Monday, February 22, 2010

Forgiveness – a gift that is never finished

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.


  1. i like your explanation of it, how its because of our gift of memory that forgiveness is an ongoing process, whenever the particular memory is triggered and we're upset we have to forgive again. the way you put it across also makes a lot of things click in my brain.

    if this was a facebook post i'd click the "like" button.

    thank you very much! (:


  2. So consoling to know that God will never run out of His forgiveness. I pray for His grace to let me never forget to say I am sorry and to ask for His forgiveness. For He always says: I forgive you. I love you. You are mine. Go in peace. Sin no more. Beloved one.

  3. Deliberate actions of betrayal from a conniving heart a la T. Woods, strikes at the very heart of a person's self-worth, makes a mockery of the relationship & debases the norms & value systems of the individual & community. Is it any wonder that the injured party goes on the warpath/vendetta or opts for blessed amnesia & total forgetting ? We can pay 'lip-service"to forgiveness or as you said, make a deliberate attempt to forgive ( =love) as an active act of the will - but is that real forgiveness ? For the spirit of outrage, anger, hurt & humiliation and grief, like a snarling tiger, is still caged within.Forgiveness is a divine gift ( err forgive is divine...)Such gift reposes only in a soul truly liberated ( 2Cor. 3:17 ..where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty..")So unless and until the heart is liberated , I believe it is futile to "pretend" to forgive because it is the 'correct/Christlike thing to do. You also said that" forgiveness gives life' ( yes to the sinner but not to the sinned against- and at what cost ?- the death ( to self) of the victim - so it is the innocent that is again ?

  4. Dear Fr,

    Yes, forgiveness is indeed a gift, which not many of us are bestowed with.

    Some people are more passionate about things, and therefore, feel hurt by wrongful acts more intensely. It is naturally more difficult to forgive when we feel deeply hurt.

    Some people are more black and white about what is right and wrong, and some more grey and accepting of a wider variety of human foibles. Hence, the black and white person will find it more difficult to excuse or forgive a wrong doing, whether in themselves or in others.

    All of us will however, have to try to grapple with forgiveness or risk being embittered.

    If we have faith in God, we will learn to realise that it is not up to us to choose the punishment for the wrong doing.

    For crimes committed, we leave it up to the judges in the courts to meet out the appropriate penalties. Of course, we have to believe in the fairness of the judicial system that we are submitting ourselves to.

    For other wrong doings, if we believe that God is a fair God, likewise, and submit to the fairness of His reign, we will leave the punishment of wrong doers to Him.

    Here comes the conundrum: If God is all forgiving, does He ever punishes the wrongdoer?

    In the Old Testatment, we have seen examples of the wrath of God. In the New Testatment, we are introduced to the loving, forgiving and sacrificial side of God.

    We therefore know that He is capable of both. As Catholics, we also believe in Purgatory, where we have to remain to atone for our sins on earth.

    According to some literature, Purgatory has been descibed as a place of immense suffering and pain, not because of the usual fire and torture image we have of hell, but rather, an immense ache that comes from the longing and yearning to ascend to Heaven, being so close to God, but yet knowing that you have to abide time in Purgatory.

    Apparently, the only wish of the souls in Purgatory is for prayers of the living offered in their name, as this will serve to mitigate their time spent in Purgatory. It is by then, too late for them to do anything themselves to mitigate their sins.

    That said, unless we have all led perfect lives, chances are high that we will all spend some time in Purgatory (with you excepted of course, Fr).

    If so, we are all going to be in the same boat, so who are we to judge others harshly?

    As a person not particularly gifted with the ability to forgive, being passionate about most things and quite black and white to boot, my struggle with forgiveness is gargantuan.

    It is only with constant conscious vigilance, awareness and restraint, reinforced by prayers at my weakest moments, that I have been able to be somewhat partially successful in my struggle.

    So Fr, you are absolutely right. Forgiveness is never ending, it bears repeating and it is also a very deliberate and conscious act.

    God Bless
    A forgiveness-challenged person

  5. What you said, Tessa, is so true, especially when the injured party wants to come back on a warpath. But what I am trying to convey is that true forgiveness in the light of Christ-like forgiveness is not for the weak, but the strong. Perhaps most of humanity is not strong but weak, wanting revenge rather than reconciliation.

