Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. Romans 12:19
Revenge is one of our most natural instincts. It is the way the world works, for we live in a “dog eat dog” world, where if you get in my way I will get you out of the way. It is a natural response to being wronged, then—but it is not a Christian one. Therefore, we should guard against it continuously. Even if we avoided it yesterday, that’s no guarantee we will do so again today.
Perhaps the sports field is the place where we see most how easily revenge becomes the motivator for our plans and actions. If an opposing player fouls you and it is not picked up on and punished by the referee or umpire, what do you do? Our instinct is to find a way to get them back. So we plot and plan and pick our moment and “make it even.” And as it goes on the sports field, so it goes in life—at least in our imaginations if not in our behavior.
But then the Scripture cuts across that natural instinct with the words “Never avenge yourselves.”
Paul did not only outline the principle; he demonstrated it. He was ministering in an environment that gave him every reason for retaliation: he himself was defamed, beaten, mocked, and imprisoned; and he was most likely still alive when Emperor Nero and his government were turning Christians into torches in the palace backyard. They tied faithful followers of Jesus to stakes, drove those stakes into the ground, covered them in wax, and set them on fire—and still the command was “Never avenge yourselves.”
We often fail to distinguish between the application of divine law, which is God’s prerogative; the application of criminal law, which is the state’s God-ordained responsibility (Romans 13:1-4); and the practice of personal revenge, for which the Bible gives us no mandate. We are permitted to pursue criminal justice from the state, always remembering that it will not be perfect and was not designed to be final; but most of all, though, we are called to entrust ourselves to God’s divine justice, just as His Son did (1 Peter 2:23). We must live remembering that today is probably not the day of final judgment, and that you and I are certainly not the judge.
We have a calling as citizens of an eternal kingdom rather than any earthly kingdom. Unbelievers will not be drawn to Christ if they see His followers proclaiming that He is the just Judge and then acting as though they are the ones who have the right to mete out judgment. Our actions will affect those around us who are struggling with sin. Let it be that they are won to Christ by our love and never driven away from considering Christ by our retaliation.