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Rev. Douglas Taylor

As many of you know, I have an annual tradition of preaching a sermon on the topic of forgiveness every fall in connection with the High Holy Days on the Jewish calendar. I have said, many times, “Forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity.”

For Jewish people, the new year is a time to begin again, to return to the path of becoming the people they are called by God to become. Through the course of each year, they read through the whole Torah. At this time, they complete that cycle and begin again. To enter the process, they repent of their sins, of those things that get in the way. They offer and seek forgiveness. I have said before that I find it “remarkable to have an annual opportunity to engage with the experience.”

Over the years, I have offered sermon after sermon extolling the great virtue of forgiveness. I have talked about self-forgiveness and forgiving others, how to seek it and how to offer it, how it plays out in personal relationships and on a more global scale. I have explored topics of peace, anger, hope, and healing each through the lens of forgiveness.

I have said,

“[Forgiveness] does not only serve as a tool for repairing relationships, it can be about healing your own spirit so you can move forward again. Forgiveness is about freeing up the energy we had spent in our anger, our resentment, our grudge. Our anger and grief consume our spirit. Forgiveness is about letting go, about allowing healing.”

I mention all this to be clear: I am a fan of forgiveness. I am a proponent and an encourager. I am in favor of forgiveness. Today, however, we’re going to spend some time talking about not forgiving. Let’s linger for a time in the consideration of when not to offer forgiveness.

I have two paths that have led me into this topic. First, I put a question out to my colleagues this summer. I asked …

“Every year I preach about Forgiveness in the fall. I’ve been at the same congregation for 17 years and am wondering what I’ll tell them this fall. I’d love to hear suggestions.”

And I was surprised to hear a few responses along the lines of – ‘hey the world is a mess, let’s talk about what we don’t forgive.’ Or, like the story of Moishele letting God off the hook,, a few colleagues suggested we may well be wondering how to forgive 2020 for what an awful year this has been – and perhaps we shouldn’t.

This started me down the path, wondering: When is it a bad idea to offer forgiveness? When is it better to hold back on that until something else has been worked through first, something like justice or truth, or even grace? Maybe it’s not time for forgiveness yet. And if that’s how it might work for something big like the awfulness of this year, might it also be true for something smaller and closer like events in your personal life?

This line of thinking opened me to the second pathway into this topic. There is a song that came our a few years back now by an artist known for her party attitude and her dance music, Kesha. Her early music was a lot of ‘let’s get drunk and have fun.’ But this song I’m going to talk about came later. The song I’m talking about is called “Praying.” It is a ballad about the healing she fought to have after her abusive relationship with her producer.

The perspective offered is about the power of healing. She begins talking about the abuse. The opening line of the song –

Well, you almost had me fooled

Told me that I was nothing without you

Oh, but after everything you’ve done

I can thank you for how strong I have become

’Cause you brought the flames and you put me through hell

I had to learn how to fight for myself

And we both know all the truth I could tell

I’ll just say this is I wish you farewell

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’ …

She doesn’t say, ‘I hope you’ re somewhere suffering the way you made me suffer.’ She doesn’t say, ‘you hurt me, I hope you are now hurting.’ Instead she says ‘I hope you’re somewhere praying. I hope your soul is changing. I hope you find your peace, falling on your knees, praying.’ Instead of following the usual script of seeking revenge, Kesha sings about letting go.

Someone once said, “Forgiveness is me giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me.” (Anonymous) 1800’s preacher and poet E. H. Chapin once said “Never does the human soul appear so strong as when it foregoes revenge, and dares forgive an injury.” But here’s the thing, in Kesha’s song, she indicates that what she’s offering is not forgiveness. She offers instead her hope that her adversary will change, but not because she has forgiven him. In the song’s bridge, she sings:

Oh, sometimes I pray for you at night

Someday, maybe you’ll see the light

Oh, some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give

But some things only God can forgive

Kesha, in this song, is not offering her forgiveness. Instead she is offering the hope that her adversary will change.

