Monday, September 9, 2013

Not letting bitterness embitter our world

It should come as no surprise that there are many, many people in the world who have bitter hearts caused by disappointments, hurts, disillusionments and acrimonious encounters with their fellow human beings.  Moreover, quite a number of these negative encounters may have occurred years or decades ago, and there seems to be a certain unwillingness to let go of these past hurts, leaving the one holding the memory stunted, in pain, wanting some sort of revenge and if the Church was involved, very skeptical and negative toward the community of the Body of Christ.

First of all, nobody ever promised us a perfect Church or community.  We are so broken as individuals and even as a community that it should come as no surprise that there will be experiences of much negativity and perhaps even scandal simply because each of us, though on The Way (an ancient term that referred to Christianity), we are also travelling at different speeds, moving with different motivations and perhaps constantly being distracted by the little side roads and lanes that cause us to deviate from really following The Way of Christ and The Cross.

Secondly, I think we need to realise that the Christian way has a lot to do with living with large and giving hearts.  There would be many who would say that the Christian way is about following Liturgy and getting our Theology right.  While I wouldn’t deny that those are important, what is far more important is transferring all that we pray and study about into a lived experience.  How do we live with heart that are large and are willing to excuse rather than accuse?  How do we become freer and more liberated from our past wounds?  Do we know what it is that makes us want to hold on to our hurts like some prized trophy of life which we put on proud display and often take out and dust and polish them to make sure that the hurt and the pain and anger and unforgiveness shine and gleam even after ten or twenty years?  Are we willing to want to move and grow in the real image of Christ? 

Thirdly, I have come across some Christians who have been hurt by others who have a very negative and strange notion of life and death.  One person I met said to me “Father, I am so unwilling to forgive so-and-so for the hurt he caused my family, and me I am sure I will go to hell after I die”, and this person was no nonchalant about just what hell for eternity was!  While I can commiserate with a person’s feeling of hurt and pain and how terrible the scars of the past must be, I am puzzled to see how being present weekly at receiving Holy Communion and being present at the community’s liturgical prayer can numb one from being aware that one needs to become who one consumes. 

To be truly honest, living large and with a large heart requires much training and practice.  No one get to the point of being a perfect disciple while one is truly “On the Way”.  We take baby steps in the direction of goodness, honesty, truth and forgiveness.  Sometimes these ‘tests’ are small and easy to spot, and rather easy to handle.  But at other times, these ‘tests’ come at a time when our defenses are down and we are caught unawares.  The Church is such a huge organization that we are not always at our best when the lives of our parishioners have needs to be met.  Sometimes we make the mark, and sometimes, we fail.  Asking the question “why did you fail me?” can be a pointless question as there are myriad possibilities that can emerge as answers, and when we have bitterness in our hearts, we are hardly willing to listen or to even give the benefit of the doubt to the injuring party. 

Rather, perhaps the better question to ask ourselves is “why am I so willing to live with an embittered and small heart?”  Part of the answer lies in the fact that most of the time, we are unaware of what Kierkegaard commented once – Jesus is meant to be imitated and not just admired.  What many cynical and embittered people do not realise is that when they hold a grudge against others, they are really handing over their power and gateway to happiness to the very person who they are harbouring a grudge against.  Ironical as it may seem, they have enchained and impoverished themselves from living a truly liberated life as a follower of Christ.  What they think makes them ‘happy’ when they polish their trophies of hurt and past pains so often become instead the very thing that constricts their hearts, preventing them from truly living large.

The wonder of Christianity is that the key towards living freely is to look frequently at the Crucifix, where Jesus paid the ultimate price for our small hearts and sinfulness.  The irony there writ large is that Jesus may have been nailed to that Cross, with no ability to move any limb, becomes through his love of the Father’s will and his largess of heart nurtured through years of intimate communication with the Father, the most free person in all of history, when he mouthed the precious words “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”. 

When we are reminded of the adage “To err is human, to forgive divine”, we are really reminded that each of us baptized in Christ has that divine image and that we need to recover, embolden and show forth this image as disciples of Christ.  Again, I am reminded too of a misconception of forgiveness when I am told, “I can forgive but I cannot forget”.  Since when did forgiveness require dementia?  Unless I have missed something in Scripture, I have not come across Jesus instructing his disciples to pray for forgetfulness.  A hallmark of true forgiveness is when we are willing to see the incident or person who has hurt us as something that happened, without that quickening in the heart that nurses the wounded heart, and decides there and then that one wants to live large, become another Christ, and say with conviction “Father, forgive them for they knew not what they did”. 

No, I know it is not easy.  That is because living this way sometimes opens us up to further opportunities of vulnerability.  But living this way means that we have to often imitate Christ in the way that he too often fell to his knees, imploring the Father to do in us what we can never possibly do for ourselves.  


  1. Dear Fr Luke
    Reading your post today urges me to share my first real need to return to my Lord and my God for the first time yesterday.
    Since Easter this year, I was blessed with leading a life in Christ and being his instrument in counselling others and in my lectors ministry as well. I was protected from my main sinful urge in life and did many testimonies in his name.

    But two days ago, I walk straight back into my sinful habit without reservation and simply just sinned against him. I was even able to say many No to temptation not long ago.

    By the grace of God, the blessings didn't stop. I was determined to get to confession to ensure this sin do not stay another day. It is the first time in my life that I went back to the Lord because he loved me and I loved him too.

    I found my peace. I found my self esteem and my true self. All because he loved and forgive me all my life. He is my Lord and my God. Amen.

