Romans 12:17. Repay no one evil for evil
In ancient Rome when plague broke out in the city and everyone was leaving, it was the Christians who stayed and helped the sick and dying in a city that had oppressed them.
When missionaries were killed in Ecuador by Auca warriors, it was their wives and children who carried on that work.
When nine people were murdered by a racist gunman at Mother Emmanuel Baptist Church in Charleston S.C., their family members spoke of forgiveness toward the gunman.
When 5 young girls were killed in their Amish schoolhouse in 2006, the families reached out to the gunman’s widow and parents, inviting them into their community.
Esther, a young Nigerian woman, was kidnapped, raped, and tortured by Boko Haram. Even after escaping, people back home mocked her for being a “Boko Haram woman.” But she chose to forgive her torturers. She says, “Some of those people who used to mock me now ask me my secret. I tell them, ‘I forgave my enemies and now trust God to take vengeance in His time.’”
Truly responses such as these to pure evil are supernatural. They are literally a miracle. Something only God can do. The norm when we are hurt is to hurt back. To retaliate. Doesn’t evil deserve evil back? Don’t some people, especially those who don’t ask for forgiveness, deserve vengeance? Our answer, apart from Christ, is a resounding yes.
But Paul, expressing the life and words of Christ (turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give away your cloak, die on a cross, etc.), tells us that there is to be no retaliation, no vengeance, no getting even. Ever. Without exception.
Notice there is no “happily ever after here.” Paul doesn’t say that everything will work out in the end for us if we forsake pay back. There is no guarantee that our enemy will realize the error of their ways and turn and beg for our forgiveness and reform their life. They might. Some in Rome became Christians. The Auca Indians did turn to Christ. But Boko Haram is still Boko Haram. And your enemy may still be your enemy.
This is what makes this lifestyle that Christ and Paul are talking about so risky. If someone hurts me and I don’t return that hurt and pain, what will prevent them from hurting me again and again and again?
And all we have to do is look at Christ to find the answer – nothing. There is no guarantee that you won’t be hurt or taken advantage of over and over again. Just like Christ is each day.
But this is what grace is.
But what about justice?
God will have it. But a quick word about God’s justice. It is always restorative. God’s justice is always meant to restore righteousness. In the individual and in the community at large. God’s justice is only punitive when there is no hope of it being restorative. God’s punitive justice at the cross allows for his restorative justice to be at work today. But there is a day coming when the opportunity for repentance, forgiveness and restoration will run out.
Romans 12:19. 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.”
“Revenge is in the Creator’s hands.”
What this means is that because of the cross of Christ, God is not paying back anyone evil for evil in this age. He is working for the restoration of all men and women. How? Through his grace. By his cross. Through you and me and all that are IN CHRIST. This is why God tells us to never ever pay back evil for evil. We want punitive justice, but we have received and are called to restorative justice.
(Note: Romans 13:1-7 tells us that God institutes governments to enact punitive justice when restorative justice cannot be accomplished. Government is God’s minister for the repaying of evil, not you, not me, not the church.)
Where are you today? I hope and pray that you have not experienced anything close to the evil above. But each and every day we all face those who wish to do us “evil.” Maybe it’s the boss who takes credit for your work. Maybe it’s the family member that hurt you as a child. Maybe it’s a neighbor that is spreading gossip about you. We all are the victims to various forms of evil every day. Is victim your identity? Do you feel that you deserve pay back? Are you fantasizing about your revenge?
But revenge only ever leads to destruction, ironically not only of the perpetrator but also of the victim. It never restores. It never heals. It’s not the way of Christ or his grace.
“To live is Christ” makes a life of forgiveness and restorative justice possible. And revenge obsolete. How? Because we have a hope beyond this life. We have a love that transcends this physical reality in which we live. And we have a promise of a justice that will make everything right again. The more we believe this, the more the power of the resurrection will remove our need for vengeance. And the more we will open up our hearts to doing good, even if it is not repaid in this life (more on that tomorrow).