By Pastor Glenn Pease
Aaron Burr could have been a great name in American history. He was elected to the U. S. Senate, and in 1800 he was a candidate for President of the U. S. Thomas Jefferson won that election, and Aaron Burr became Vice President. His future was bright, but then he was insulted by another famous political figure by the name of Alexander Hamilton, and he challenged him to a duel. On July 11, 1804 two great leaders of our land shot at each other, and Hamilton died. Burr got his revenge, but at enormous cost. Revenge is sweet, but the bitterness that follows makes you realize what God was trying to prevent by forbidding it. God's negatives are never because He wants to deprive you of anything good, but to prevent you from suffering unnecessary evil.
Aaron Burr lost his popularity because of his sweet revenge. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with him. He lost all his wealth, and he lived in obscurity and poverty for 29 years. He died alone in a hotel room in New York. Our nation lost 2 excellent leaders, and they lost the opportunity to share their potential, and all because of the desire for revenge. A different attitude in Burr's heart could have changed all of history, and made him an honored figure of our American heritage. The facts of history demonstrate that those who are compelled to get even tend to end up way behind. Revenge tends to back fire.
A farmer was having trouble with a hawk preying on his chickens. One day he set a trap and caught the thief. His desire for revenge motivated him to devise a cruel way to punish the bird. He tied a stick of dynamite to the leg of the bird. He then lit the fuse and let it go. Instead of flying into the air, however, the hawk flew into his barn, and the exposition blew up his barn. His sweet revenge turned soar immediately.
If revenge was only a problem for unwise politicians and pest fighters, we could skip this paragraph of Jesus. But we know Jesus has selected sins that would be common to all men for all time. What this means is that few, if any, of us get through life without being tempted to abuse the legitimate desire for justice, and pervert it into a lust for revenge. Frank Hinkle wrote,
A fellerman had hurt me sore,
An fer a weak or mabbe more,
I set around and thought up ways
To even up the bloomin' score.
It has happened to the best. John Wesley as a young pastor in Georgia fell in love with Sophia Hophey. He would not make up his mind regarding marriage, however, and so she suddenly married another man. John was deeply wounded, but he made the big mistake of using his power as a pastor to get even. He debarred Sophia from communion, which was very important socially as well as spiritually. Her husband sued Wesley, and a notice was posted for his arrest. He had to flee his ministry, and even the country. He sailed back to England. He had to learn the hard way that you can't get ahead by trying to get even.
Many, if not most, of the patients in mental hospitals are there because they have become obsessed with resentment and revenge. Masses of the sicknesses and sorrows of our world are due to the determination of men to respond to all offense with a spirit of retaliation. Like James and John the sons of thunder, men want to call down fire from heaven to show others they cannot get by with treating them with disrespect. Jesus rebuked them and said they did not have his spirit. Jesus is not interested in revenge and in getting even, for he knows this an illusion that can only lead to the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys. It stands to reason that if the goal in life is to get even, then after you have retaliated your foes have no choice but to strike again, for he now must also get back at you and even up the score.
If you want to see how effective this method of dealing with conflict is, just look at the history of the Middle East. That whole part of the world operates on the principle of revenge. If you shoot me, I shoot you back. If you blow up my city, I blow up yours. If your goal is to have hell on earth, you can hardly find a better road to travel than the road of revenge. Given enough retaliation you can develop a nearly hopeless situation where hate is the only language that is heard.
People are always saying that the way of Jesus is unrealistic, and it just won't work, and so they don't try it. They keep trying hard, however, at the way of revenge. They work at it with commitment, and it never works. The folly of man is that he will work constantly at what has been proven not to work, but refuses to even try the way of Christ because he suspects it won't work. Man in his folly never even gives the way of Christ a chance, for man cannot tolerate giving up the spirit of revenge. It is so powerful a drive, that once one is obsessed with it he would rather give up sex than give up the pursuit of getting even.
