Retribution. Revenge. Retaliation. These are words announcing the settling of scores. While it’s difficult to see any modern movie or television show that is not abundant with themes of reprisal, vengeance is not a new action or concept exclusive to the twenty-first century. By retribution, men—nations—have executed genocide in the name of religious, tribal or racial hatreds for millenniums. Wars continue to this day over some seemingly unanswered provocation occurring decades prior. Even the Bible reminds us of the sons of Jacob taking up swords in retaliation over the rape of a beloved sister. And while the atrocities of the violator against Israel’s daughter were great, so too became the vengeance of the sons of Jacob against the uncircumcised inhabitants—so much so that the patriarch himself determined in regards to his sons’ actions:
“You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land…”¹
I understand the tendency to repay evil for evil. Anger. Wrath. Rage. These are powerful emotions that move men to seek vengeance against wrongs. In the heart of man lies the desires to correct violations and to answer injustices. And while passions may burn for decades over unrequited abuses, it is an uncivilized society that takes justice into its own hands meeting out retribution for self-satisfaction. Here is where vengeance spirals out of control and falls squarely into the hands of vigilantism.
But God has provided a different plan. He places judgment in the hands of civilized governments giving them authority to execute justice for the oppressed and violated. It’s only when a society ceases to believe in a living God that vengeance finds revenge and retaliation becomes a tool in the hands of the average citizen. When a government fails, God answers the wicked and the righteous alike by declaring, “Vengeance is mine!” In fact, the author of the book of Hebrews wrote in chapter 10, verses 30-31:
“For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Still, that begs the question as to what the believer does when faced with such injustices. Paul, the Apostle, writes to the Romans in chapter 12, verse 19 these exacting words:
“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.’”
You have to believe in the living God to behave in this manner. The institutions and means that God arranged for governments should be sufficient to satisfy the human quest for avenging and repaying wrongs. And when that gets out of balance, someone who believes that God is good and will correct the society, must know that God will issue His decree of judgment against the unjust governments. Still, according to the Bible, in this condition what is the behavior of the believer to be? Paul lived in one of the most unjust civilizations ever on the face of this earth. And he wrote in that era to the Romans, chapter 12, verses 20-21:
“To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Though that might sound not quite bloodthirsty enough, it is the way to bring equilibrium back to a society filled with actions of personal retribution, revenge and retaliation. And how great a shame it is when, within the church of Jesus Christ, we find Christians repaying evil for evil. The answer: always seek to do good to one another and everyone! It’s a choice we make every time we’re feeling slighted, angered and desire revenge.
J. Robert Hanson
¹Genesis 34:30 ESV