Vengeance is a popular business. In books and movies, it drives heroes to do great things and villains to do terrible things. Sometimes it’s romanticized as “getting even” or “settling a score,” which makes it sound like mere fairness pursued somewhat aggressively. Other times that illusion is dismissed: in a span of five minutes today, I saw a commercial for a television show called “Revenge” and a poster for a video game with the tagline “Vengeance solves everything.”
I think it’s fair to say that the desire for vengeance is common. A lot of cultural voices tell us that that desire is right. A large part of the human heart makes those voices attractive. Who hasn’t cheered a little bit when an unlikable character gets his or her comeuppance? Who hasn’t indulged in a little smugness when a bitter rival faces trouble? Who, having been treated unfairly, hasn’t wanted to punish the culprit? Who, if he or she had the power and authority to do so without risk, wouldn’t want to pursue that punishment?
If anyone has successfully avoided all of those things; I commend them. I can’t say the same about myself. I’ve never wanted the sort of vengeance that might inspire a television show or video game–I’ve been blessed enough to have a life free from most of the terrifying wrongs perpetrated in the world, so I don’t have big grudges to settle–but the desire for vengeance isn’t limited to large matters. When someone endangers me in traffic, a part of me wants vengeance. When I’m slandered at work, a part of me wants vengeance. When I’m merely overlooked, a part of me wants vengeance.
(I’m open to the possibility that I have anger issues, but I’m using loaded language here for transparency’s sake. I don’t hurl Captain Ahab’s picturesque imprecations at nearby rude drivers; don’t get the wrong idea.)
On the one hand, this can seem like the natural product of a healthy desire for justice. Who doesn’t want justice? On the other hand we have the oft quoted Bible verse, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the LORD” (Romans 12, quoting Deuteronomy 32).
Just about as often as that verse is quoted, it’s combined with the counsel to wait upon the LORD, to let God handle the comeuppances and such. Waiting upon the LORD is never a bad thing to do, so don’t interpret this as belittling that advice, but I think there’s a larger, better, and much more humbling reality behind that verse.
You see, the problem with human cries for justice is that we don’t really mean them. What we actually want is for other people to be punished for their injustices while our own are ignored, or at least downplayed. If we have friendly dispositions, we might include the injustices of our friends among those to be ignored. We certainly wouldn’t consider that itself to be an injustice requiring some sort of punishment.
God isn’t so ignorant, petty, and unfair. When he looks at humanity he sees the desperate irony that we can so easily overlook: we are all unjust people crying for justice. If injustice is sin, and the punishment for sin is death, we’re calling for our own destruction. If we cling to that verse about the LORD’s vengeance as though it only applies to our enemies, we have a serious blind spot.
As I was thinking about this post, I scanned through my childhood memories and discovered a disturbing number of instances in which my misbehavior got other kids punished, while I went unpunished. I discovered times when I got away with lying, or manipulating the emotions of others, or with general hooliganism. All of those actions and many besides, they hurt someone, maybe not in big ways, but in ways nonetheless. I didn’t even want to think about the last couple of decades; I’ve become more conscientious, but I’ve also become more powerful, and I’m still not perfect.
In short, I’ve hurt a lot of people. If I deserve vengeance, so do they. That’s the vengeance that is the LORD’s: vengeance for everyone. Frankly, if we try to hold the LORD’s vengeance over people who wrong us, we have to hold it over ourselves too. That’s a problem.
Of course, God decided to do something unexpected with that vengeance. He knew that we would want justice, because he designed us to live with himself, the author of justice. He also knew that he couldn’t give it to us without killing us; killing us is the just thing to do.
So he intervened. Christ became sin so that we might become righteousness. All of the justifiable punishment earned by the entire history of humanity, all of the vengeance we’re prone to crave, he meted out on himself, the only one who could bear it. All of those things I’ve done in my life, all of the things which people do to me, all of the terrible things that people everywhere devise to do to each other, the vengeance earned by those things is satisfied in Christ, who died so that we didn’t have to die.
When we read or hear the verse–“‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the LORD”–we shouldn’t think about how someone is going to get punished for how they’ve wronged us. We ought to think of Christ, and how he offers to help us not deserve what we’re wishing on others.