The result is a world with enormous unnecessary suffering. Abigail Van Buren says, "People who fight fire with fire usually end up with ashes." The response of revenge is the way of the natural man. It is normal to feel the urge for retaliation, but the fact is, it is the poorest way to deal with issues of conflict. There are two other ways beside the response of revenge. There is the way of law which is the regulation of revenge, and the way of love which is the reversal of revenge. Let's look first at-
I. THE REGULATION OF REVENGE.
The Old Testament law recognized that man is a revenge seeking being. The need to retaliate to injury is inevitable, but it needs to be controlled, or it will become excessive, and add to the injustice of life. If my neighbor carelessly shoots his arrow into my property and puts my eye out, or if he let's his axe fly out of his hand and it breaks out my tooth, I may get so angry that I want to retaliate by sending his arrow back through his heart, and returning his axe by planting it in his skull. The law put limits on the response of revenge. You could get even, but that is all. You had the right to put out his eye, or to break out his tooth to even up the injury suffered, but you could not take his life for the injury.
The law was good for it kept people from being totally barbaric in dealing with injury and offense. It gave the victim rights to retaliate on a level of fairness, and it protected the offender from excessive violence. The regulation of revenge is what the law is all about in all civilized societies. It simply means that the punishment must fit the crime. This is the only way you can have a system of justice.
The law is not abolished by Christ. It is basic to all civilization. The worst places to live in the world are those places where there is not regulation of revenge. Where people with power can kill and imprison anyone they wish, and where death squads can kill at will anyone they choose. We need to see that the law was, and is good. And eye for an eye, but not a life for an eye. A tooth for a tooth, but not an eye for a tooth, for to take an eye for a tooth is unfair, because the eye is a much greater loss than the tooth. The law said you can get even, but that is all. That is the limit of your revenge and satisfaction.
The most just societies are those where this principle still applies today. Our sense of justice is offended if two men steal a loaf of bread and one gets a 50 dollar fine, and the other is sent to prison for a year. The man sent to prison is paying an eye for a tooth, and this is not fair. It violates the principle of justice that the punishment must fit the crime. No matter how Christian a nation is there is always a need for law to regulate revenge. You know yourself how frightening power can be. How many of us have had some driver tailgate us, or pull out in front of us, or in some other way offend us? You feel that if you had the power to do so they would be pushed into the ditch or all four wheels would drop off, or in some other way our revengeful spirit would be satisfied.
That is why you should thank God everyday that you are not God, and that nobody else is either. His wrath does not fall until the cup of evil overflows. We are ready for wrath when the cup tips and spills a drop or two. That is why we are warned to leave vengeance to God. Nobody will get by with anything ultimately, but if we get involved with revenge we only magnify the evil that God will have to judge. Everybody desires to play God sometimes, and that is why revenge needs to be regulated by law. Jesus said He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. That means it is a false dichotomy to ask, "Are you under the law or grace?" The Christian is in reality under both. His priority is to live by grace, and he is saved by grace, but he still needs the regulation of law.
We still need the law to regulate our conduct when we fail to live on the high level where we ought to live. We do not always love our enemies, and we often still get angry, stubborn, lustful, and defensive. We all would enjoy a little revenge now and then. Four year old James got a well deserved spanking by mom for his misbehavior. When bed time came he knelt as usual to pray. He asked God's blessing on each member of the family. His mother alone was conspicuous by being left out. He rose and climbed into bed, and with a look of satisfaction on his face he looked up at mom and said, "I suppose you noticed you wasn't in it?" We chuckle, but that satisfaction is in all of us at times. We like to see people get what is coming to them. Most of the pleasure of good entertainment is seeing the bad guys get it in the end.
Dr. Roy Angell, pastor of Central Baptist in Miami, tells of watching the great passion play in Europe. When Jesus staggered under the weight of the cross and fell, a Roman soldier struck him. A Centurion uncoiled his long whip and swung it out over the back of his head. He brought it down with a resounding crack, not across the back of Jesus, but across the back of the soldier who struck Jesus.
"Help him up!" he commanded, "And don't strike him again." Dr. Angell said, "I've loved the Roman Centurion ever since." He is saying that we cannot escape it even as Christians. We love to see evil get its due. We enjoy retaliation which pays back evil for evil. It is so normal to experience the desire for revenge, and that is why we need to the Sermon on the Mount, and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Without them we could not add any salt or light to this decaying and dark world. To be part of the answer we must rise above the law to the level of love, and that leads us to our next point-
II. THE REVERSAL OF REVENGE.
The law is good, but the good is not necessarily the best. The law says you have a right to get even, but Jesus says you have a responsibility to do better than get even, and as a Christian you have a responsibility to overcome evil with good. Regulating revenge is good, but reversing revenge is the best. Take the negative circumstance and turn it around, and make it an opportunity to be salt and light.
