Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Surprising Vengeance of God

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Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19)
There is something very deep and dark within us that craves revenge and reaches for retribution. “Paybacks are hell,” we say, and it is often from that dark place that we love to hear, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” For we have often imagined that God is like us, and that wrath and vengeance mean the same for God as they do for us. So, we latch on to Romans 12:19 “with a vengeance” and pay little attention to the context, which is all about love:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:9-18)
This is how we are to be, and it sounds very much like what Jesus taught us and lived out to the fullest. So, when we come to verse 19, how can we understand it in the way we are accustomed to thinking of vengeance? We cannot. For Jesus is the perfect expression of God and the one in whom all the fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form, so we must expect that God lives what Jesus preached. We must understand it in a way that fully demonstrates love, for as the biblical witness teaches us, God is love (1 John 4:8, 10). To take the “vengeance” of the Lord in a way that is less than fully loving toward all would violate the very nature of God and the perfect revelation of God we have in Jesus Christ. It would also violate the surrounding context in Romans 12.

How do we understand this verse, then? What is the “wrath” and “vengeance” of which it speaks? The Greek word for “vengeance” is ekdesis and is about doing justice. David Bentley Hart’s translation has it as “The exacting of justice is mine.” But here again our dark thoughts interfere, for we usually think of justice as retribution. But that is not how it is with God. God is not vindictive, for that is not the nature of love, and so, not the nature of God, who is love. Search the majestic description of love we have in 1 Corinthians 13 and you find that there is not even the slightest whisper of anything retributive in it.

God is just, but the justice of God of is not at odds with the love of God. Rather, it expresses the love of God. Retributive forms of justice simply do not do that. So, the justice of God is not retributive but restorative. Though it may read as punishment, it is always for the sake of correction and reconciliation. It is always about restoration, putting everything right according to how God made everything to be from the beginning. And it is always a perfect expression of God’s love, even toward those who are object of such correction.

How does the justice of God operate here, and what does it look like? We can see an example of it in the Romans 12:20-21, where Paul shows us how we ought to be towards those who hate or mistreat us. We should not expect that God behaves any differently from the way we ought to behave. Instead of taking revenge or rendering evil for evil, Paul says, “On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

How does God treat his enemies? When they are hungry, God feeds them. When they are thirsty, God gives them something to drink. Jesus said that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mark 5:45). This is how love responds.

God is always loving and good toward all, but those who have turned away from God may not perceive it as love and goodness being extended toward them. God offers them light — Christ is the true light who gives light to everyone (John 1:9) — but they may have become so used to the darkness that the light of God seems a torment to them. “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). And though it may feel like “burning coals” have been heaped upon their heads, neither the love nor light nor goodness of God are intended to be a torment to the wicked. Rather, earlier in Romans, Paul tells us that God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4).

When we turn and see that God loves us, that God is for us and not against us, then we understand the “burning coals” for what they are: light against the darkness and warmth against the cold, not intended as evil against us but to do us good. So, God does what Paul tells us to do: God overcomes evil with good, and this is how God repays evil and puts things right.