The Tyranny of Vengeance
“Psalm 37:16-17 is similar to Romans 12:19. The concept is not to take our own vengeance, but to leave space for God to have His vengeance. This is His instruction! This is His promise! However, I know many many many Christians who do not have the patience, or faith, that God will have His vengeance. Or have it in the time or way that they want Him to have it. So they take vengeance themselves. I know these impatient Christians exist because sometimes, I’m one of them. Can you give a sense of what it might look like, what the impatient Christian might TANGIBLY miss out on by taking their own vengeance? Of course, you’ll be guessing because you can’t know for sure. But I often think about this aspect when I personally want to take vengeance myself. It doesn’t always stop me. But I know what I miss out on is greater than any satisfaction I’ll get in the moment.”
It is vital to look deeper than merely the outward expression of vengeance to the more sinister tyranny that it brings into the soul of a person. Vengeance is an expression of idolatry that seeks to rule the life of the individual. How? A person who seeks vengeance has to first believe that God is not capable of or He is not interested in bringing justice to their situation. In other words, for a person to seek vengeance over another person, they must first believe the lie that God is not able and/or interested in justice and, therefore, it is up to the individual to make things right.
Generally speaking, vengeance is “a punishment inflicted or retribution exacted for an injury or wrong.” While the desire for justice is noble and good, the motivation for exacting vengeance is sinful because only God has the ability to satisfy the requirements that committing vengeance requires.
To “take vengeance” an individual would need to possess abilities that only and uniquely belong to God. Abilities such as:
- knowing the truth of the situation (i.e. what exactly happened),
- the underlying motivation for action(s) of all those involved (i.e. why it happened),
- the exact and proportional response for an injustice (i.e. how to satisfy the cause of justice for all involved).
In other words, a person would have to be God to successfully achieve vengeance for only God possesses the necessary qualities of character as well as the attributes necessary to fulfill the requirements that acting in vengeance would demand.
What should I do?
Paul helps us in Romans 12 to understand our responsibility when those feelings of vengeance at injustice well up inside of us. We must remember four things.
I am responsible for my actions.
Paul tells the Christians living under the bitterness of the boot of Rome: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).
When I desire vengeance it places the focus of my responsibility on how others treat me. I can then become a slave to what others think about me and how others treat me. When this occurs, I begin to allow the fear of others to dominate my decisions and lifestyle. However, Paul puts our responsibility on how we act toward others alone. In other words, Paul rejects becoming a victim and embraces personal responsibility. I refuse to be a victim when I focus on my responsibility and not the actions of another.
I am called to trust in God’s acting on my behalf in His time.
Romans 12:19 reads: “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.”
I reject being a victim when I believe God will execute vengeance on my behalf in His timing to suit His glory. The role we play is seen in v. 18, while the role God plays is in v. 19. When I trust in God’s acting, I grow in my understanding of His Lordship over my life, emotions, as well as a conscience understanding that He is my Father and He is God of all justice. I am forced to trust in Him and this cultivates an outlook that affects all areas of my life.
I am called to act toward an offender as Christ has acted toward me (THE offender) in the hope that they might repent.
Paul continued: “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” (Romans 12:20).
Until the time God chooses to exact vengeance, I am called to be part of crafting the story of redemption in the life of the person who is treating me badly. I do this by giving them no reason for how they are treating me. In expressing kindness and generosity, we create a path by which God’s grace can arrest the individual(s) and convict them of wrongdoing. In acting in this way, we play an active role in the possibility of them being delivered from His pending vengeance. Our actions of kindness and generosity create an obvious disconnect and even frustration in the mind of the “enemy” through how we are treating them. The imagery of “burning coals” seems to be one of self-judgment, a conviction of conscience as to how they can continue to treat the Christian(s) so badly when they are working for their good. In this way, we also draw close to the sufferings of Christ, a deeper and intimate communion with Jesus (c.f. 1 Peter 3:8-22).
I am called to put my ultimate hope in God and not in my circumstances.
Paul concludes his train of thought with: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Paul is merely echoing the type of life Jesus called us to. The teaching of Jesus forces us to realize that facing evil will not merely be something we do, but is the instrument through which our very identity is shaped. He said: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11–12). The confidence we have as being true followers of Jesus can only be confirmed under the crucible of facing evil and overcoming it with good, as modeled by Jesus. Peter did this and found confidence and rich communion with Christ:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you
I Peter 4:12-14
Our very identity as being followers of Jesus is directly connected to how we respond to persecution. Our confidence as followers of Jesus will hinge on the tangible fruit of our response of loving in “deed and in truth” as John the Apostle wrote:
Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
1 John 3:18-22