Thinking about the playful pranks that my children like to pull on each other, I can see how things can quickly escalate, like little familial arms’ races. My writing of this column was occasioned by my sons’ running through the house, yelling and cackling as someone’s playful splash of cold water turned into militant attempts to slide ice cubes down someone else’s shirt. From that first small smattering into someone’s face came such an escalation, each step a new and more intense level of conflict until no one seemed any longer to be capable of stopping (in spite of pleas to “hold it down: you’ll wake your sister!).
I clomped noisily through the house, deliberately attempting to add an ominous sound to each footstep and hoping to assert some restraint upon my sons as their mother worked to get them settled down enough for bed. My wife turned to me with a twinkle in her eye and said, “Why don’t you write about ‘revenge’ this week? That’s how they’ve gotten so wound up: everybody feels like they’ve got to get everybody else back!”
It seemed very interesting that she had said that to me. I had just been remembering exploring a cave in the desert in the Middle East about eight years earlier, a cave that may have been very similar to the one that David, warrior of God, had used for refuge from his king. The heart of this king named Saul, although supported by David in every way, had turned in resentful jealously against this young and loyal subject.
David had been running from Saul for months, partly to protect his own life, but also partly because he was well aware of God’s promise of protection. Saul, a spiritual lemming if ever there was one, was apt to destroy himself in his reckless drive to murder David. And why was this? It was the result of an inward lashing out at God, as well as a kind of madness that besets us when we will not humble ourselves and submit to the lordship of Christ. His beleaguered vision, when looking David’s way, could only see the young man’s successes through eyes of rationalization and victimization. Consequently, each of David’s victories was interpreted through the prism of Saul’s jealous resentment, throwing fuel on the nasty suspicion that David was out to get him. So… with each of David’s imaginary conspiracies, Saul’s bitterness grew as did his dour-minded plots to dispose of him.
You might as well know that an innocent man makes a handy target. In innocence, his guard is generally down, making him very vulnerable. And the presumption that “all is well” permits him to walk a long way out on the thin ice of human relationships riddled with envy, unaware that his world might collapse beneath him at any moment. And when it does, such an episode can leave him feeling flabbergasted, exasperated, outraged, hurt, humiliated, and resentful. Before he knows it, unless great care has been taken to avoid this situation, he soon finds himself overflowing with angry thoughts towards the person(s) who hurt him and can fall very easily into a mindset of retaliation.
Such revenge, unlike the fun my sons were having, will do as much harm to the avenger as to the one on whom he seeks to wreak his vengeance.
David, on the lam for a long time, finds that the enemy has closed in on him. But, when it turns out that the older man doesn’t realize that David was in the same cave that he had chosen to uh… um, take care of a personal need (see 1 Samuel 24:3), David’s supporters, hiding with him in the back of the cave, attempt to provoke him to get his revenge upon Saul. The “natural” and “normal” thing to do would have been to do just as his companions urged. Nevertheless, vengeance was not the master of David’s heart or his head. The grace of God was.
“The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the LORD. With these words David rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul” (1 Samuel 24:6-7a NIV).
Revenge is a ghastly, double-edged sword. Of course, my children were simply playing a game, but if you take out the jovial and fun-loving nature of what they were doing, it would not have been long before their competitive spirits would have led them into hurting each others’ feelings. In a similar way, our pride and hurt often move us to quickly formulate strategies for retaliation against those who hurt us… but always to our own detriment. As long as we permit ourselves to be ruled by the compulsion to “get even”, we permit someone to have a power over us. We’ve given to our “adversaries” the keys to our own happiness and actually increased the potential for their damage against us, having given our attackers, as it were, the keys to our hearts.
But just because we have the opportunity to work out a little revenge in our words or actions, doesn’t mean we need to fall victim to our own bitterness and hand off to our “adversary” our capacity to be happy. Instead, “do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the LORD. 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’” (Romans 13: 17-21 NIV).
1 Samuel, chapter 24 records David’s incredible opportunity to get even and get out from under Saul’s persecution of him. Yet, he chose a higher, more heavenly-principled path that, although much harder in the living in the short term, kept his conscience clean before God. Be wary of revenge. It promises satisfaction but only leaves an empty ache in us no matter how righteous it may seem. Besides… with the infinite beauty of the Lord before us to discover and celebrate, who has so much spare time that he or she can squander it by plotting out strategies to make someone else pay? Certainly not you… you have better things to do.
"Yet, he chose a higher, more heavenly-principled path that, although much harder in the living in the short term, kept his conscience clean before God." Never quite heard it put that way, but it's certainly true. And I think we all have to come to terms with how easy it can be at times to take the path of revenge. Oh, but grace. :)