The Vice of Vindictiveness

Dr. Brian Allison

I was driving home recently, and having exited from the highway, I pulled up to the traffic lights which signaled red. The light turned green and immediately I heard a loud honk behind me. The truck driver was obviously impatient. I took exception to his impatience. I decided to accelerate slowly out of spite (a fleshly response indeed!). The truck driver started to tailgate me, rather than pass around me – probably to reciprocally provoke and irritate me. And I also took exception to that. I still refused to accelerate to his liking. I knew that I was upsetting him, and I had a sense of satisfaction. Yet, I realized that my vengeful or vindictive actions were wrong. Lord Byron (1788-1824) has said, "Sweet is revenge" (Don Juan, 124). Someone has said that revenge is the most natural and instinctive of vices.

Vindictiveness or vengeance may assume different forms. For instance, someone may upset us and we may react by pouting, and giving the offender the 'cold shoulder' and the 'silent treatment'; or, someone may embarrass us and we may react by sharing information, by way of gossip, about that individual with someone else, and thus subtly tarnish that person's reputation; or, someone may reject us and we may react by deliberating excluding that individual from a group dinner or get-together at our home.

The Christian ethic involves forgiving, though it does not mean that we excuse someone's wrong behaviour. We must be willing to pardon and accept again. The Christian ethic involves showing mercy, which does not mean that we disregard justice. There is a place for demanding retribution; but the Christian ethic means that we will not seek to get even, but rather we will show love, and continue to minister to those who have wronged us. 1 Thessalonians 5:15 reads, "See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all men."

Personal ethics versus State law

When someone has done wrong to us, our immediate reaction should not be to return the wrong. Now, we need to make a distinction between personal ethics, on the one hand, and social or criminal law, on the other hand. 1 Thessalonians 5:15 refers to personal ethics – how we are to ethically and personally relate to other people; that is, what constitutes right and wrong action for each individual believer who is living his or her life according to the Scriptures. There is a place for the due process of law, but not for personal, vigilante behaviour. We are not to take the law into our own hands, making sure that we get our just due. But the government, the State, has a right to ensure and carry out justice. Government has the right to exact punishment. According to Romans 13:1-4, government is a God-ordained institution, and it has the authority to ensure and enforce behavioural conformity to social law. We read, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God [it does not matter what kind of government or regime is in power. God is pleased to raise up evil governments and regimes, and then to punish them for their injustice and unrighteousness]. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behaviour, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it [the governing authority] is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid [for you will receive evil]; for it does not bear the sword [the right and power to punish] for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil." Hence, when we violate State law, when we violate social ordinances, the government has the right to execute justice and, if need be, to exact punishment on the offender.

Personal retaliation is unacceptable

So, 1 Thessalonians 5:15 concerns personal ethics – how we are to personally and ethically relate to others – "See that no one repays another with evil for evil." This moral directive is not original with the apostle Paul. This directive harks back to, and find its roots in, Matthew 5:43ff., in which our Lord teaches, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? And if you greet your brother only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

The prohibition in 1 Thessalonians 5:15a is patently clear – we are not to be vengeful, we are not to be vindictive, we are not to be retaliatory, regardless of what someone personally does to us. For instance, when someone makes that snide remark or levels some criticism against you, you are not to respond in like fashion; or, when someone pushes or slaps you, that is, does physical harm to you, you are not to respond in like fashion. Now, I am not advocating abuse (that is wrong), nor am I advocating that we disregard defending ourselves or our family when life-threatening situations arise (that is irresponsibility) – that is not what I am talking about – but, as Jesus said, when someone slaps you on the right cheek you should turn the left to him, that is, you should not retaliate. There are appropriate avenues to pursue in securing justice, in correcting the wrong, other than taking the law into your own hands. Or, when your mate is unfaithful and commits adultery, you should not react by saying, "Well, I will be unfaithful and commit adultery too." Do not say, "What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If he wants to mess around, then I will mess around too." That is wrong and unacceptable behaviour. Or, if someone steals from you, you should not steal from them in order to get even.

Admittedly, there are times when we, as Christians, may become fleshly. At such times, we may be vindictive. Again, acts of vindictiveness can be very subtle. Someone may upset us; and later, when he or she has made an appointment with us, we, unfortunately, show up late. Or, someone may cross us; and later, when he or she phones us and requests that we return the call, we procrastinate and conveniently find priority matters to which we must attend. Or, someone may anger us, and we may appear to take the provocation in stride, but then proceed to make him the brunt of our jokes. Have you been vindictive recently? What happened in the office this past week? What happened in your family this past week? Did you try to get even with someone? That is sin; it is wrong. That kind of behaviour should not characterize us as Christians.

