Avoiding the Vanity of Vengeance

Skip Heitzig is the founder and senior pastor of Calvary Albuquerque. He is a frequent speaker at The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove.

Getting even feels good! That’s why people do it—vengeance temporarily gives them a sense of satisfaction, though it quickly dissipates into regret. Have you ever read one of those imprecatory psalms? You know, the ones where David called down God’s wrath on someone? “Break their teeth in their mouth, O God!” (Psalm 58:6). While it’s not my life verse, I confess I’ve imprecated people on the freeway or over parking spaces from time to time.

But I’ve learned something: As I truly pray for people, my heart begins to change. As I start asking God to bless them, my heart begins to soften and becomes more Christlike.

Exhibiting a loving humility is easier said than done because people are neither always tenderhearted nor always sympathetic. Often we are met with blatant hostility. And Peter calls us to a gentle response: “Not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). We’re not sure if he was referring to unbelievers persecuting believers or if he was speaking about fellow believers with whom we have a disagreement.

Either way, we should respond the same way: gently.

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Don’t fight back. We bless “that [we] might inherit a blessing.” The New Living Translation makes it even stronger: “Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it.” When Peter penned this, he may have been thinking back to the time he tried to fight evil with evil in the Garden of Gethsemane. As the enemies came to arrest Jesus, Peter snatched a sword and went right for Malchus’s ear! After Jesus restored the man’s ear, He instructed Peter to put away his weapon, “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Peter knew from firsthand experience both the temptation to take vengeance and the importance of leaving it up to God.

One of the greatest virtues that separates Christianity from other belief systems is that we are taught not to avenge ourselves nor ignore our dissenters. We are commanded to love our enemies. This kind of response was virtually unheard of in antiquity. Human nature—then and now—is best summed up in the Old Testament law known as the lex talionis, which prescribed a restricted vengeance of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (see Exodus 21). Vengeance limited to fair restitution is one thing, but to bless instead?

Peter was saying that when you bless instead of curse—when, instead of doing what feels right, you do what is right—you will be blessed. How you handle frustration, annoyance and persecution today will add blessings to you in Heaven. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12). As Solomon noted, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). Part of the blessing is that it defuses your anger, allowing your wrath to be neutralized by time and calmer emotions. The other part is that it attracts others to Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness.

“One of the greatest virtues that separates Christianity from other belief systems is that we are taught not to avenge ourselves nor ignore our dissenters. We are commanded to love our enemies.”

A pastor from Argentina named Juan Carlos Ortiz wrote about a leadership conference he attended. He said, “I saw a man who was in my former denomination, so I went over to him to hug him.” But the man saw him coming and growled, “Don’t hug me.” Ortiz replied, “Well, I love you.” The man almost shouted in response, “You cannot love me because I am your enemy!” Ortiz responded, “Praise the Lord! I didn’t know you were my enemy, but here’s an opportunity for me to love my enemies.” He walked up to him, hugged him close, and prayed aloud, “Thank you, Jesus, for my precious enemy.” Within one year, Ortiz was preaching at the man’s church. His gentle response led to a giant blessing.

And there’s a practical reason to seek that blessing. Quoting Psalm 34, Peter said, “For ‘He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it’” (1 Peter 3:10-11).

Do you love life? Do you want to be happy—to experience and enjoy the blessing of God in your life? Then love people—the good and the bad. Respond to people’s snorts and brusque comments with something that will surprise them. Show them love. If you love people, you’ll love life.

Why is this so important? Because many don’t love life; they tolerate it, or even hate it.

Even Solomon—who had so much—came to a point where he said, “Therefore, I hated life … for all is vanity and vexation of spirit” (Ecclesiastes 2:17, KJV). I even know some Christians who, when I ask how they’re doing, just answer, “Oh, I’m OK. Making it through.” It’s understandable to feel that way during a rough week or two, but month after month, year after year, for a whole lifetime? It reminds me of the pessimistic donkey from Winnie the Pooh. I wonder, did the spirit of Eeyore take over?

God’s perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18), which should motivate us to leave Him in control. Everyone you encounter is allowed into your life by God for His own purposes. When you realize that, you’ll want to make sure that you bless whoever it may be, not curse them. Peter offered further motivation: “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous” (1 Peter 3:12).

Not only is God looking after you, He’s listening to you. Peter continued: “And His ears are open to their prayers” (1 Peter 3:12). I don’t have to worry about those who are trying to do me evil. God will deal with them in His own way, so I don’t have to exact revenge.

As you go through this unpredictable life, hold on to the sweetness of God’s character, for that will provide both stability and sensitivity. Remember, there was a time when you were unlovely, when you rejected Him, when you failed to love others the way He does, and yet Jesus loved and died for you (see Romans 5:8).

So, here we are, not the company of the faultless but of the forgiven. The proof is in our open doors and open hearts. We welcome the unlovely, the hurting, the coarse—we welcome each other. We let go of ourselves and our self-centeredness and hold on to Jesus. While we will feel upset—in the car or the grocery line or in conversation—we can choose to show His compassion, His patience, His humility and tenderheartedness. In this way, we avoid the vanity of vengeance—by the sweetness, the kindness, the respect and wonder of His love. ©2015 Skip Heitzig

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New King James Version. The Verse Marked KJV is taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version. The verse from the New Living Translation, ©1996, 2004, 2007 Tyndale House Foundation, is used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Ill.