Call to mind someone you feel has done you an injury, someone who has hurt you. Maybe they are still in your life, maybe they are not. But there is something still unresolved between you. (If you can’t call to mind a personal relationship, it may be easier to consider a celebrity or political figure whose actions you find hurtful even though they are not directed at you personally.) Call to mind the injury, the wound, the hurt they gave you. Maybe even the anger and pain you felt as a result. But don’t get lost in that. Instead, imagine yourself wishing that person to ‘see the light,’ to experience a change in their soul; but specifically not you forgiving them. They may find some forgiveness but not from you. Instead, what you wish for is for them to do their own work and become a better person. Does that feel different from forgiving them?

Here is what I think is happening in this. In the song, Kesha does not have any wish to reconnect with her adversary. She doesn’t want to repair the relationship. She doesn’t want to continue to have that producer in her life. She is working to let go rather than forgive. She is focused on her own healing rather than repairing a broken relationship.

Perhaps when we talk about the value of forgiveness for ourselves – even if we do not maintain the relationship in question – maybe that’s not actually forgiveness. Maybe healing and forgiveness go together most of the time, but not necessarily every time. Separating the two ideas is helpful. Sure, they travel together most of the time; but healing and forgiveness are two different things.

Think on the analogy of physical healing. If you have been cut – maybe you had surgery, for example – you need to heal before you go exercising again. Forgiveness, in this analogy, is a workout with another person. It takes heavy lifting. To offer forgiveness is to do that heavy lifting with someone. If you do it when you have not yet healed, is just painful and likely to perpetuates the harm. It might even make it worse.

If you are in an abusive relationship, don’t forgive that person. Leave, heal; later we can talk about forgiveness if that is warranted, but it might not be. There is an element in our culture that comes out of Christianity calling for instant forgiveness. It calls for us to offer forgiveness like Jesus on the cross. Forgive them, even while they hurt you. I say, that’s not a good idea. That is not the lesson we are meant to learn from that scene in scripture.

Now, I am not saying you should hold on to your grudges. I am not suggesting it is good or healthy to want vengeance or to stew in your anger. All I am saying is that to wish for someone to change – to pray for them to become better – is not the same as forgiveness. We can let go of the anger and the pain as we heal, but that doesn’t mean we need to let our abusers back into our lives. I am not saying we want those who have hurt us to suffer. I am suggesting that we can want those who have hurt us to also heal, that they may grow and stop hurting people.

And, forgiveness is a second thing.

Forgiveness is about letting them back into your life, about repairing the relationship on a new, healthier foundation. Or, don’t. I don’t think forgiveness is a spiritual imperative. I think healing is more important. Quite likely there will also be forgiveness, because once you have healed, you will find you have the strength, and probably a yearning, to do the hard work of forgiveness. Some of this, I must confess, I have learned from Lois Einhorn and her work on Forgiveness. She has said healing was her goal. Eventually she offered forgiveness to herself, only to discover ‘forgiveness for those who had hurt her’ was happening as well – almost as an aftereffect.

As with the song from Kesha, the goal is healing. Repairing the relationship through forgiveness may or may not also happen. But I implore you to not rush forgiveness. It is a powerful tool of transformation; but it is not good to fake it or pretend you’ve done it. That will likely backfire. Focus on healing instead.

Yes, forgiveness couples with healing in extraordinary ways. Forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity. And it may not be what is required of you yet. It may not be your work to do. Such a transformation is not to be expected in every situation. I’m not saying don’t try for it. Hear me saying, relax and heal. I am certain that I will come to you next year with a plea to lean into the art of forgiveness. Have no doubt that I will return to my usual encouragement for us engage in the good, hard work of forgiveness. But for today, step back. Let the hurt and the anger flow away. Save forgiveness for another time. Let today be for healing: your healing and the healing of those who have hurt you. Let today be for healing.

In a world without end,

May it be so