Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God,b]”>[b] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.”
Romans 12:17-19 NRSVUE
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, in his letter to the Romans, St Paul said that we must find different ways of dealing with the problem. Because being able to forgive others sets us free from the bondage to the desire for revenge.
So revenge is ruled out. Instead, we are to find creative, surprising new ways of dealing with people who hurt us.
This is a huge challenge for most of us. Getting our will around this is difficult, but there it is in Romans 12 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, it didn’t hurt after all, or 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 everything 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, a town, 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 referring to their own sufferings.
This brings us to the question of whether it is possible to forgive someone who isn’t sorry.
If we are realistic, I think it fair to say if someone isn’t sorry for the hurt they have caused, then there is not much chance of full reconciliation. However, it is not only possible but actually commanded that we should still rid ourselves of any desire for revenge.
Instead, we should actually go out of our way to do positive uncalled-for acts of kindness to those who have wronged us. St Paul says, to heap burning coals on their heads. 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 even of the desire for it, we are taking responsibility, at least for our mental and emotional health.
The point is that 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.
Because, we can choose our response to any adversity we face in life – mentally 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 they did, but why should they then have the right to keep us in a bitter and twisted state?
We ask for this in the Lord’s prayer when we ask to be delivered from evil.
St Paul said, ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God’.
So we can spiritually and psychologically free our hearts and minds of vengeful thoughts, knowing that God sees all things and knows the hearts of all.
In the knowledge that one day God will 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.
He used the words of another wise man to back up this argument in Romans 12.
He used words written by King Solomon some 3000 years ago, which now appear in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs. 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.