Message 101, Summer Songs for Inspiration: ‘Rolling in the Deep’ by Adele, 7-15-12

©  Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

Click here to listen to the message or see below to read.


Using song as a means to get revenge on a past lover or partner has long been a part of rock and roll.  Famous revenge songs go way back – at least to the 1970’s.  Nancy Sinatra wrote one of the first revenge songs.   She sang, “These boots are made for walkin, and that’s just what they’ll do, one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you!”

Carly Simon offered her own version of a revenge song directed at a previous lover – reportedly the actor Warren Beatty.  Her song “You’re So Vain” claimed that a past lover would be so arrogant he would assume the song was about him.  Of course, that must mean she had several past lovers all of whom might boast she was singing about them.

And the early 1980’s singer Blondie – who I remember from my college days – sang a famous version “One Way or Another”, an upbeat dance song, in which she fantasizes – one hopes – about doing off with her past lover by feeding him rat poison.

Today, one of the leading songs on the Billboard Top 100 is a piece entitled “Rolling in the Deep” by the newly famous singer Adele.  She won six grammy awards this past January including best pop singer and best album.  That album, entitled “21”, surpassed the late Whitney Houston’s “Bodyguard” album for the most weeks at #1 in the nation.  The song “Rolling in the Deep” was selected by Rolling Stone magazine as the best song of 2011.  It is also the most popular world song in nearly three decades – finding its way to the top of lists in Britain, France, Latin America and 9 other nations.  Let’s listen now to “Rolling in the Deep”…you can follow along with the lyrics printed on the back of your programs.

Some of you may remember our April message series entitled “The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss”.  I found positive insights from The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and The Lorax but I disagreed strongly with Seuss’ last book Oh, the Places You Will Go for its simplistic message that one’s success in life will be determined solely by hard work, perseverance and a pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality.

I have done the same thing with the songs I chose for this July series on finding inspiration in various current songs of note.  “This Land is My Land” recently re-recorded by Neil Young and “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess both offer positive themes which speak to universal spiritual ideals.  But what about today’s song “Rolling in the Deep”?  Instead of finding helpful inspiration from it – I was struck by its angry and bitter tone.  Far from offering spiritual inspiration, the song appeals to our baser selves – the inner demons in us that lust for revenge – especially against a lover, partner or spouse – who has deeply hurt us.

I don’t want to play the pious Pastor and wag my finger at a song which is, after all, mostly for entertainment – and one that I enjoying for its beat and sound.  Even so, as we have discussed over the past two weeks, songs have a unique ability to speak to the deepest parts of our souls.  For any song, we must ask ourselves, does it ennoble us or does it pander to the darker recesses of human nature?

Experts and anthropologists note that the human desire for revenge comes from a survival instinct to lash back at someone that threatens.   Such behavior, experts assert, comes from the earliest days of our evolution.  The human sense of reciprocity is operative – if you hurt me, I must hurt you back to keep things even.  In order to maintain early social order, no individual could prosper through unfair actions – like stealing, murder or rape.  Fairness demanded retribution.

Consistent with the idea that cooperation builds moral imagination, as humans evolved and moved toward organizing themselves into clans, tribes, cities and nations, individual vengeance became counter-productive.  Violence tends to create more violence and vengeance is often more severe than the original misdeed.  While humans are rational beings, nature has also given us passions far beyond our survival instincts.   Instead of reacting to an attack with defensive actions designed to protect – and then moving on, humans remember and ponder a perceived injustice long after any threat to one’s survival has passed.

Vengeance, for humans, is thus often not a survival reaction but a selfish impulse.  Our sense of self has been violated and we can only feel good about ourselves if we equally punish the other.  Since humans lie, cheat, steal and act selfishly all the time, acts of vengeance could be very common.  Social order and communal cooperation demanded humanity adopt attitudes to diminish anger.

While Adele laments the hurt of knowing she and her lover could have had it all – the so-called British slang term of rolling in the deep of total, loving commitment – she also angrily hopes he will suffer, despair and be forced to worry what she will do next.  Beyond the humiliation of having her side of the break-up immortalized in song, this cad of a lover must now ponder the angry fire in her belly – the hate, bitterness and bile she has for him.  Indeed, Adele admitted that the song was written as an “f – you” to her former boyfriend.  He hurt me.  I’m gonna hurt him even worse.

