By Pastor Glenn Pease
The Revolutionary War was complicated by the fact that it was often also a Civil War. Families were on both sides of the conflict. William, for example became the governor of New Jersey because of the influence of his famous father. The shocking thing was that William wanted to be loyal to the crown of England. This led to a crisis, and after a heated battle with his legislature he was sent to prison for two years.
When he was released in 1778 his heart was filled with anger for the colonies, and he fled to the British to join them in the fight. He became a leader in terrorist activities against the very colony as he had served as governor. When King George created an official guerilla army in 1780, William was made its leader. Revenge drove him to lead his men to arson, rape, mutilation, and murder. He was so obsessed that even when the war ended in 1781 he kept up the violence and brutality in New Jersey into 1782. Benjamin Franklin called the war in New Jersey a Civil War, and he knew, for the revenge-ridden man who kept it going was his only son-William Franklin.
What a paradox that one of our founding fathers had a son who sought to destroy our nation in its infancy. History makes it clear that one of the quickest ways to ruin your reputation, and put a blot on your name is to let the spirit of revenge take control of your life. Much of the evil of this world is due to the seeking of revenge. The problem is, it is a vicious circle. When you get even, the one you got even with does not feel the score is even until they get in another hit, and the result is the spirit of vengeance winds up as a Hatfield and McCoy type conflict where there is no end to the injury.
Revenge itself must be avenged. It only takes a spark to get a fire going, and that goes for the fire that destroys as well as the fire that warms and uplifts. That is why vengeance is an emotion that a Christian must always keep under control. It is not that it is not a legitimate emotion. In a world of evil and injustice where you or others are hurt by man's inhumanity to man you cannot escape the feelings of anger which cry out for vengeance on those who inflict such suffering. Even the saints in heaven cry out in Rev. 6:10, "How long, sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge and avenge our blood." God does not say shame on you, but just be patient.
Never to feel the desire for vengeance is to lack the Spirit of God who feels it constantly. Numerous are the text which say vengeance is mine saith the Lord. The vengeance of the Lord and the day of God's vengeance are common themes of the Old Testament. The point being that evil will not escape, and the injustices of life will not be ignored. God will set everything right, and so the feeling of the need for this is not wrong. I am not expected by God to feel guilty about the desire for vengeance. It is a normal feeling for anyone who cares about justice. The feeling is God-like. The problem is in the actions this feeling generates. This is where we need to face up to our limitations and surrender to God's authority. That is why Paul says in verse 19, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves." Notice it is an absolute-never. Human revenge is never the will of God.
I read of a college professor who was awakened at 3:00 A. M. by the phone. The caller said, "This is your neighbor. I just wanted to let you know your dog is barking and keeping me awake." The professor thanked him and hung up. The next morning he called his neighbor at 3:00 A.M. and said, "This is your neighbor. I just wanted to let you know that we don't have a dog." That was clever, but not Christian. The original caller made a blunder, but revenge did not likely make him a better neighbor.
The point of our text is, you will feel like taking revenge in life, for nobody gets by without being the target of some injustice or some foolish mistake, or even pre-meditated meanness. The feeling for the need for revenge is normal, but Paul says not to act on it, for when you do you become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. This text is almost identical to the teaching of Paul when he said, "Be angry and sin not." The emotion is not forbidden, for it is impossible not to feel it. But do not follow through and let this emotion determine your actions which will then make you a contributor to the total package of evil. The Christian is in the world to reduce the level of evil, and not to add to it. Therefore the Christian is to be one who does not let his feelings run his life.
The reason a savage is a savage is because he does just what he feels. He feels you have offended him by stepping on his territory, and so he feels angry at you, and feels he should get revenge, and so he kills you. The more civilized men become the more indirectly they kill the intruder. The more Christian men become the more they leave judgment to God and concentrate on the hope that their so-called enemy may yet become a friend. The Christian agenda in life is not to get even, but to get ahead by overcoming evil with good.
It is a curse to become obsessed with the need to get revenge. When you are the victim of injustice this does not mean you are not to press charges as a Christian, and seek to have criminals arrested. This does not mean you never take people to court that justice might be done. Paul demanded his rights as a Roman citizen. The Christian has all kinds of rights, and he ought to demand that they honored. Paul is talking about the Christian becoming a peacemaker in his society, and not a trouble maker. The Christian is to live peaceably with all men in so far as this depends upon them. In many cases the enemies of the Christian will not permit this peaceful relationship, and so the ideal will not be achieved. Paul's point is that it ought never to fail being achieved because of the Christian.
You cannot make other people choose to live in peace, but it must always be your choice. The Christian must be one who is ever ready to forgive rather than get back at another for the evil they inflict upon him. The Christian has a choice to make as to how he deals with the emotion of anger that leads to the desire for revenge. He will either choose to be overcome by evil, or overcome the evil with good. Paul says it is a matter of choice, for he commands us to choose the second and not the first. This means that if a Christian becomes obsessed with the need for revenge it is because he made a choice to go that route. He chose to let his feelings rather than God's will determine his action. The result will be that the Christian will not set the record straight, but will add to the record of folly, and add himself to the list of those to be judged.