The reasons and root of retaliation

There are basically two reasons why people are vindictive or vengeful. First, we are hurt; and second, we are offended. Did someone hurt you recently? Did someone offend you recently? You may say, "He knows that he was not supposed to do that;" or, "She knows that she was not supposed to say that." Now, the root of retaliation is pride. We say, for instance, "O, I will show him;" or, "I'll let her know who she is dealing with;" or "How dare you say that to me;" or, "Who in the world does he think he is?" Charles Bridges, a Puritan pastor, said, "Pride is the image of the devil." Our daily challenge is to swallow and slay our pride, regardless how hurt or offended we may be.

Non-retaliation is a moral imperative

Notice that the directive to be non-retaliatory is a very serious injunction. We read, "See that no one repays..." We can translate this phrase "Make sure that no one repays...;" that is, "Make it your duty, or be committed to this particular injunction." Why does the apostle Paul put such an emphasis on the construction of this directive? He does so because in the failure to adhere to, and to conform to, this directive, much disunity and disharmony will ensue. When there is a cut-throat, 'get even' mentality, then chaos and destruction result. When there is a back-biting atmosphere, then there will be disintegration in fellowship; you will have toxic relationships. One of Paul's greatest concerns, when he thinks about the Church, is that of unity – God's people coexisting in harmony. But when we self-righteously take the law into our own hands, when someone has hurt us or offended us and we lash out in like manner, then obviously community peace is hampered and hindered. In fact, in our retaliation, we sin against Christ by failing to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (see Eph. 4:1); and unity of Christian fellowship is to be one of the chief characteristics of the Church – the world will know that we are Christians by our love. How can one be vindictive and, at the same time, reveal the love of Christ? Who can seek to give vent to his anger, by way of vengeance, and show, at the same time, a sincere desire for Church unity? It is a contradiction, isn't it? The world will know that God has sent Christ to be the Saviour of the world by our love and unity (see Jn. 17:21). Christ did not simply die for souls, He died for the Church, a group of people who, in the Spirit, constitute His mystical body.

As Christians, we have a personal responsibility to make sure that we relate to our fellow believers in love. But, in addition to this personal responsibility (as we carefully consider the way in which Paul has constructed the language of this directive), we also have a corporate responsibility to guarantee such. Again, we read, "See [that is, 'You see' – an address to the whole group] that no one [third person, any member in the church] repays another with evil for evil." He is instructing the community as a whole, "Do not tolerate vindictiveness; be on guard for that one who is retaliating. You, as a body of believers, make sure that no one in your assembly is vengeful." Non-retaliation is a corporate responsibility. In a very real sense, we are our brother's keeper. We are to guard the fellowship and, by God's grace, in the spirit of humility, we are to make sure that our brothers and sisters are not assuming the posture of trying to get even with those who have hurt or offended them.

Vengeance belongs to God

Now, it is not stated in our text, but the reason why we are not to take the law into our own hands is because vengeance is God's prerogative, not ours. God is the Judge; He will right the wrongs. So, Romans 12:18ff. reads, "If possible [we are still in these fallen, frail bodies; and though we have been delivered from the dominion and power of sin, we have not yet been delivered from the presence of sin, and thus we can expect to have strained relations with some people. This fact is not to justify our sinful actions, but only to acknowledge the present reality], so far as it depends on you [do all in your power, God helping you], be at peace with all men [your co-worker, your husband, your neighbour, etc.]. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,' says the Lord." God promises to right the wrongs, and that ought to be your confidence. Someone may have wronged you, and perhaps wronged you very deeply, someone may have hurt you beyond description, but here is your peace: God is the God of justice; the Judge of all the earth will do right. God loves holiness and hates iniquity. He Who is on the throne will judge righteously. In these truths, we must rest. We can let go of anger, and even bitterness, when we really understand the truth that God will right the wrongs – pay day some day. And so, for instance, you may say, "That individual has abused me; he has really done damage to me, and I really feel like exacting 'a pound of flesh', but God says, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay'. So then, Lord, even though everything inside me is crying out for justice, and I do not see any justice now, I believe Your Word, and I will surrender myself to You. Your Word is true, and I commit this situation into Your hands." My Christian brothers and sisters, in truly grasping this truth, there is great relief and freedom. We do not need to live in bitterness or worry when we surrender our situation and ourselves to the Lord.