While some may cheer Adele’s strength and resolve not to be treated as a doormat, the ultimate message of the song is not uplifting.  It tears down not only the ex-boyfriend, but Adele as well.  She has descended to his apparent level of one who speaks and acts with selfish disregard for the other.  BOTH of their actions are defined by their self-absorption.

Many experts and therapists, therefore, advocate the spiritual and practical benefits of forgiveness in romantic relationships.  Instead of acting out and causing further hurt, or suppressing anger and putting it off for another day, forgiveness acknowledges anger and then consciously chooses to let it go.  Forgiveness is a healthy response to a hurt.  This not only benefits the offender but also the offended.  Do we wish to stew in our own toxic brew of bitterness and bile, or do we aspire to live in peace?  Which is more satisfying, less time-consuming and likely to produce happiness?

Too often we assume that forgiving someone is an act of weakness and that it encourages or even rewards bad behavior.  One of the reasons Adele’s song and other revenge songs are so popular is that they appeal to baser notions that we must fight back.  The only way I can prove I am as strong as my opponent is to hit him too.

Counter-intuitively, to forgive is not a weak act.  As Gandhi put it, “Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”  When we consciously refuse to hit back, when we turn the other cheek, when we choose love over anger, we choose to step outside the boundaries of natural behavior and into the realm of sublime and spiritual human power.

Indeed, to forgive a partner, spouse or anyone else is to offer one of the few forms of unconditional love we have to give.  To forgive is to offer love in response to hate without any expectation of return.  If the other does change or is truly contrite, love has accomplished its goal to enlarge itself.  If the other does not change, one has still extended love into a world where there is so little of it.  And one’s soul has been enlarged as a result.

Such soul enhancement comes directly from moving beyond common human behavior.  Striking back against someone who hurts us is a gross form of arrogance.  We assume we are too good to be hurt.  What we fail to remember is that we are also flawed and weak creatures.  Each of us has hurt others.  Try as we might, we are not perfect and we will hurt again – many, many times.

What Jesus encouraged and many experts echo is that we must refuse to render judgement on others.  Moral indignation at a slight or hurt we suffer prevents us from seeing the act as part of human frailty.  One of the most beautiful story lines in the New Testament is that of Jesus lovingly defending the woman caught in adultery.  He challenged those who condemned her to a stoning death.  “Which one of you has not also sinned?” he asked.  “Which one of you is blameless?  Which one of you self-righteous men have not also lusted or sexually sinned?  Let only he who is perfect throw the first stone.”

Implicit in Jesus’ defense of the woman is the idea that by forgiving others, we are ultimately pleading to be forgiven ourselves.  I have hurt many people in my life and yet, if I choose to react with anger towards someone who has hurt me, I implicitly shut the door to receiving any forgiveness myself – past, present or future.  Jesus said that we must forgive as we too wish to be forgiven.  “But I tell you who are willing to listen,” he said, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you and pray for those who mistreat you.  To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer also the other.”

By understanding the human frailty of our offenders, we empathize with their actions and thus enlarge love.  We need not condone the hurtful acts but we instead seek to understand the deeper motivation behind them.  The offender may not have intended to do harm or he or she may have acted because of some past injury to his or her soul.   Empathy involves choosing to walk in their shoes and see as they see.  If we do so, we not only draw closer to the offender, we deliberately promote love.

Such was the case of the adulterous woman Jesus saved from stoning.  Later on, we see her pouring extremely expensive lotion on Jesus – using her hair as a cloth.  By experiencing his forgiveness, she was a changed woman and her heart overflowed with love and gratitude.  The power of forgiveness was greater than any misdeed.

When we choose to understand hurtful behavior, we might also discover our own role in being hurt.  Many times, in big or small ways, we have contributed to the situation.  We are often partially at fault.  In many relationship disputes, blame can be assigned to both persons.  Genuine forgiveness of the other then must include a sincere examination of one’s own role in the hurt – followed by forgiveness for the offender and oneself.  The goal, once again, in relationship disagreements or break-ups is to diffuse anger, restore peace and renew love.  Holding onto bitterness, anger and thoughts of vengeance do not create peace or build love.