David Augsberger said, "Revenge is the most worthless weapon in the world. It ruins the avenger while more firmly confirming the enemy in his wrong." Paul says if there is ever a time to apply your Christian faith it is when dealing with an enemy. This is where the Christian can really be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Do just the opposite of what is normal. You feel like getting revenge, but that is the time to act in love and fed the enemy. It is so contrary to human nature that the enemy will be defeated by your love. This reversal of revenge will as powerful a force for good as revenge is for evil.
Paul gives an illustration that is so obsolete in our culture that it is hard for us to see his point. He says that if you feed your hungry enemy and give your thirsty enemy drink you will heap burning coals on their head. This almost sounds like Paul found a loop-hole in his own high standard. It is as if he was saying you can't get revenge directly, but I found a back door by which you can get into the arena of vengeance and watch your enemy burn. This is not what Paul is saying at all. He is using a familiar image of his day to say that by love you can do what hate will fail to do. It was a very common practice to eliminate an enemy scaling your city wall by dropping from the top of the wall heaps of burning coals that would destroy both the enemy and his ropes and ladders.
Paul is saying that in Christian warfare we do not fight with such weapons, but rather with love, care, and kindness in meeting the enemy. But in so doing we heap coals upon his head. That is, we defeat his enemy spirit and eliminate his threat. But not by wiping him out, but by winning him over into our friendship. This is what he means by overcoming evil with good. He is not referring to literal hot coals, but to the burning passion to win the enemy with love.
The good news is that it works. Back in 1818 Tamatoe, the king of a South Sea Island, became a Christian. He discovered that some of his fellow natives had a plot to seize him and other Christians, and burn them to death. He captured them all, and instead of killing them when they were in his power, he had a feast for them and talked with them. He shared his goals with them. They were so overwhelmed that they burned their idols and became Christians.
During the Korean War a Christian leader of an orphanage saw his 19 year old son shot before his eyes by a young communist leader. Later when that communist leader was about to be executed by the United Nations forces who had captured him, this Christian father pleaded for them to spare him and release him into his custody. His request was granted. He took the murderer of his own son and trained him, and he became a Christian pastor. Just as a firing squad would have eliminated the world of this enemy, and just as heaps of burning coals would have eliminated this rebel, so the love of this Christian father banished this enemy from existence. But the Christian way was far superior, for it not only got rid of an enemy, it added a friend to the family of God. It overcame evil with good, which is the only real way to win.
Christians have proved all through history that what Paul describes here is the Christian strategy for conquest that works. Food and drink have brought millions of people into the kingdom of light. The director of the Christian Student Center in Bangkok and a dynamic leader of the church in Thialand was once an enemy of the church, just as was the Apostle Paul. He was a Buddhist who won a scholarship to go to a Christian college. For the first time in his life he had enough to eat. Some of the Christian students found him crying and asked why. He explained that he now had so much, and his family still had so little. So the Christians took up an offering at the school. They packed a large sack of rice and it was taken to his family. They could have rejected this man for being a Buddhist, and had no compassion on him for his need. But because they went out of their way to show love by meeting his need, he became a Christian, and one of the most dynamic Christians in his land.
Of course, not all respond to love. Many rejected the love of Christ, and many will reject our love, and so not all enemies will be eliminated by this strategy. The point is, this is how the Christian is to deal with the negative emotions of anger and hatred, and the desire for revenge. They are felt, and they are real when the Christian is hurt by injustice, but the Christian who goes by the Word of God does not let how he feels dictate his action. It is probably life's most common form of idolatry, however. The Christian who lets his feelings be his guide rather than the Word of God is an idolater. The Christian lives by his feelings, he lives on the same level as those who have no other standard. This explains why Christians can do so many things that are so sub-Christian. They simply do not control their feelings, but let their feelings control them. This leads to the loss of sanctification in that particular area of their lives.
Francis Bacon said in his famous essay on revenge: "This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal." This illustrates why Christians are not to handle their own revenge, but are to surrender it to one who can handle it, and that is God. Man is not made so that he can express this emotion wisely. God can do so with perfect justice, and make sure that the measure of judgment fits the crime. Man does not have the wisdom or control to be this precise.
The wise Christian surrenders this right to God. You have a right to feel hurt and offended. You have a right to feel the offender should pay for his evil. But you do not have the right to exact the payment. That is presumptuous, and is a taking on of a responsibility that only God can justly carry out. So Paul says to leave it to the wrath of God. Don't worry that in the end injustice will triumph. The God of all justice will make sure that all evil not repented of will be justly punished.
So you see, your emotion or feeling of revenge is not wrong. It is a justified feeling, for God has it Himself, and He will satisfy all the legitimate vengeance that is necessary. What is wrong is for you to take God's job into your own hands and try to meet out judgment. Revenge is rejected, for it is a form of idolatry whereby a man says, "I will rise above God and take over His duties and crown myself the Lord of all." Such was the spirit of Satan, and such is the spirit of all who will exalt themselves above God rather than submit to God.