    For the kind of godly reconciliation to take place, it necessarily entails that the injured party also take on the image of Christ, and to try to see through the brokenness of the injurer to make that connection with his or her very hidden Christ image. Even Hitler and Saddam Hussein have a very hidden Christ image. And it is the strong but injured party that makes that decision to reach out and connect with that hidden image for true reconciliation. Perhaps it is really in this light that Christ really is the saviour of the world, an aspect that many may have not seen so far.

    But you have said it so rightly - yes, each time the act is remembered, the injured party does die again. And again. But the deliberate choice to forgive will enable the resurrection to be experienced too. So, the adage holds true again - no death, no resurrection. Small death, small resurrection. Big death, big resurrection.

    May we all live anew each day in Christ

    God love you
    Fr Luke

  6. Replying to a comment left by an anonymous reader posted above this previous reply, I'd like to say that he or she has got it wrong. I am not exempted from purgatorial purification. Not I, not the Bishop, and not the Pope. Even the great saints must have had their share of that purification to allow them to be where they are now. Besides, not needing purification after death necessarily means that our present lives here are purifying in themselves. That being the case, I certainly need far more purification than what I have been experiencing. Just remember to always pray for the souls in purgatory. And help in their purification process.

    Fr Luke

  7. Dear Padre

    The injured party "dies" through his or her forgivenss. But the injured party also says "I loved You" because his/her love for the injurer has died. Would this be considered a ressurection?


  8. 'The Wisdom behind Jesus' exhortation to his disciples to forgive seventy seven times seven,meaning without limit,..........,even to one single person,over and over again':-begins to make sense for me.It is fantastic to forgive and you will definitely experience God's Love.That's the uniqueness of our faith.Thank you Fr Luke and God Bless.

  9. Not "loved" as in the past tense, but "love" as in the present, and not just simple continuous, but a present participle as in "I am loving" you. That is because love is never a one off affair, but a decision to do so, all the time, for all time, if it is to mirror God's love. And God's love always leads us to the resurrection. Thank you for your comment.

    Fr Luke

  10. Dear Fr
    I really needed to hear (read) this message and your words stirred within me. Year in and year out I’ve heard the gospel message “to forgive seventy seven times seven” but never took it to task to forgive in the right spirit especially each time i recall the offence. Your blog title sums it up succinctly – that forgiveness is never a finished act, yes because I never said “I loved...” but “I still love…” and so I must still forgive.
    Thank you for this reflection Fr :)

  11. Dear Fr. Luke,

    Who really is gifted peace and healing once real forgiveness has been given. I used to think the GUILTY party; but here's the paradox. The one who forgives experiences just as much healing, grace and peace of mind as the one forgiven - oftentimes it's the aggrieved party that has had the greater weight removed.

  12. Quoting you, "I certainly need far more purification than what I have been experiencing." I think this applies to all of us. I don't see how one can forgive perfectly as God does. But we keep trying... ...

  13. Thank you so much for this post. I never saw the articles on Tiger Woods in this light, nor the fact that "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." In this sense, it is weird then that the people whom we would constantly love are those who have done us wrong in one way or another.

    When forgiveness is raised as a topic for reflection during homilies, I always think seriously about who I should be forgiving. This is rather stressful to me because sometimes either no one or the same person (whom I think I have completely forgave after so long) comes to mind. Does this mean that I have stopped growing? Does it mean that when we engage in community we are bound to "step on each other's toes" and so need to forgive and love one another? Or perhaps this is just a case of thinking too much about a homily. Forgiveness somehow gives me bad vibes, in that I always felt only God who is perfect and all love can be better than someone and so forgive.

  14. for the strength measured not in holding on, but by letting.


  15. You cannot love without forgiving. For it is in forgiving you can love again. To forgive is not just life giving to the "sinner" but life giving to the one who had been wounded. Harbouring unforgiveness within oneself blocks new wine from being poured in. To have new wine poured in, we need to let go of the brokeness, the hurts and pains caused by the "sinner" in the past so that we can say, I forgive (present tense) and I love (present tense). We cannot change the past. We can live for the present and change the future by making a decision to forgive so that we can go on loving and living.