Monday, February 1, 2010

Forgive, but don't forget

“Father, I can forgive, but I cannot forget”.

This is a very common lament made by many people who have experiences of being hurt, often by loved ones, and seem to come to a wall or a roadblock in their spiritual growth, even when the guilty parties have expressed contrition and sought forgiveness. To me, that one cannot forget simply indicates that the person has no sign of dementia, and is not suffering from any form of memory loss. And this is could be good.

It is a misconception that when we forgive, it means that we should automatically forget. If this is the case, there is very little true forgiveness in the world, because our history books are filled with records of past hurts, violence and hatred that has caused much suffering and turmoil in the generations before us.

It is nowhere stated in the Sacred Scriptures that we are to forget either, when we forgive. Jesus never taught that, and the very fact that as Catholics, one of our greatest symbols of God’s love for us is the crucifix, where we carry around our necks the image of a bleeding, bruised, bloodied and dying man, shows that not only should we remember, but that we NEED to remember just what true love and forgiveness is. And while bejeweled crosses, adorned with precious stones may be pretty, it doesn’t strike one as something that was once used to publicly execute and shame an innocent man who was nailed to it for our sake. No, we need to remember, and if we don’t, we become lesser people for it.

So what is forgiveness then? In a nutshell, I’d say that forgiveness is when I can look at the whole memory of what had happened in the past, and there is an ability within me to not hold this against the person or persons involved. It’s not a denial of what had happened. Denial always has a negative impact on us, and in time, it will surface and cause us new problems in different aspects of our lives. But healthy forgiveness is when I can see the landscape of what had happened, and look with new eyes at the person with whom I had that issue. I look with the eyes of compassion, and see a new possibility of living from that point on with a newness and with hope.

Perhaps an example would help. In this tiny island republic of Singapore, we have insufficient fresh water to cater to our population. To supplement our water supply, we have what is called NEWater, which is purified water. Used water undergoes stringent purification and treatment process using advanced dual-membrane (microfiltration and reverse osmosis) and ultraviolet technologies. Singapore is not the only country in the world to do this, as this is already practiced in some places in the United States for some 20 years already.

Many Singaporeans have an aversion to NEWater. They tend to only see what the water was before it was purified. So, in their minds, they see the water’s past, which in our case, is water from our sewage. There seems to be a psychological block that prevents them from looking at the purified water (which is extremely clean and pure) separate from its past. In other words, they have not ‘forgiven’ the water’s past.

But if we see the potential of this purified water from the moment of its purification, there is a lot of ‘hope’ for it. It can be made into unlimited other types of beverages, sustaining life and providing hydration, which is vital to anything living.

While I am not advocating that drinkers of NEWater always have the image of putrid and stinking sewers in their minds when they hold a bottle in their hands, it may help if we see the potential that this water has from the time its purification ended and it was bottled. That something from an almost toxic past could become good and usable for us now, must give us a newness in embracing it in its present form.

The same goes for forgiveness of others and their past. Perhaps many people harbouring a hurt past are still stuck in their ‘sewers’. To see a new potential, especially when there is sincere remorse and a heartfelt conversion in others is to get mired in an unpurified past that doesn’t give life and certainly is toxic.

I know all analogies are imperfect, and this one must count as one of them. But at the heart of it is our shared need to take in with compassion the past, present and the future of everyone with new eyes of faith. Only this will allow us to truly be people who usher in the Kingdom of God.

So, should we forgive? Certainly. But forgetting may endanger our committing the same horrors and pains to others.


  1. Dear Father

    Thank you for this wonderful analogy - it helps me to see forgiveness in a different light, and something that i can relate to as well. Like the water's purification process, sincere remorse and heartfelt conversion does warrant forgiveness, however, in some cases, what i find most challenging is when the transgressor is unrepentant and continues to offend. This is when i feel incapacitated in the relationship and see no future. Sadly, keeping a distance seems to be the only solution.

