“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 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.” 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” (Rom. 12:14-21).
“Love is Patient and Kind” (1 Cor. 13:4).
In the book of Jonah, we learn of Jonah the prophet who fled from God’s command to preach to Nineveh, Israel’s arch-enemy at the time. God told Jonah to preach of His coming wrath towards Nineveh. But Jonah ran away to Tashish instead. He was later swallowed by a great fish sent by God, vomited up on the shore, and then he went to Nineveh in obedience to God. He preached, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4)! Nineveh responded by repenting and calling out for God’s mercy (Jonah 3:6-10). Therefore, God showed them mercy and spared them. Jonah was furious. He argued, “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah fled to Tarshish because he did not want Nineveh to repent and receive God’s mercy. He wanted God to wipe them out. He desired revenge, not repentance (Jonah 3:1-4:11). God is God. He can show wrath to whom wrath and mercy to whom mercy, due to His holy and loving character. His ways are always just.
Have you ever been unjustly wronged? Has someone taken advantage of you financially? Has someone abused his or her authority over you? Have you ever been abused emotionally, physically, or mentally? Or, maybe you know someone who has been unjustly wronged?
If so, what is the correct Christian response to being wronged?
This issue is a difficult one. If we have been wronged or know others who have been made victims, the temptation is to desire evil things to happen to the guilty. Just look at the various “discernment” blogs across the blogosphere. Many prove their lack of discernment in blogdom. They want blood now, and they’re willing to sin (slander, speculate, believe accusations without evidence, etc.) to get it, all in the name of “desiring repentance,” “protecting the innocent,” or “protecting the truth.” Yet, how can one “protect victims” by creating more through slander and unfounded accusations? How can one truly “desire repentance” while seeking to destroy the reputations of others over sins that haven’t been proven? And how can one “protect the truth” by sinning?
If we’re to be like Christ, we should desire the repentance of those who have wronged us and wronged others, since their sin is ultimately against God. We should not desire to take vengeance into our own hands. A desire for revenge is sin. “Returning evil for evil is sin” (Rom. 12:17; 1 Peter 3:9). We must be like Christ who said about those crucifying Him, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Of course, it’s not wrong to desire the sword of justice to be wielded by the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-7). That’s why God ordained governments. Furthermore, it’s not wrong to desire God’s justice (Isaiah 66:22-24; Rev. 6:9-11) or Christ’s justice displayed in the local church through biblical discipline (Matt. 18:15-20). What is wrong is to desire our own sinful justice as if we are gods, as if people ultimately sin against us and not ultimately against their Creator. Jonah should have rejoiced over Nineveh’s repentance instead of calling God’s mercy unjust. Who is Jonah to question God? The goal of life is God’s glory, and if He is glorified through showing grace or wrath, we must rejoice in Him. He is always just.
Therefore, in light of these negative examples, how do we define and recognize a desire for revenge in our hearts? Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest theologian, is helpful here. Concerning the difference between desiring someone’s repentance and desiring revenge, he wrote,
To be satisfied for their repenting, when they repent from a sense of their error, is right. But a satisfaction in their repentance, because of the evil that is brought upon them, is revenge (Jonathan Edwards, “Diary,” in Letters and Personal Writings (WJE Online Vol. 16), 779).
In other words, a loving heart says, “How dare they sin against God! Do they not know who He is!?” and thus, rejoices when they do repent and are reconciled to Him; while a vengeful heart says, “How dare they sin against me! Do they not know who I am!?” and thus, rejoices only when bad things happen to the guilty or when they meet some other arbitrary list of demands that go beyond reconciliation with God. Moreover, once someone repents toward God, those who desire repentance will be satisfied. They’ll rejoice in the repentance of those who have sinned against God. But those who desire revenge will rejoice over the evil that occurs to those who have wronged them or if no evil occurs to them, they’ll feel like justice hasn’t taken place, even though through the cross God is just and the justifier of those who repent (Rom. 3:23-26)! Justice has been served for the guilty who are repentant and are now in Christ! Oh, the wondrous cross!
Once again, it is not sinful to desire God’s justice or the justice of the governing authorities that wield God’s sword (Rom. 13:1-7) or Christ’s justice through biblical discipline in the local church (Matt. 18:15-20). But, when justice is not rendered, we must trust that vengeance is God’s, He will repay, says the Lord (Rom. 12:9). In other words, the sins of others in refusing to carry out God’s demands for justice does not justify our own sinful attempts to take justice into our own hands through slander, speculation, assuming the worst, etc. A lack of Christian love is never justified (1 Cor. 13:1-8). If we have not love for the guilty, we are nothing! If we’re willing to sin to get “justice,” it’s not justice we seek; it’s revenge.
With these realities in mind, do you desire the repentance of those who have wronged you or others, or do you desire revenge? Does vengeance belong to you or to God? If those who have wronged you repented before God and showed fruit of this repentance, would you rejoice or would you be like Jonah? Would you not be satisfied unless evil happened to them? Would you call God’s mercy unjust?