When we are hurt, we want to hurt whoever hurt us. God has a different way for his people.
Bruce A. McKenney
It was the ultimate example of not repaying evil with evil.
A lifelong faithful Christian was nearing death, dying of cancer at home under the care of hospice. No matter what we read from the Scriptures or what hymns we sang, he just seemed so restless and didn’t want to listen. He wouldn’t even fold his hands to pray. His wife and I were perplexed at how troubled he seemed.
Finally, when I had a few moments of privacy with him, I asked, “What in all the world is bothering you that makes you so restless?”
Then it came out. Early in their marriage he had committed an act of infidelity and he had never told his wife. And now, as he faced death, his past sin was haunting him as well as the fear of going to hell. I encouraged him to tell his wife and seek her forgiveness.
That moment finally came. Tearfully he confessed to his wife what he had done. He then told her how sorry he was. For him, it was the ultimate act of betrayal, and I didn’t know how she was going to react. I could see her clenching her jaws as he spoke. I thought that, surely, she would start yelling at him or cursing the day she had met him. Or maybe she would just keep silent, making him squirm even more in his guilt and fear.
But she didn’t do either. Although his past act hurt her deeply, she stood up, leaned over, and kissed him, saying, “I forgive you, honey, and Jesus forgives you too!”
The tears came flooding from his eyes. You could almost see the weight of that guilt and shame fall off his shoulders.
Do not take revenge
Although not every wrong committed against us will be as serious as the act of unfaithfulness in marriage, wrongs do hurt, and they can come from friend or foe, from believer and unbeliever alike. When others hurt us, there is a natural tendency to want to get even. The world and our sinful hearts look upon revenge as something sweet. But that is not true, and that is not what our Savior wants from us. We have been called to be salt of the earth and light in the world.
One way we can do this is by not repaying evil with evil, but by repaying it with good. Paul explains it this way “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. . . . 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. 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’ ” (Romans 12:17,19,20).
First of all, Paul reminds us that we are to love others because we have been loved by God. And how did God ultimately show his love for us? Rather than taking out his anger, his revenge, on us for all the wrongs we have done against him and others, he took it out on his own Son! We were his enemies, and yet he was willing to send his Son to die and take the punishment for us.
Such amazing love from God gives us the reason and the strength not to repay evil with evil. No better example of this can be given than that of our Savior himself. Think of how he responded to those who were beating and crucifying him! If someone ever had justifiable reason to strike back, it was Jesus, the Son of God. But what did he do? He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). That is how we want to be salt and light too. “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).
Another reason for avoiding revenge is because it is not our place to mete out justice. It is God’s. That is what Paul was getting at when he wrote, “Leave room for God’s wrath.” When we take matters into our own hands by trying to make others pay for what they have done to us, we carry a burden we don’t need to carry and have no right to carry. As God’s people, we are to live at peace with others, always keeping in mind that we are all in the hands of the Lord who will take care of all things and bring everything into line with his justice in his own time and in his own way.
Repay evil with love
Living at peace with our loved ones is challenging enough. Living at peace with our enemies is even more difficult. So, if we are not to repay evil with evil, what are we to do? Repay it with kindness. When our enemy hungers, we feed him. If he thirsts, we quench it. In so doing, Paul says, we will heap coals of fire on their heads.
There are a number of ways to understand these words. Have you ever been touched by a hot burning coal? It can leave a red burn mark. Maybe Paul’s point is that when we repay evil with kindness the person reacts with burning anger: “I meant to hurt you. How dare you try to be nice to me.” Such hard-hearted reaction to kindness can be part of God’s judgment on our enemies. Such reactions make plain to all, especially to God, who indeed is in the wrong.
Or, when we repay evil with kindness that person’s face might blush in shame, possibly leading them to repentance! Isn’t that what happens to us when we sin against God for the umpteenth time, and yet his forgiveness is always there? We sing about that in a Lenten hymn, “Thus might I hide my blushing face while his dear cross appears, dissolve my heart in thankfulness and melt my eyes to tears” (Christian Worship 129:4). Isn’t that what we want most for those who hurt us, especially our enemies? Jesus said that this is the ultimate goal in doing good. “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). How much greater our effectiveness as salt when we flavor life with forgiveness and love, and how much greater our light shines in repaying evil with good!
That is what happened that day on my member’s deathbed. He had sinned against his wife. He had hurt her deeply. But she didn’t strike back. She didn’t take revenge. She didn’t repay evil with evil. Rather she forgave. That forgiveness dissolved his heart in thankfulness and melted his eyes to tears. Mine too.
Bruce McKenney is pastor at St. Paul, Lake Mills, Wisconsin.
This is the tenth article in a 12-part series about Christian love in action and how we can be salt in this world.
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Author: Bruce A. McKenney
Volume 105, Number 4
Issue: April 2018
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