As we read on in Romans 12, notice verse 20, "BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM [do him good; "But," you may say, "Lord, he does not deserve it. You know what he has done to me. You know what he has done to others. You know how much of a scoundrel he is. Lord, he does not deserve any good – 'off with his head'." However, that is not Jesus' way. And remember that your 'enemy' is anyone who opposes you – your boss may be your friend today, but your enemy tomorrow; your wife may be your friend today, but your enemy tomorrow (and hopefully, your friend the next day!). So, anyone who opposes you is your enemy at that time], AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK [Yet, you may say, "But if he does not drink he will dehydrate and die, which is all he deserves;" but the Lord says that He will repay; stop trying to be God]; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS UPON HIS HEAD." Now, do not let these last few words be your motivation, saying, "Here, drink and eat" (wanting the Lord to store up more coals for punishment). No, this should not be your motivation. This text is simply making the point that the Lord will sufficiently look after the wrongs and injustices. We are to show kindness in exchange for unkindness because this kindness may lead to repentance (Rm. 2:4). As you show kindness, you are, in effect, expressing the grace of God, and hopefully there will be a change of character, a softening of the spirit. That is how you win someone over. You do not win somebody by 'digging in your heels', locked in a power struggle; for often it simply becomes a matter of who can dig in his heels the farthest. No, it is the soft approach that breaks the spirit – "A gentle answer turns away wrath: but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Prov. 15:1); and "By forbearance a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue breaks the bone" (Prov. 25:15). The goodness of the Lord, the kindness of the Lord, may lead to repentance, and in despising that goodness, the offender's punishment increases.

Not retaliation, but benevolence

Romans 12 continues to say, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (v. 21). This is the crucial moral principle that ought to guide us – overcome evil with good. That may be hard to do, given the hurtful or offending situation. You may say, "Lord, do You see how much he has abused me?" Yes, the Lord sees all and understands. 1 Thessalonians 5:15b states, "But [rather than retaliating] always seek after that which is good for one another and for all men." This moral directive not only says that we are not to retaliate or be vindictive, but instead we are to pursue that which is benevolent, for both believers and unbelievers. It is not good enough simply to refrain from avenging yourself when someone has offended you, but there must also be a positive, countering response – non-retaliation plus benevolence. So, when someone criticizes you, it is not good enough simply to not criticize him (perhaps patting yourself on the back because you were able to check your anger and not lash out), but you are to respond with an inverse behaviour – perhaps, in this case, with a compliment or an encouraging word. When someone steals from you, it is not good enough simply not to steal from her, but maybe you should respond by giving a gift or an unexpected provision. Give her more than what she took. When someone gossips about you, and slanders your name, and seeks to destroy your reputation, it is not good enough to simply refrain from similar action, but you should respond inversely by, perhaps, showing forgiveness and acceptance. Thus, Luke 6:27-31 reads, "But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. And just as you want people to treat you, treat them in the same way;" and verses 35,36 read, "But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."

Now, admittedly, to show this kind of benevolent response – showing good to someone who has done evil to us – requires the grace of God. In our own strength, we cannot do it. It must be Christ doing it in us and through us. We are wholly dependent upon Him. Seeking to do good to those who have opposed us should be our continual preoccupation, regardless of the possible challenges and potential obstacles – "But always [it does not matter the circumstance] seek after that which is good..."

Finally, notice that we are to show this good indiscriminately – "...for one another and for all men." It does not matter who the person is who has sought to harm us; it does not matter how long he or she has sought to oppose or be hostile toward us. We are to seek to do good to one another in the fellowship of Christ, and to all people. That is the Christian ethic. So where do you stand? Have you been angry, frustrated, bitter, or impatient? Have you been vindictive? Have you been driven to get even? If that is the case, let me say that God is not with you. He is not an accomplice in sin. James puts it this way, "For the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God" (Jas. 1:20). God neither condones nor blesses that kind of attitude, nor that kind of action. God rejects vindictive behaviour; but rejoices in forgiveness. God wants us to suffer patiently for righteousness sake. When someone has done us wrong, and we bear it patiently, God is pleased with this (see 1 Pe. 2:20). So, we need more grace in order to reflect His love and mercy, even toward those who apparently are incorrigible and ungrateful. As Christians, we must demonstrate sincere forgiveness and acceptance, even toward those who do not deserve such. Let us remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ as He hung on the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Lu. 23:34). Let us emulate Him.