  2. Dear Fr,

    When you first mentioned this, I was saying to myself "Where got such a thing? How can one forgive and not forget? Aren't forgiving means to forget?" But the more I reflect on it, the more sense it makes.

    I suppose if one forgives and not forget, one is capable of forgiving again and again if the same trangression is made over and over again. Because in this case, one is challenged to look at the past without resentment, hatred or repulsion; and to remember that hope and love that led to forgiveness.

  3. Hope and love led to forgiveness,and so no matter how often we have to face the same transgression,over and over again,it becomes a challenge to see it in a positive light.Hence not being able to forget is a good thing,as we are able to experience the power of God's Love helping us to forgive even though the other did not ask for it.Thank you Fr Luke.

  4. Dear Fr,

    I completely agree with you. When the transgressor is repentant and asks for forgiveness, it is still easy to forgive. But what if the trangressor does not repent? Forgiveness is still necessary if it is a loved one, but it becomes challenging when the transgressor pays lip service and continue in her ways. What's worse, she may demand "unconditional love", where she can be loved for what she is without needing her to change. What then, Fr? I am at wit's end.

  5. I'd like to reply to this last comment using a similar reply which I gave to a comment left on my blog on "Our Yearning for Originality" which I just posted. You may want to scroll to the bottom of that comments page to see the last part of my reply about loving those who are not repentant and remorseful. Thank you kindly, and God bless.

    Fr Luke

  6. I like this line in yr para. on forgiveness in a nutshell - "I look with the eyes of compassion and see a new possibility of living from that point on with a newness and with hope." I feel this is especially so when one goes about forgiving ( but not forgetting) the 'unforgiving moments'of one's life. Both Judas & Simon Peter betrayed Jesus - we are told that after this act, Judas went out & hanged himself, whereas Peter went out & wept bitterly. I've often wondered why Scripture allows us to see this terrible dark side of these two men.Was it to teach us to 'weep bitterly' at our dastardly wrongdoings, our failing moments and so allow God's grace to 'sublimate' them into life's learning experiences - albeit painful ones - and thus we are 'redeemable '?? Whereas- left to our own devices- our ego-centric nature tends towards a 'subjugation' of these failings or weaknesses, willing them into forgetfulness - and when we cannot forget to remember them - we face the dilemma of Judas ........?

  7. Hi Father,

    I doubt you remember but I once asked/said something similar to you. And I've always remembered your reply, which was exactly what you have written here. (Except for the NEWater analogy, of course). It really helped me to forgive, and move on.

    Thanks again Father =)

    Hope everything's going well in yishun! come back n visit us in IHM more often when you're free! =)

    God bless,

  8. Dear Fr, having read the reflection on "forgive but don't forget" reminded me of what you shared about God being commonly viewed as a "toxic God". I really enjoy listening to your homilies. They are very refreshing, insighful and thought-provoking. Thank you. I was very inspired by your sermon on Sat at the sunset mass in OLSS -- I must confess that many times, I do view God as "toxic"! I truly agree with you. Thanks for that reminder that God forgives even when I have NOT repented [ having said that, I don't mean to say that I am now free to "not repent" since God is all forgiving all the time :-) ]. Truly, it was very good reminder to me to reflect on what kind of relationship I have with God. Thank you Fr.
    God Bless. Valerie Heng.

  9. hello fr luke,
    would like to ask, what is your view on healing of hurts? is the forgiveness of the transgressor somehow linked to healing? and how does healing of hurts proceed after the forgiveness is given, especially if the transgressor is not around? or would healing already be part of the forgiveness process?



  10. Thanks for your comment, Ivy. I'm going to approach your comment this way. We often think that forgiveness is a one-off event or affair. We seem to picture it as if it is a point in time where we say with all our heart "I forgive", and from that point on, live life in a freed way. If only it were that simple. The truth is, it is not. Forgiveness is never a completed event. It is something that we must choose to do, over and over and over again. We can never really say "I have forgiven", but "I am forgiving". And it is when we make that decision to constantly forgive the past, that we will find ourselves also constantly being healed.

    God bless

    Fr Luke