  2. It will take a lot of courage and persevarance to surrender our will and desires to God if we truly want to lead a life that is free from the bitterness from the past. Even to this date, I am still trying to digest this verse from Isaiah 43:18, "Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past." It may seems easy to read this sentence, but to be able to surrender all the past hurts and wounds totally, is another challenge.

  3. However, Mother Teresa has a quote, "Love until it hurts. Real love is always painful and hurts; then it is real and pure." Isn't she imprisoning herself?

    1. She certainly is. She is imprisoning herself in the love of Christ, just as St Paul says that he is a prisoner of the Lord. The problem here is how we understand the word "imprisoned". Because we are weak and sinful human beings, all altruistic and genuine love will always entail a certain sacrifice, but one that is based goodness. When I mentioned that unforgiving people can be imprisoning themselves, that comes from a totally different understanding of imprisonment - it's diminishing and unhealthy, and worst of all, destructive. Mother Theresa would never advocate self destruction.

      On an analogical level, when we advocate living with enlarged hearts, there will also come with it a necessary pain based on love - perhaps in the same way that a person with a physically enlarged heart suffers much in life.

      God bless.
      Fr Luke

    2. Thanks for this enlightenment, Fr Luke!


  4. Dear Father Luke
    Your post today brought laughter as I am fond of saying 'I can forgive but cannot forget'.
    On a serious note, I have not been able to let go of the hurt I felt at my initial confessions just after my Baptism. I felt 'judged' by what the priest said and I have never gone for another confession since then. 6 years have passed and I still can't find the courage to walk into a confessional. I even stopped attending penitential mass until last year but never stepped up for confession. Your post today has set me thinking again.
    Thank you Father. May God continue to heal you and bless you with a full recovery.

  5. Dearest Fr. Luke,

    Thank you for your post this week, the journey of forgiveness is an arduous yet indispensable process and often, forgiveness is needed in many levels, not only for others but also forgiveness of self.

    I know of friends who chose to remain angry with themselves for their “stupidity” in relationships, alienating themselves in joyless existence and some who takes offence in careless words and actions, without realising their emotions, more often than not, speaks more loudly of their “sore-spots” in need of self-forgiveness and acceptance than the behaviour of their perpetrator.

    I sincerely believe that God gives us emotions and ‘saint-makers’ in life to teach us about LOVE. As the cliché saying goes – Those you love the most, will also be the ones that can hurt you the most.

    I remembered words of a good friend, after suffered a hurtful broken relationship, when she has all the “rights” in the world to feel embittered and bewail to the world, told me – Through this experience, she fully experienced God’s love for us, as she deeply loved her boyfriend and waiting for his return, likewise, God also loves us as deeply and is longing for our return to Him. – Amazing and insightful words she had spoken, and left me blown away till this day. ;}

    I am not as wise as my good friend, and when handling my “saint-makers”, many a times, though I had begrudgingly forgiven them, I had also deliberately distanced myself from them, in fear of being hurt again. And I know, in the deepest recesses of my heart, as I try to grow in holiness, to imitate Christ, that this “self-preserving” wall is my stumbling block for love and maturity.

    As you said - "That is because living this way sometimes opens us up to further opportunities of vulnerability. But living this way means that we have to often imitate Christ in the way that he too often fell to his knees, imploring the Father to do in us what we can never possibly do for ourselves. "

    The struggle of every Christian's calling, “How much do I want to be like Jesus?” - To put away my old self, for God to create a new heart (His loving heart) in me, it will not occur overnight and a lot of grace from the sacraments is needed...

    It is courage and grace to make the daily choice of ending the butterfly effect of anger, malice and unforgiveness, letting goodness and grace permeates us instead. And one day, God will liberate us to pray for our perpetrators, giving us the grace to see that they too were once broken by others, and in need of healing themselves.

    PS: Fr. Luke, I remembered you saying this in confessional, that every time when I seek reconciliation, is because I had hurt God, yet He forgives me every time and all ready to love me again… (so I am called to love as He did)… Words once seems so daunting, with God’s grace- is now a goal that am embarking towards, for I know God will always be there to pick me up when I fall … ;}

    Hope you are recovering well, Fr. Luke.
    Praying for you as always, Take care.

  6. “..........we need to realise that the Christian way has a lot to do with living with large and giving hearts.................................” - and that should not be difficult to do, if we were to believe- that made in His image and likeness, we would have His beautiful mind and heart, His dignity. Yet, we fall short and oft times we are disappointed, frustrated and embittered through our dealings with others – probably because our pride has been wounded or we have been made to feel very dispensable after all. And so we spiral from anger to rage, coldness to cynicism and bitterness.

    Sometimes, if the hurt, sadness and humiliation turn inwards and is directed to ourselves ............ for not standing up to our belief or for compromising or betraying what is best in us – depression may come to stay. This I believe was what caused a good friend of mine to attempt suicide.

    Yet, we Catholics are called the Alleluia people (I still remember how one of our RCIA inquirers surprised me by this term) We are the people of the and life-loving - and like you said we need to transfer all that we pray and study about into a lived experience............and that includes facing up to our inadequacies and to enter into our brokenness.......... “to surrender in helplessness to a God who can fill in all those places where we are lost and learn that salvation lies not in our capacity to be strong enough never to be broken, but in the opposite...........”

    And if we contemplate the cross long enough,.......... “we may realize that Jesus continues to suffer until the end of time in the countless people whose hearts and bodies are broken............” ( Nouwen)

    God bless you, Fr.