseph says to them, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,” (Genesis 50:20). In other words, Joseph was dealing practically with his life’s situation. He was wronged, many times. He could have been eaten up with ressentiment. Instead, however, He saw the hand of God in everything he faced. He came to understand that the sovereignty of God, His overarching control of all the events in our lives, was the driving force in his mistreatment at the hands of his brothers. Yes, of course, they were responsible for what they had done to him, but at the end of the day, God brought the calamity to further His purposes. When people are born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, they then have the capacity to live for Jesus, to obey Him, to forgive others, to overcome ressentiment. Search your heart, my friend. Is there a deep seated anger, hostility, jealousy, or spirit of revenge toward anyone, even if they have treated you unjustly? Can you see God in this event? Can you thank Him for allowing it? It is time that we practically apply the gospel to our personal lives and to the work of the church of Jesus Christ in the world. Without the eradication of ressentiment we will never, never have revival.  
 ________________________

1  Idols for Destruction: Christian Faith and Its Confrontation with American Society, Herbert Schlossberg, pages 51,52.

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