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Your willingness to forgive could bless many others

‘Could you forgive someone who destroyed your life? The world has reason to be grateful to people who, against all the odds, have found a way to forgive.’

WHEN I was in my early 20s — more than 20 years ago — I was involved with an organisation whose mission was to bring in Bibles to China.

At about that time, it was arranged for me to be ordained as a minister by a church in the United States. I immediately became the butt of jokes here in Singapore. Not long after, for a number of reasons (unrelated to the ordination), I left to enter the “secular” world, and went on to study and to earn legitimate qualifications. However, I know for a fact that, until today, many people have not forgiven me for going around as a “Reverend” at one time.

The greatest challenge most of us face in our lives is swallowing our pride and admitting that we did something ludicrous. It is tough to summon the courage to admit to others — and to God — that we fall short of our best intentions, that we sometimes make a mess of things.

To ask for forgiveness is hard, but I believe it is also extremely hard for us to do the forgiving.

I am 46 now but people still sniggle my back and laugh about how I once used to be a “Reverend”.

Could you forgive someone who destroyed your life? The world has reason to be grateful to people who, against all the odds, have found a way to forgive.

Who can deny the hope given to the world when a person’s suffering or hatred is turned to good effect, either through remorse and repentance or a courageous act of forgiving, or perhaps through a dramatic religious conversion? It encourages the belief that humankind can yet learn to do things differently.

A Vietnamese woman, Kim Phuc, now a Canadian citizen and a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO, is one example. In 1972, the Pulitzer Prize was awarded for a photo of her as a young girl, fleeing naked and screaming from her village, which had just been napalm-bombed in the Vietnam War; it is constantly reprinted. Now, after a miracle of survival, including 17 operations, a stint when she was paraded for Vietnamese propaganda purposes against the Americans, a period of study in Moscow, and emigration to the West, she is set to become a missionary. The way she has overcome her painful past has been a source of inspiration to millions. Her biography, The Girl In The Picture: The Kim Phuc Story, was published in 1999.

Some have found a way to triumph over setbacks and a freedom in expressing this that almost defies understanding; particularly those who have been hostages in the Middle East.

Terry Waite writes in Footfalls In Memory — Reflections From Solitude: “My captivity was certainly a miserable experience which I would not wish to go through again. And yet, almost despite myself, something had come from it. I know that I was able to take the experience of captivity and turn it into something creative.”

Simon Weston, the British soldier who suffered burns over 46 per cent of his body as a result of a bomb in the Falklands War, underwent 70 operations and will have to have more. He is badly disfigured, and can yet say: “It might sound crass but I feel that being burnt and injured has been positive for me. I’ve been allowed to do so much. I’ve achieved a level of contentment that I might not have achieved otherwise.”

An author, a motivational speaker, a raiser of US$30 million (S$53 million) for charities, a vice-president of two charities, happily married with three children, he is on a mission. He says: “I don’t have time to worry about what people think of me — even if I am walking along like a wrinkled chip!”

The most important thing if you become injured, he says, is how you cope. “If you spend your life full of recriminations and bitterness, then you’ve failed yourself, failed the surgeons and nurses and every one else, because you aren’t giving anything back. Hatred can consume you and it’s wasted emotion.”

No one would want to underestimate the physical and psychological damage done by incarceration, often in solitary confinement, or the wounds of personal tragedy or loss that never entirely heal. But thousands of lives, beyond the individuals involved, have often benefited and been blessed by their willingness to forgive.

It is not given to all of us to live through such testing experiences of violence and pain as many of these men and women. But all of us in some degree or other share in the human experience of hurt and disappointment and broken relationships. And all of us can experiment with forgiving or asking for forgiveness. The results can be liberating.

Matthew 6:14 says, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.” In Matthew 18: 21 and 22, when He mentioned “seventy times seven” Jesus was not setting a maximum limit on the number of times we should forgive. He gave an absurdly high number so we would realise He meant for us to forgive without limit. Certainly most, if not all, of the people who could not forgive me, had themselves, committed many sins in the eyes of God, many much more than my being “ordained irregularly”. It is 2003, shall we move on please?

Let us always remember the cautionary word from Philip Yancey: “The only thing harder than forgiveness is the alternative.”

Dr Michael Toon-Seng Loh is a member of Covenant Community Methodist Church.