It is important to recognize that forgiveness does not mean one prevents the law of consequences from happening.  Forgiveness does not replace justice.  It merely diffuses hate and anger.  Justice may demand compensation, apology or changed behavior.  The law of consequences assumes that boundaries are established so that offenders reap what they sow and cannot indiscriminately repeat their actions.  If you strike me, I will forgive you and work to eliminate my anger and thoughts of retribution, but I will take steps to prevent myself from being struck again.

Indeed, to forgive is a loving act that may also require tough love.  I will not hate you for what you have done and I will not seek vengeance against you but I will explore ways to encourage you to change.  I will not be a doormat but I will also NOT enable your negative behavior by seemingly condoning it.  If you lie to me, I may not trust you until you re-earn it.  If you verbally hurt me, I may not engage in conversation with you when you are angry.  If you continually hurt me, I may choose to separate myself from you but I will not hate you nor will I speak to you in anger.

Ultimately, what we gain when we forgive and refuse to harbor anger is a triumph of our goodness.  By refusing to play the victim, by refusing to see ourselves as someone who is hurt and angry, we not only renounce the petty demands of our selfish demons, we assert our power and strength over the situation.  No longer does the offender have control because of his or her actions.  When we forgive, we take back control.  We are the ones determining the course of events.  We are not the pitiful victim wallowing in a sea of self-focused anger and despair, but the one who has truly overcome.  We are not the loser but the victor.

I have told some of you about my past divorce from the mother of my daughters.  Despite the hurt from finding out I am gay, Kirby was not angry or vindictive.  In ways that I can only partially understand, she must have felt all the confusion a woman feels when she realizes a man she loves is not attracted to her.  That must have hurt her very deeply but it did not cloud our years of mutual affection.  Neither of us were perfect in our marriage and yet we did love each other.  She came to understand why I married her and she empathized with my need to move on.  We easily managed a division of our assets and we committed to jointly raising our girls.  We remain good friends and I will always know her as my first love.  This gracious and beautiful woman gave me a gift of unconditional love and forgiveness for the pain I caused.  What I did was not deliberate, but it was still an act born of fear and cowardice.  But the past is the past and we produced two gorgeous and thriving daughters whom we would not have were we not married.

The pathway to forgiveness is easy to know but difficult to follow.  First, one should acknowledge the hurt one feels.  Don’t suppress such feelings.  Second, find ways to be at peace about the hurt – use meditation, prayer, or reflection.  Third, take inventory of the offender – be willing to see the whole person and focus particularly on what is good.  Work to think loving thoughts toward the other by remembering his or her kindnesses and positive qualities.  Fourth, find empathy for the one who hurt you.  Seek to understand why he or she acted as they did.  Put yourself in their shoes and see the situation from their perspective.  Fifth, honestly examine if you contributed to the hurtful act.  Don’t accept blame where there is none, but be willing to see your own role in the episode if there is one.  Sixth, accept that true love for the other may include appropriate boundaries designed to protect yourself and prevent future pain.  Allow for natural consequences to occur – not ones you create to punish the other.  Seventh, make a conscious decision to speak with peace and kindness to the other.  Tell him or her you forgive them and express your love for them.  Forgiveness is not an instant act.  It is a process.

My friends, hurt happens.  We can often act as brutes toward one another – especially those closest to us.  But the greatest statement that might be said of any of us – now or long after we are gone – is that we were a forgiving person.  As Jesus said, those who build peace, who work to diffuse violence and retribution are those who will truly inherit the earth.  This is a vision which I believe is an evolutionary possibility for humanity one day – hatred will end, cooperation will prevail, diversity will be embraced, selfishness will cease, and the lion will, indeed, figuratively lie with the lamb.  If this world that we envision is to come to pass, it can begin with us – in our relationships with partners, family and friends.  There is far too much hurt in the world.  Let us do the work we are called to do as a part of any faith community – may we strive to diminish pain in ourselves and in others.  May we sing not songs of bitterness, but songs of love, peace and forgiveness…

I wish you, one and all, peace, joy and love…