We live in a culture that says it is ok to take revenge on those who wrong us. We have rap stars who get into spats, a President who tweets, and attacks on social media against virtually any point of view. However, the Bible’s advice about revenge is absolutely counterintuitive:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear 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)
As Paul illustrates what love looks like, he paints on the canvas of human relationships, and he advises believers to be abnormal. Conventional wisdom might say that our self-worth enables us to move beyond revenge, but Paul suggests there is more to it than that. There are a few subtle points in this passage that are important.
A loving person, Paul says, does not exact revenge or repay evil for evil. As he encourages us all to live at peace with those around us, he agrees with what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? ” (Matthew 5:44, 46 NIV).
We are not to seek vengeance when we are wronged, and we can achieve justice by leaving things in God’s hands. Peace is impossible where people seek vengeance. Gandhi reiterated this when he said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Paul encourages us to “leave room for God’s wrath”. This is a striking statement in the middle of a chapter about love, and one of the subtle points that are important in this passage. God’s wrath is a fierce and righteous thing. It is never capricious or frivolous, but always just and appropriate. We can depend on it. It addresses wrongs and ultimately (rightly) punishes those who harden their hearts.
In C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan the great lion is portrayed as loving and kind. But the characters who know him are filled with respect, and even somewhat afraid of him. He is civil and majestic, but fearsome and dangerous. When they describe him they always say, “Oh he’s not a TAME lion”. God’s wrath is something pure, far above our petty motives and selfish ways. Romans 12 says we should allow HIM to administer perfect justice instead of attempting to straighten things out ourselves. SO what does that look like for you?
The temptation to take revenge comes in many situations. I drive a LOT in traffic (in my job, on vacation, traveling, whatever) and I am a fairly assertive driver on a road filled with timid, distracted, or just plain selfish people. Of course I myself am a GOOD driver. As a result I tend to be critical of other drivers, and even offer commentary on their lack of skill, concentration, and judgment. My entire family has noticed this through the years, and it is an area of my Christian walk where I have often been less than loving.
As I have gotten older, I’ve made some progress with my attitude behind the wheel, and have at least become a bit less outwardly demonstrative toward the (bad) distracted drivers around me (which means: I don’t purposely cut them off, make unnecessary hand signals, or give them dirty looks) but I haven’t really lived in peace while driving. Based on Paul’s advice, I am trying to apply Romans 12 to my driving, so I can exemplify a different attitude in the car. (Some days good, some days still not so good…)
I’m not sure that letting someone merge when it’s not their turn will “heap burning coals” upon them, but I could at least offer good in response to evil and trust God to provide justice. Driving is really just a small part of our lives, and there are many ways we could leave justice in God’s hands and allow HIM to take care of revenge: leaving that catty response unsaid, or NOT talking about someone behind their back, or showing grace on social media when someone is so obviously wrong…
But I’m sure you can think of your OWN application of Romans 12. What keeps you from living at peace with others? What frustrates you about your enemies? Next time you bump into one of those things, show some love instead of frustration. Get out there and overcome evil with good. God says He will take care of the rest.
When someone’s actions hurt your feelings,
Insult you and send you reeling,
Listen to Paul’s astute advice:
Don’t take vengeance, just be nice!
You don’t have to pull your sword;
Give your anger to the Lord,
And try to find a better way.
Remember He had this to say:
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay”.
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