Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
—Romans 12:17-21, NIV
If you have ever been horribly wronged, you have felt an overwhelming desire for revenge.
Once, when some kids in my old neighborhood slashed the tires on my car, I found myself consumed with a desire to secretly slash the tires of their cars. Once a young drug addict broke into my house after midnight and terrorized me for three hours by holding a pair of scissors to my neck while he robbed me. I felt helpless and angry, and at first I wanted to do the same thing to him. I imagined all sorts of things I would do to him to repay him for frightening me.
Another time when I was walking through my neighborhood, a dog began to attack me. The best way to avoid an attacking dog is to stand still and not move, which is what I did, so I was not harmed. But I was angry! I fantasized about taking a club or a spray can of Mace along the next time, and as I finished my walk I regretted not noting the address on the house so I could take my revenge on the dog’s owners by calling the Fairfax County Animal Control Office.
Revenge is a normal, natural fleshly emotion that we all feel from time to time, when we’ve been overwhelmed, or wronged, or overpowered, and were unable to resist or prevail.
But what shall we do in situations like that?
I wrote a story about an anthropologist from outer space named Bobo, who was mugged while walking through Washington, DC. He was outnumbered, so he made no attempt to fight back because he knew he would lose anyway, and at least this way he might cause his attackers to pull their punches. Later, when he was recuperating in the hospital, a psychologist paid him a visit. She recommended that he learn a martial art or carry a weapon so that he could defend himself.
Bobo asked the psychologist for a clarification: “If someone hits me, does this mean I can hit him back? And she said yes. Then Bobo said, “So if he hits me, I can hit him, but if I can hit him, he can hit me again, and so on without ending. That doesn’t seem to be very practical.” But the psychologist insisted that he should ‘defend’ himself. Bobo replied, “But if evil is returned for evil, then evil is propagated and therefore wins!” The psychologist, now very frustrated, protested that it was a nice attitude, but he could be killed. Bobo replied, “I would rather be known for the quality of my life than the length of my days.” The psychologist was speechless and left the room.
What is more important to you, to survive a mugging by adopting the value system of the muggers and becoming as one of them, or to die in a mugging as a Christian martyr? I didn’t say this would be an easy question, but what is more important, your limited physical life, or your eternal spiritual life? This is not an academic question. I’ve faced it head on myself. When things get tough, do you trust God, or do you take matters into your own hands? As one who has done both, I recommend trusting God. The outcome is better.
Jesus taught us that our treatment of other people is a function of our own personality and should not be based on what we think they deserve. Paul reflects that teaching here. In other words, if I am a nice person, I will be nice to everyone, not just to people who are nice to me. If I am nice only to people who are nice to me, then I possess no particular virtue, because even nasty people repay niceness with temporary niceness. Gangsters reciprocate kindness, but they reputedly kill the people who offend them. So if you pay back good with good and evil with evil, then you have the same moral code as a gangster. What sort of person are you? How should you comport yourself?
But what about our desires for revenge? Paul has part of the answer, the rest is in the Psalms. Vengeance belongs to God. If you act out of a sense of outrage, you probably won’t think things out before you act. Since you are a human being, you probably won’t know all the pertinent facts, and even if you do, you won’t be in a position to take them soberly into account. Therefore, refer these emotions to God and let God take the revenge. Contract it out to God! Of course, this is only a satisfactory solution if you trust God, so when you contemplate this you’ll find your faith and your sense of spiritual identity coming into consideration. This is not an easy topic to ponder.
If you take revenge, you might feel guilty in the morning when you’ve had a night to sleep on it. If you don’t take revenge, you might burn forever in suppressed anger. But if you defer the matter to God, trusting God to do the right thing, you can retain your dignity and get just revenge at the same time.
The Psalms teach you how to do this. Read Psalm 69, for example, and ponder that it is in the Bible. Some people think that Psalms like this, generically called ‘imprecatory Psalms,’ represent a lower morality where God is invoked as a hit man, but I don’t agree. The imprecatory Psalms validate your anger and permit you to get your lust for revenge out of your system. At the same time, they acknowledge the inadequacy of humans to take just revenge, and defer to God’s judgment.
Adam wore a fig leaf to conceal his nakedness from God. We laugh, because God made him and knew what he looked like. Nevertheless when we pray, we keep things polite and dainty, as if not to offend God. How Adam would laugh at our fig leaf! God made us and knows our emotional dynamics! He knows our lusts and fears and rages, so why do we conceal these things from God in our prayers? Our prayer etiquette is a hypocritical sham, and a major obstacle to our spiritual maturity.
If you feel a need for revenge, tell God about it. Tell Him what you’d like to see done to that person, then defer the whole matter to Him, to do what He sees is fit.
It sounds like foolishness, but it works.