There is little that tries the souls of men and women more than being sinned against. It hurts to be wronged, whether your friends or enemies are doing the wronging. The natural fallen response to being wronged is to return the wrong. The thing you will want to do above everything else when you are wronged is to seek revenge. If someone hits you, you are naturally inclined to hit them back. If someone gossips about you, you want to run to your friends, or the guy standing next to you in line at Subway, and return the favor. Over the millennia, humans have come up with the most creative ways to harm and return harm to each other.
This is especially the case when you have done nothing to merit wronging. For example, what has the faithful husband done to merit his wife cheating on him? What has the burden-bearing friend done to merit her friend burdening her by gossiping about her? What has the child done to merit his parents abandoning him? When you are in the right and your spouse, friend, parent, child, teacher, etc. are in the wrong, how are you to respond?
Students, Basketball, and Revenge
I recall one Wednesday night playing basketball with some young students when one of the older students was scored on by one of the younger students. The little 3rd grader nailed a fifteen foot jump shot over the outreached arm of the 6th grader. Obviously frustrated, the 6th grader angrily pushed the 3rd grader to the ground. I immediately stopped the action of the game to rebuke and correct the 6th grader for his actions. This sixth grader was way out of line. He harmed a third grader who did nothing (except embarrass the sixth grader by straight balling on him) to deserve such harm. As I looked into the eyes of the third grader, there was an obvious fury. I could tell that if I didn’t act swiftly, there would be a sixth grader running around the gym with a third grader on his back swatting and punching. A basketball game would have quickly turned into a UFC match.
After separating the boys and having the sixth grader sit out until the next game, the third grader had to take a break as well. He was too angry to play. It was obvious that he wanted to run over to the sideline and avenge himself against his friend, so as we talked I reminded him that he should not seek revenge. He responded, “Why? He pushed me down. I deserve a free shot.” What a great question. Why? Why should we as Christians not seek revenge? Oh, how many of us would love to take a “free shot” on those who wrongly harm us? The conversation I had with a third grader on a Wednesday night led me to further reflect on why Christians should not seek revenge. I have ended with eight reminders that I pray are helpful for you as you face any number and degree of unjust harm.
When You Are Tempted to Seek Revenge, Remember…
1. God forbids vengeance
On the basis of God’s sovereignty, lordship, kingship, holiness, and justice, God forbids his people to take these characteristics upon themselves and leave them to him. To seek revenge against those who wrong you is to sin against God. Beware satisfying your own justice at the expense of impugning God’s justice.
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” –Romans 12:17-19 Revenge is not an option, because we know that this is the right and prerogative of God alone; He will judge and bring justice to bear. –St. Helens, Bishopsgate, Romans (Read/Mark/Learn), p. 231
2. Examples of enemy-love
Remember those who have chosen against vengeance and rested in God’s justice. Remember Joseph, David, Stephen, Paul, the long list of the faithful in Hebrews 11, and those saints in your life that you have seen suffer and rest in God. Your ultimate example is Jesus. No man was more wrongly harmed than the sinless Son of God. Yet, instead of seeking revenge, Jesus loved those harming him by remaining silent. And do not forget his lovely and grace-soaked words on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
3. Revenge only satisfies sinful passions
When you enact revenge, the satisfaction from it is purely sinful. In the words of theologian John Stott, “It is good never to retaliate, because if we repay evil for evil, we double it, adding a second evil to the first, and so increasing the tally of evil in the world.” While it may initially satisfy your desires to harm those who harm you, remember that you are satisfying sinful desires. The passion to avenge yourself is not a holy passion. Seek to quell, not satisfy it.
4. Good can come from evil
Remember the overarching intent of God for your life: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Remember the example of Joseph. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). While it is conceivable that Joseph had both the right and power to avenge himself against his brothers, instead he demonstrates a holy trust in the sovereign purposes of God. He loved his brothers. Through much suffering and much evil, much good can come. Need a further example? Look at the cross. In the cross of Christ, through the greatest evil and the greatest suffering, God worked the greatest good and greatest glory.
5. God is in control
“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3). Although when you are harmed unjustly it appears that God has his back turned or his hand covering his eyes, the truth is that God is in control of all things–your suffering included. Because God is in control, you can rest and trust him with the injustice that your friend or enemy has incurred upon you. There is great comfort to be found in a God who knows all things and works in and behind all things (evil included) for the good of his people and the glory of his name. Trusting in God’s sovereignty makes forgiving those who persecute you all the more easy; as excruciatingly difficult as it can be.
6. How often you wrong God
When you are tempted to seek revenge, remember how often you unjustly wrong God. Does God deserve your treason, sinfulness, and idolatry? How often do you sin against God? And yet, is he not eternally faithful to forgive you each and every time? The doctrine of justification should stop you in your tracks. If you are confident that God forgives you each and every time you sin (and he does), then seeking and enacting revenge against those who wrong you would be highly ironic and irreflective of your status as a justified and forgiven child of God. Imitate your Father. Forgive those who wrong you. At the very least, be gracious. Do not seek revenge.
7. The Day of the Lord is coming
If you continually face unjust suffering that doesn’t seem to cease, remember that there is coming a day when no injustice will stand as the glorious justice of God will be magnified in the judgment of the Son. This is how Paul describes it:
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. –2 Thessalonians 1:5-8
Gospel Grace for Rest, Not Revenge
Vengeance is an alluring aroma that packs a poisonous punch. It is an assault of God’s character and a pronouncement of independence from God. Vengeance is assuming the work of God. Instead of taking up work that you lack the ability and right to carry out, trust the one who not only reigns over you and those who harm you, but suffered at the hands of sinful men in your place for your justification. May this gospel grace compel you to shower grace upon those who wrong you.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY. with his wife Erica.