19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[a] for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ 20 No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:19-21 NRSVA
You don’t need me to tell you that we live in an imperfect world, where people do foolish and hurtful things, knowingly, or unknowingly to others.
But we are just flesh and blood and the desire for revenge can be powerful, however, St Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us that we must find different ways of dealing with the problem.
Revenge is ruled out. Instead, we are to find surprising new ways of dealing with people who hurt us.
This is a huge challenge for most of us
Getting our moral wills around this is difficult, but it is in the letter to the Romans, so there it is in black and white.
We should note that this does not mean going soft on despicable behaviour. Saying you shouldn’t take revenge isn’t a way of saying evil isn’t real, or that it didn’t hurt after all, or that it doesn’t matter.
Evil is real, it often does hurt, sometimes very badly indeed and with lasting effects, and it does matter.
Because we believe in a creator God who made a good and lovely world, we believe that anything which defaces and distorts, damages or spoils part of that creation is evil.
The question is, what are we going to do about it?
Taking revenge keeps evil in circulation.
Whether in a family or a town or in an entire community like the Middle East or inner-city gang culture, the culture of revenge, unless broken, is never-ending. Both sides will always be able to justify further atrocities by reference to those they themselves have suffered.
This brings us to the question of whether it is possible to forgive someone who isn’t sorry.
This passage says that even when someone isn’t sorry and there is no chance of full reconciliation, it is not only possible but actually commanded that we should still rid ourselves of any desire for revenge.
Instead, we should still fill any unfulfilled need they might have. So that, in turn, it may lead them to at least remorse or even to repentance and thereby to reconciliation.
Whatever the explanation, part of the point is that when we refuse to take revenge, and deliberately rid ourselves of the desire for it, we are taking responsibility at least for our own mental and emotional health.
Real, authentic forgiveness is in the heart, soul and mind of the wounded person
It is not a transaction between two or more people – I can only forgive you if you are sorry sort of deal.
It is an action chosen by the wounded party as he or she relates to the perpetrator of the wound.
The wounded party has no control over how the perpetrator feels about the incident.
But believe it or not, we can most definitely choose our response to any adversity we face in life – psychologically and spiritually.
By finding forgiveness in our hearts we are refusing to allow our own future lives to be determined by the evil that someone else has done.
I mean isn’t it bad enough that they’ve done whatever it was they did, but why should they then have the right to keep us in a bitter and twisted state?
This is what Paul meant when he followed up by saying it would prevent ‘evil from conquering us’.
St Paul also said ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God’.
So we can spiritually, as well as psychologically, free our hearts and minds of vengeful thoughts knowing that God sees all things and knows the hearts of all, and He will one day set the record straight, one way or another.
Let us at that time be found as innocent as doves
St Paul was a wise man – he knew his Old Testament – he understood who Jesus was.
In these verses in his letter to the Romans he used the words of another wise man to back up his argument.
He used words written by King Solomon, some 3000 years ago, which now appear in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs as Wise words of Solomon.
All those years ago, Solomon said:
If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you. Proverbs 25 21-22
One Last Point
We must not forget to learn to forgive ourselves too for when we get things wrong in life.
Because we are often our own worst enemy and our internal critic can be far more unforgiving of us than our most ferocious enemy.
But when we confess what we have done wrong to God and ask his forgiveness, then he will forgive us, and so too should we forgive ourselves.
1 Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
2 for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.
3 Trust in the Lord, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
4 Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
6 He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
7 Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.
8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
9 For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight in abundant prosperity.
12 The wicked plot against the righteous,
and gnash their teeth at them;
13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that their day is coming.
14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to kill those who walk uprightly;
15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.
16 Better is a little that the righteous person has
than the abundance of many wicked.
17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken,
but the Lord upholds the righteous.
18 The Lord knows the days of the blameless,
and their heritage will abide for ever;
19 they are not put to shame in evil times,
in the days of famine they have abundance.
20 But the wicked perish,
and the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures;
they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.
21 The wicked borrow, and do not pay back,
but the righteous are generous and keep giving;
22 for those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land,
but those cursed by him shall be cut off.
25 I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.
26 They are ever giving liberally and lending,
and their children become a blessing.
27 Depart from evil, and do good;
so you shall abide for ever.
28 For the Lord loves justice;
he will not forsake his faithful ones.
The righteous shall be kept safe for ever,
but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
29 The righteous shall inherit the land,
and live in it for ever.
30 The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom,
and their tongues speak justice.
31 The law of their God is in their hearts;
their steps do not slip.
32 The wicked watch for the righteous,
and seek to kill them.
33 The Lord will not abandon them to their power,
or let them be condemned when they are brought to trial.
34 Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way,
and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
you will look on the destruction of the wicked.
37 Mark the blameless, and behold the upright,
for there is posterity for the peaceable.
38 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed;
the posterity of the wicked shall be cut off.
39 The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
he is their refuge in the time of trouble.
40 The Lord helps them and rescues them;
he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.