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9/11: Resentment, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation

Posted: September 8, 2011 by Rob Voyle

The Gospel for this Sunday, when many Americans will remember the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, asks the question: How many times do we need to forgive?

For many forgiveness is very difficult and often leads to questions about who we should forgive and what we should forgive. Should we forgive Osama bin Laden and the bombers he inspired? Jesus seems pretty clear on the subject and the answer would be, Yes we must forgive. For many Americans forgiving Osama bin Laden would be seen as unpatriotic and a denigration of those who lost their lives in the attacks. Yet our national resentment has led us into two wars and cost billions of dollars that could have been used for saving lives rather than taking lives. May be Jesus was onto something when he said forgive and keep on forgiving.

From my pastoral experience one of the main reasons people don't forgive is they don't know how, and in particular they confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. Added to the problem is a lack of good working definitions of resentment, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Telling people to forgive without teaching people how to forgive is very unhelpful and contributes to their misery.

In the following, longer than usual newsletter, I will define these terms and describe the steps that enable people to forgive. This material is taken from my book Restoring Hope: Appreciative Strategies to Resolve Grief and Resentment which can be found at:

Resentment, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation

Take a moment and define resentment, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

When dealing with problems such as these it is important to define them in a way that points toward how to engage in the solution.


Resentment involves reliving, in the present moment, something from our past. But we remember pleasant things from the past and don't experience distress. To experience resentment we need to do one other thing than simply relive a past event. To create resentment, in addition to reliving, we need to add a demand, in the present moment, that the past event would not have occurred. These demands are often in the form "he or she shouldn't have done, or should have done something."

Regardless of how hard we demand, or how despicable the event was, demanding that something didn't happen doesn't change the fact that the event occurred.

Resentment: A demand in the present moment that a past event didn't happen.


When forgiving what we let go of is the demand that the past would have been different than it actually was. To release a demand we can convert it into a preference. "I would have preferred that the past event wouldn't have happened." Forgiveness isn't about saying "it didn't matter." These past events do matter, especially when our core values have been violated. Converting a demand into a preference means we get to maintain our integrity and our values.

When we convert the demand into a preference we can explore the values contained within the preference. If the values that were violated are important to us and we would like to keep them in the future we can take a moment and imagine personally sharing that value with someone in the future. It doesn't need to be with the person who has hurt us, but we do need to be willing to give to people what we want to receive from them.

To let go of the past and live fully in the present moment we need to go beyond turning the demand into a preference and surrender the other person and ourselves into the Goodness of God that is fully available now.

I like the idea of the Goodness of God, I never define what that goodness is, but I know deeply that it is good, it is good for me and good for others. When I try to define the goodness of God, for myself and others, I find I contaminate it with all my ego wishes and wants. When dealing with people who have hurt me, my ideas of what would be good for the one who has injured me are generally for my benefit and not for the one who has hurt me.

Forgiveness: Letting go of our demands that the past would be different and surrendering ourselves and others into the Goodness of God in this present moment.

Forgiveness is independent of the person who has injured us. It is how we set ourselves free of things that have happened in the past. Forgiveness is a precursor to reconciliation, but it is very different than reconciliation.


Reconciliation is an agreement by two people on how they will live together in the future. Reconciliation requires shared values. It would be stupid to be reconciled with someone who does not share our values.

Jesus forgave those who crucified him, and he was never reconciled to the mission or goals of the Romans or the Pharisees.

Martin Luther King Jr. pursued a non-violent dream of equality and he was never reconciled to injustice or to those who perpetrated injustice.

We can forgive Osama Bin Laden and his followers and we do not need to be reconciled to those who create terror.

If we truly want an end to terrorism then you and I must first renounce using fear to motivate anyone, whether they be our spouses, or children, co-workers, parishioners, citizens, politicians, or our enemies. For when we use fear to motivate someone we have become a terrorist in their lives. Only when we give up using fear to motivate people can we lovingly and fiercely challenge those who terrorize us.

When we are in conflict with others we may not be able to achieve reconciliation at the point of the conflict but we may find a deeper place of reconciliation that allows us to peaceably engage with those with who we disagree.

For example in the church we have great conflict over issues of sexuality. Finding reconciliation at that point of the conflict may be impossible but we can find a deeper place of reconciliation in a profound awareness that despite our differences we are both loved by God, and that God's love is not dependent on the rightness of our beliefs, but is dependent purely on the nature of the God of love who loves both the just and unjust. From that deeper place of reconciliation we can find a place of unity that can allow us to live in love with those with who we disagree.

If you have found this understanding of forgiveness helpful you can find more in-depth steps to help people and organizations to forgive those who have hurt them in Restoring Hope: Appreciative Strategies to Resolve Grief and Resentment which is available at:

Rob Voyle

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About the Author

Rob Voyle

Rob Voyle

The Rev. Dr. Rob Voyle is a leader in the development and use of appreciative inquiry in church and coaching settings.

Rob's Approach to Training

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