Is Leaving Room for the Vengeance of the Lord a Get out of Jail Free Card for the Wicked?
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
This passage of Scripture has very often been twisted and used by the wicked and the naive to silence victims of evil. I (Jeff) heard it again recently from a pastor. “Just be quiet about this. You have no right to speak of it. You need to leave vengeance to the Lord.” Yada, yada.
Here then is an example of the mishandling of Scripture and how we must always be very careful to consider the entire Bible as well as the immediate context of a verse if we are to interpret and apply it in truth. We know that this passage does not negate:
- Talking about a person’s wicked deeds in order to expose them
- Seeking justice now, in this present life, for the victim of that wickedness
- Seeking just punishment in this present life for the perpetrator
How do we know? Because we have read the rest of the Bible!
The Bible very often speaks of evil deeds done — even naming names of the perps (Alexander the coppersmith, Diotrephes, Hymeneus, King David, the evil man of 1 Cor 5 who must be put out of the church, etc). God is Light. He exposes darkness and the deeds of darkness. We are to do the same. But very often these verses in Romans are quoted in order to silence any discussion of an evil done. “You are seeking vengeance. God will repay. You need to be quiet about this.” Wrong. Totally wrong.
What is the intent of the Apostle Paul here? He is instructing us to take care that we do not let evil lead us to become evil. Don’t let evil overcome you in the sense that you turn right around in a vengeful spirit and commit evil in retaliation. Our flesh is given to this, right? This is how road rage gets underway. When we are wronged, when we are sinned against, we must not turn right around and revile the guy who has reviled us. That is God’s business, not ours.
In fact, there is a better way, and Paul shows it to us. Be kind to your enemy when you see him in some need. Feed him. Give him a drink when he is thirsty. Don’t buy cigarettes for him when he has run out—cigarettes are a slow killer. But do give him water if he is thirsty—water is essential for life and health. Don’t be naive, he is still an enemy. But this non-retaliatory kindness business actually burns the guy. “Heap burning coals on his head.”
Now, I don’t really know what ‘heap burning coals on his head’ means specifically. There has been all kinds of debate about it. The “nice guy” types try to come up with some explanation of it that makes it some pleasant act of love done for the fellow. And there have been other explanations too. I think all we need to know is that having burning coals heaped up on the top of your head is NOT a fun thing! “You want to deal with a wicked person who is an enemy and commits evil against you?” Then help him when he is in need by meeting his need. You don’t have to like him. You don’t have to work up warm fuzzies about him. You must not think that this is all for the purpose of helping the wicked find the good side of the force in themselves. Nope. It probably even refers to a future Day when the Lord judges all men. People like this will experience an even more severe level of God’s wrath when it is shown we were kind to them.
Now, personal vengeance and doing evil as payback for evil done to us is RADICALLY different from hungering and thirsting for justice. Jesus did not revile His revilers, but He sure blasted them by exposing their wickedness publicly. And Jesus reminded the high priest of his accountability before God (Matt 26:64). Furthermore, He responded firmly to the high priest’s interrogation by putting a question back on the high priest, and then telling him what to do: “Why do you question Me? Question those who have heard what I spoke to them; they know what I said.” (John 18:21)
Like Jesus, the Apostles were not afraid to expose the wickedness of their revilers publicly. And over and over again the Bible instructs all of us to seek justice for the oppressed.
Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none. The LORD is king forever and ever; the nations perish from his land. O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more. (Psalm 10:15-18)
“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah. Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:2-4)
It is a mark of a wicked person to pressure the oppressed to be silent, and to accuse them of sin when they seek justice.
This was evident very recently in my own experience as I heard words from a Christian leader that bullied and guilted and accused someone who was exposing evil and seeking justice. I have come to recognize this trait and I have concluded that any church or Christian leader or professing Christian who uses these bullying tactics is to be immediately rebuked, openly and publicly, and a leader needs to have his qualification to remain in his position seriously questioned.
So the next time you hear Romans 12 used as some kind of ‘get out of jail free’ card for the wicked, don’t just sit back and take it. Continue to seek justice. Leave vengeance to the Lord. But seek justice now. It is a good and right thing to do.