Does it really make the world a better place to live if the man who put your eye out is also made a one eyed enemy? A two eyed friend who feels bad about injuring you, and who come to appreciate you, would add a lot more light to a world of darkness. Jesus is going way beyond the goals of the law and justice. Jesus is concerned about the loving relationship of people. The problem with the law is that if you stop there, and become a legalist, all you really care about is getting your pound of flesh. Your revenge is regulated and limited, but you are dominated by the thought of getting even. Your right to be satisfied according to the law is more important to you than the privilege of showing love to those who most need it, for they are guilty of violating your rights.
The law is so impersonal. All it really cares about is rights and justice. Love is concerned about people and relationships. You can do everything right according to the law, and feel vindicated, but never have a relationship again with the offending friend or neighbor. Whereas love can absorb the loss, and not try to get even, but prevent the loss of a relationship that can be of far more value than justice in the long run.
This is what the cross is all about. Jesus absorbed the offense of man's sin, folly, and ignorance. He took all of this in justice, and then instead of retaliating in a spirit of revenge He prayed, "Father forgive them." He reversed the spirit of revenge which seeks retaliation, and instead seeks reconciliation. Love is far more radical than law. Law regulates revenge so you do not destroy your enemy. You just get even with him, but he is still your enemy. Love reverses revenge so that the goal is to get rid of your enemy for good by means of reconciliation whereby he becomes your friend.
Love is committed to using the very issues that make this a dark world a world of greater light. The offenses and injustices of life are the reasons why the world is a battle ground, and why everybody is striving for justice. The Christian is to see these offenses, not as matters for legal response, but for the response of love. When the legalist is offended the only question is, what does the law say? The Christian is to rise above this and say, how can I turn this negative experience into a positive relationship where all parties involved experience the grace of God? This reversal of revenge is what makes Christians righteousness superior to legal righteousness.
Revenge may be sweet for awhile, but it turns so bitter that it is never a long range value. This reversal of revenge, however, can add sweetness to life that lasts for time and eternity. Jesus says that the Christian is not to repay and offense in kind, but in kindness. Use the offense as an opportunity to pass on the grace of God. It is what saved you when you were worthy only of God's wrath. The law elevates man above the pagan spirit of revenge, but love is to eliminate the pagan spirit of even needing to get even.
The Christian will probably go through all three stages. He will respond to offense with the natural instinct to retaliate. But he will realize this is not proper, and so he will wonder how to deal with the issue fairly. Then if he prays and seeks the mind of Christ he will break out of the bondage of law, and begin to evaluate how he can be salt and light, and thereby bring good out of the whole negative situation. Pagan revenge says leave the enemy in the dust as you march ahead over his dead body. The law says just get even with your enemy. Love says, so respond to your enemy that he and you both get ahead, and both are winners. Law puts the beast on a chain and says, this far and no further. Love turns the beast into a pet so the chain is no longer needed.
Is this practical, and can it really work? It did with Jesus. He died for those who hated Him, and many of them came to know Him as Savior. Millions of sinners since have done the same, and everybody comes out winners because He responded with love rather than revenge. But what about the rest of us? Robert James told of how after many years they finally had their first child. Larry became his whole life. One day he got a call that Larry had been struck by a hit and run driver, and he was killed. The driver was 14 year old Warren Jones who stole a car as he was running away from an orphanage. Mr. James was so full of hatred and revenge that he wanted to see this Jones boy fry in the electric chair, or choke to death in the gas chamber. There was no punishment bad enough to satisfy his rage.
He called a lawyer and wanted him to prosecute to the limit. Keep in mind, this is a Christian man we are dealing with. To make a long story short, he got through his grief, and began to pray about the matter. As he did Jesus filled him with love for Warren. The story ends with him adopting Warren, and both he and his wife loved this boy as their own son. The tragedy ends in triumph because the spirit of revenge is reversed, and the spirit of love triumphs over the tragedy, and makes this worse of enemies the best of friends. It not only works, it is the only thing that does work if the goal is to overcome evil with good.