Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, between 1667 and 1670
Have your hurts become part of who you are? If so, it may be blocking you from forgiving someone. According to Father Paul Becker, pastor at the Church of Corpus Christi in Bismarck, North Dakota, when someone clings to a bad experience and is still talking about it a week, a month, a year and more later, it becomes their identity.
I was speaking with Father Becker to get a preview of his talk on forgiveness for a Women’s Lenten Retreat at his parish on Feb. 10. I know from being a retreat organizer that the topic of forgiveness is huge. I also know, from having listened to many of his homilies, that he challenges people to let go and let God. Not to ignore that some wounds are so deep that counseling may be in order, but Father Becker’s words speak to our human weakness in light of God’s divine power.
“People think: ‘I have no control over my life,’ instead of letting God’s grace have power over them,” Father Becker explained. “Holding onto it becomes an unfortunate maze they can’t come out of.”
Why do people get stuck in a maze of pain? “They may want to get out but say they are unable,” he said. “I try to focus them on this being a choice. They are saying, ‘This memory has so much control over me, I can’t let it go.’ They feel like, ‘If I don’t hold on to this pain, I won’t be who I am.’”
God’s Agreement with Us
“To error is human, to forgive is divine, is an old saying,” Father Becker said. “Sometimes we forget that. Forgiveness is something God does for us. In effect, God makes an agreement with us: I will forgive you your transgressions as well as you forgive others. It’s part of God’s plan that we forgive others and he will forgive us.” Thinking that everything is up to us, leads in the wrong direction, he explained. “It’s not up to you, it’s God’s choice. When you put yourself in that position, you are saying you are equal to God. He is the one that decides when we are deserving of forgiveness and he gives it to us freely.”
It’s in our best interest to forgive, according to him. “People that don’t forgive, lock themselves in a prison; they are putting a burden on themselves,” Father Becker said. “In the process of saying they can’t forgive, they are making themselves the victim.”
When someone gets to the point of finally being able to forgive another, Father Becker said it is transforming. “It changes them. People let go of the burden.” Feeling hurt over someone’s bad behavior toward us happens to everyone, he said, but sometimes people identify with being a victim and don’t want to let go. “Everyone has things that happen to them, but to hold on to that is a mistake.”
Deciding not to forgive has serious consequence, sentencing people to a confinement that will eventually cause damage, he explained. “People want to believe they are forgiven by God but then they want to believe other people have done things beyond God’s forgiveness.”
Addressing issues of revenge or getting even, even regarding capital punishment, Father Becker said that some people believe that seeing someone else suffer will relive how they feel. “It’s like that old saying that wanting revenge is like drinking poison and wanting the other person to die.”
Father Becker acknowledged evil exists in the world and that past wounds can affect how some people treat others. “Everyone starts in the wrong place,” he said. “And people don’t always move at the same pace or to the same degree.”
Some people are able to grow and become loving like God, but the key, he explained, comes down to how well we learn to receive from God. “We need to be open to receiving that special grace from him to be as loving as we can,” Father Becker said. “Let God surprise you and take you to a place you’ve never been of love and forgiveness.”