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Teach Them How to Forgive this Sunday

Posted: September 4, 2014 by Rob Voyle

In this Sunday's Gospel lesson Jesus admonishes us to stay in a constant state of forgiveness. His words come just days after another 9/11 anniversary and will fall on the ears of a culture that places a high value on revenge often couched in a spiritually dead understanding of safety and justice.

But what is missing in Jesus exhortation to forgive is no indication of how to forgive. Not only does our culture value revenge it clearly knows little of how to forgive and this lack of knowledge extends to our communities of faith as well. I have attended national church conferences on forgiveness and been surprised that the keynote speakers spoke eloquently about the misery of resentment and yet never taught the participants what forgiveness was and how to do it. The end result was that this noted pastoral theologian made us feel better about not being able to forgive rather than how to find freedom by forgiving.

Telling people to forgive without teaching people how to forgive is very unhelpful and contributes to their misery and is likely to them resenting you as well.

Forgiving is actually quite easy when you know how. When I was taught how some 30 years ago I spent several weeks "having fun forgiving" as I reviewed my life history and specifically forgave those whom I resented. It was a graceful time.

To teach people how to forgive the first thing is to help discover the mechanism of resentment. Resentment is something we do, it isn't something beamed to us from Mars, or from people who have hurt us, it is simply something we do today in the darkness of what others have done yesterday.

Think of someone you resent... Become aware of the experience of resentment. Notice bodily sensations such as tightness in shoulders, neck, stomach, or some other part of your body. Now notice your emotional experience... What do you have to do to create these experiences?...

Think of a person you used to resent but for some reason no longer resent... What are you doing differently with respect to the person you no longer resent and the person you currently resent?

The answer is that resentment occurs when we demand today that yesterday they would have acted differently. When we think of the person that we no longer resent, we are no longer demanding that they had behaved differently.

To forgive we simply turn the demand into a preference. We can see the person in our imagination and say to them. "I would have preferred for you to act in another way." (Here we want to say specifically how we wanted them to behave.)

Turning a demand into a preference is important because it allows us to maintain our values. Forgiveness shouldn't be about violating our values with a comment such as "It doesn't matter." What people have done does matter, especially when our values are violated.

We then need to explore the value that was violated and then ask ourselves if we want to experience that value in the future. If we do then we can imagine ourselves sharing that value with others (not necessarily the perpetrator because they may be gone from our world.)

The last step is to wish the person well. In my experience I do so without every defining what that well might be. I simply surrender them into the goodness of God knowing it will be good for them and good for me. When I define the goodness for others there is usually a high probability that I am actually defining it in terms of what would be good for me.

Many people will object quite strenuously to wishing someone well, often because they confuse forgiveness with trust and reconciliation.

Forgiveness doesn't mean we have to trust people who have clearly demonstrated they are not trustworthy, for that would be foolhardy. Forgiveness doesn't mean we open the prison doors and allow people to endanger others. Forgiveness means we may keep in prison not as an act of resentment, revenge, or punishment but as a compassionate way to protect society.

Forgiveness is independent of the person who has hurt us. Forgiveness is purely about how I personally resolve what has happened to me in the past. Reconciliation is an agreement between two people about how they will live and work together in the future. And here is the big rule:

Never be reconciled to someone who does not share your values.

Jesus forgave the Romans, he forgave the Pharisees, but he was never reconciled to them or their mission.

So this Sunday I encourage you to not only talk about forgiveness but actually teach people how to forgive.

Teach Your Congregation to Forgive
Five Week Program

If you find there are many in your congregation who could benefit from a more detailed understanding of how to forgive then consider running the five week teach your congregation to forgive program. For the past 30 years I have been teaching people how to forgive and am continually amazed at how easy it is to set someone free from resentment.

In this program you will receive the resources to:

Teach people what forgiveness really is and what it is not.
• Teach people how to forgive.
• Resolve the internal resistance to forgiving,
   which often occurs naturally when they learn
   what forgiveness really is what it is not.
• Teach people how to be a compassionate presence in the world.

This material is taken from my book Restoring Hope: Appreciative Strategies to Resolve Grief and Resentment which can be found at:

For more information about the Teach Forgiveness program please see:

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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.

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