The comments and questions about forgiveness since my last blog entry on the topic have been not only interesting, but also very revealing. I realise that it is a topic that touches many lives, and many find it a great challenge to practice it, because it has so many facets and yet, is something that is necessary if we are to live authentic lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Here is another take on this subject, which I believe, is something that I will return to again and again.
The Tiger Woods scandal that has rocked the golfing community has sent its ripples outward, affecting even people who have never stepped on a golf course nor held a golf club. That is because the issue here is not about golf. Now, it is about his numerous infidelities that have been brought to light since the scandal broke in late 2009 that have kept him in the spotlight.
A few days back, Mr Woods came out of his self-imposed silence, and held a press conference (I have not, and don’t really intend to see this), in which he apparently apologized repeatedly, and admitted that he had only himself to blame. In our local paper yesterday, there was a full-page article about this, and in the usual press style, numerous people from Singapore as well as noted celebrities were quoted, giving their views on the public apology.
What is at the heart of the whole matter now is, I believe, forgiveness for a wrong (or a series of wrongs) that have been done. It’s far deeper than just a golfing matter. The man has asked for forgiveness from many people, and whether he makes a comeback in golf or in life, or in his marriage, depends to some extent, on whether forgiveness going to be given to him. But this morning’s blog entry is not about Mr Woods. This has never meant to be a ‘celebrity blog’, and never will be. It will always be about helping people on their spiritual journey in life.
I am wondering if the problem with many people and their inability to forgive (be it Tiger, or their own spouses) such a transgression lies in wanting proof and assurance that this will never happen again. As a priest who has counseled numerous couples who have had such issues or problems in their marital life, it does seem that our ability to forgive hinges very much on wanting concrete proof that our hearts will never be torn, wrenched asunder and left bleeding again. And I can understand why such conditions want to be given before forgiveness is extended. The mending of a heart is no joke. It takes years, or decades for some, because the wounded heart has a memory.
And herein lies the paradox of forgiveness. We want it to be a one-off event (at least most of us do). We seem to be want to be able to say that on a certain day, at a certain time, in such a situation, I FORGAVE that person, and have now moved on. And we hope to never go back to that painful time, that wounded memory ever again. We want to close the books on that tumultuous and testing event, and live as if that had never happened. And unless God deems it necessary to give us amnesia or dementia, most of us do not forget that easily. I say it again – forgetting does not mean forgiving. Forgetting is merely proof that our memory cells have died or degenerated. Forgiveness doesn’t kill cells. Forgiveness gives life, because forgiveness is very much connected and stems from love. All love gives life.
Whether one is Elin Woods (Tiger’s wounded wife), his children, the extended family, the country or the world, the forgiveness that Mr Woods is asking for requires from the wounded ones, not just a one-time forgiveness, but an on-going forgiveness. Not because Mr Woods is going to renege on his promise of renewed fidelity, but because we are gifted with memory.
Each time we think of his philandering ways, or any of our own past hurts, something happens to us. And it’s not just Tiger Woods. It could be your own spouse, your recalcitrant children, the undermining office co-worker, the selfish and egotistical superior, or the dishonest employee. Think about the surviving family members of the Holocaust. Our forgiveness has to be on going, as long as our memory lasts. Each time we think of their acts which have hurt us, we may notice our pulse rising, perhaps nostrils flaring, blood pressure rising and us getting irritable. Those moments are precisely the moments when forgiveness has to be given again and again and again.
I am quite certain that this is the wisdom behind Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples to forgive seventy seven times seven, meaning without limit. Forgiveness not to a whole host of people, but perhaps, even to one single person, over and over again. And each time the memory comes back, it is an invitation to make that decision to forgive again, anew, and with a certain deliberateness.
I think this is one aspect of God’s forgiveness of our sins that we don’t really think much about. It’s skewed theology to say that God forgets our sins the moment he forgives. I prefer to extend the mercy of God to such an infinite magnitude that sees him forgiving us over and over again each time he sees us, and our entire lives are before him, played out with our foibles and wrong choices, and he makes that decision to love us and forgive us each time. That must be the wonder of heaven that awaits us. And our giving each person here on this earth that ‘touch of heaven’ is the call to every disciple of Christ.
And that is why forgiveness is never a one-off act. Forgiveness is a gift that like love, is never a finished act. Because we never say “I loved you”. It’s always in the present tense if it is a love that mirrors God’s love for us.