Terrorism which is so much of a part of the world scene is a primary example of the result of men taking upon themselves the task of getting revenge for life's injustice. Man is constantly trying to usurp the authority of God, and the result is that we live in a world of terror. There is room for revenge in God's plan, but it is His job and not man's to execute it. The wrath of man does not work the will of God.
No one has ever wronged you more than you have wronged God, and so just as you place yourself in God's hands of mercy, so you are to yield up all your enemies into those same hands. If they never repent they will be justly punished. If they do, they will be your brothers and sisters in the family of God, and like you be saved by grace. Either way the destiny of your enemy is not in your hands. If he repents, only God can save him. If he continues to rebel, only God can judge him. God has not delegated these two functions to anyone. "Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord." God reserves this right to Himself.
History reveals the horror of what happens when Christians have assumed that God had vacated his office of Judge, and left man free to take over the reins of revenge. The Inquisition in Spain, and the witch hunt of Salem, Mass. are two terrible examples. 20 people were executed for witchcraft in 5 months in 1692. But what we seldom hear is that it was Christian leaders who put a stop to this spirit of vengeance. They prevailed upon the governor William Phip to stop the proceedings as contrary to the will of God. Samuel Sewall, one of the judges, publicly repented for being used by the frenzy of the masses. He admitted that it was likely that innocent people were condemned. The spirit of vengeance had led many good people into evil and folly. It is an obsessive emotion, and if it is not surrendered to God it can become a cancer of the soul.
Lucien was a highly respected leader in the state of Kentucky many years ago. A good friend of his ended up in the state pen. He went to the governor and asked if his friend Sam could be pardoned, and put in his custody. He was basically a good man, and he would give him a job in his business and provide a place for him to live. He would be doing the state a favor, and the governor owed him a favor.
The governor agreed on one condition, and that was that he talk to his friend for two hours before he was released. "If you still think he should be pardoned, I will do it." Lucien sat in the warden's office and said to his friend Sam, "I can get you out of here, and you can come to work for me." Sam said, "I can't until I do something very important." "What is it?" asked Lucien. Sam said with hatred in his face, "I am going to get the judge who sent me here, and the one witness, and I am going to kill them with my bare hands." Because he was so obsessed with revenge Lucien had to leave him in prison and forget the pardon that could have set him free.
There is not way to calculate the blessings of God that cannot be received because people have their heads filled with schemes of revenge. "And infernal round of revenge is danced ceaselessly around the earth." Getting back and getting even are the themes that lead to perpetual warfare between nations, communities, institutions, and people. Revenge is also a major cause for suicide. People kill themselves just to get back at parents and others for their failure to meet certain needs. Sometimes it is to get even with their own evil nature. But in any case it is folly and a trying to play God.
The Christian has the answer for this destructive emotion, and that answer is to leave it to God. Don't suppress it, but feel it, and then surrender it to God. Lady Carew wrote,
The fairest action of our human life
Is scoring to revenge an injury,
For who forgives without a further strife,
His adversary's heart to him doth tie,
And tis a firmer conquest, truly said,
To win the heart than overthrow the head.
The bottom line is, do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Evil overcomes us when we as Christians fight evil with the same spirit and weapons that evil uses. Even if the Christian wins the battle, if he wins it by use of evil means, evil is the real winner. Luther wisely said, "See to it that he who hurts you does not cause you to become evil like him." If a man curses you, you do not rise above him by cursing back. If you do, he has now succeeded in making you one who curses, and evil has overcome you. The only way to win and overcome evil is by means of its opposite, which is good. Good can overcome evil. It is a superior weapon. The battle can go either way, and both are happening all the time with evil winning over good and good winning over evil.
Paul's message is that the Christian can shift the balance of power to the side of righteousness by leaving vengeance to God and concentrating on doing good. Never is doing good more needed than when you feel like revenge. Victor Hugo tells of Jean Valjean whose only crime was that he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. After 19 years in the galleys he was released. Not able to find work, he came to the home of the bishop who gave him supper and a bed for the night. He yielded to temptation and stole the bishop's silver and slipped away. He was caught and returned to the home. The bishop had a choice to make. Should he get revenge and publish him for his ingratitude, or help him escape from his life of crime. The bishop chose the latter and told the authorities that he gave him the silver. He said, "Jean you forgot the candle stick." He was off the hook, and was so astounded by this act of love that he repented and was saved.
There is no guarantee that all evil will dissolve in the presence of good, but it is for sure that evil will multiply in the presence of more evil. The Christian has no other wise choice but to control the desire for revenge and surrender it to God.
We cannot all be heroes
And thrill a hemisphere,
With some great daring venture;
Some deed that mocks at fear.
But we can fill a life time
With kindly act and true;
There's always noble service
For noble hearts to do.
The three steps to overcoming evil with good are, feel the negative emotion of anger and revenge. Forsake these as motives for action. Focus on the good you can do to counteract the motivation of evil. This puts revenge in reverse, and the reversal of revenge does not get you even. It gets you infinitely ahead.