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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Taking Revenge

My freshman year of high school, I was chosen to be the starting pitcher for my high school baseball team. I wasn’t actually that good of a pitcher; it just so happened that I was the only one in our high school of 100 people and team of 13 who could consistently throw strikes.

A few games into the season, my team faced Miami Valley School, another team in our conference. I was called on to take the mound. They must’ve eaten their Wheaties that morning because they came ready to play. In the first two innings, they scored 11 runs on us including a multi-run homer. With one out to go in the second, my coach finally came to my rescue and pulled me from the mound. My confidence was so shaken from the massacre that I refused to pitch for the rest of the season claiming that my arm was hurting.

My sophomore year, I decided not to play. My junior year, we had a new coach and he didn’t ask me to pitch, which was just fine with me. My senior year, we got yet another new coach. Instead of asking everyone what positions they played, he had every one try out for every position. I was still so scarred from the Miami Valley experience that when it was my turn to try out for pitcher, I purposely sabotaged my tryout and didn’t throw a single strike. Needless to say, he decided I wasn’t going to be one of the team’s pitchers. Meanwhile, I was still harboring a great deal of bitterness against Miami Valley for what they did to me in that game three years previously.

By the midway point of the season, our team was in trouble. All of our pitchers had sore arms and needed to save them for the games, so we didn’t have anyone to throw balls for batting practice. As the team captain, I decided to confess to my coach that I could actually pitch and made an agreement with him that I’d pitch during batting practice if, and only if, he never asked me to pitch in a game. He agreed and batting practice started.

As we got near the end of the season, I looked at the schedule and noticed that we were playing Miami Valley School for our last game. What better chance to get even than in my last career high school baseball game. So I approached my coach and asked him if he’d let me pitch in that final game. After giving it some thought, he agreed and I was set to make my season debut on the same mound in which I had made my last debut three years earlier.

As I walked to the mound, a flood of emotions came back. Like a tape from a bad dream, I could vividly see the previous game replay in my head. After allowing myself a couple moments to cope with my nightmare, I gathered myself together and began what would become the best pitching outing of my career. We ended up winning the game by a large margin and I walked away with a standing ovation from the crowd. It was what some would call, “sweet revenge.”

The Biblical Perspective on Revenge

If I was faced with the same situation today, I don’t think I’d respond the same way I did as a senior in high school. First, I don’t think I’d sit around for three years waiting for an opportunity to seek revenge against a team that scored double digits on me. And second, I don’t think I’d feel the same desire to get even with them. It’s not that I have some higher moral code that I adhere to today that I didn’t back then; I just don’t operate that way anymore. Sometimes I talk like I operate that way, but when it comes down to it, I can’t bring myself to take revenge on someone. And I don’t see that as a bad thing.

Many years ago, there was a shepherd boy named David who won the hearts of the people after defeating their arch nemesis, a nine-foot giant by the name of Goliath. The only problem was that he wasn’t the king; a guy by the name of Saul was the king. Saul, feeling that David was a threat to his kingly position, sought to kill David.

Twice, Saul tried to impale David with a spear. David, recognizing that Saul was out to kill him, fled. And Saul pursued him time and time again. During one of Saul’s pursuits, David and his men were hiding in the back of a cave and Saul, not knowing they were there, entered the cave to take a dump. When David’s men realized it was Saul, they encouraged David to kill him. But David wouldn’t do it. Instead, David stealthily approached Saul and cut off a corner of his robe. Saul finished his business and left the cave, not knowing anything of what David had done.

After Saul was heading on his way, David came out of the cave and called to Saul, showing him the piece of his robe that had been cut off. He then said to Saul, “May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you.”[1]

How would you have responded in that situation? Would you have taken the opportunity to kill Saul so that he wouldn’t kill you? Or would you have let him go scot free like David did?

That’s probably a hard question to answer. So let’s put it in modern day terms. Let’s say you’re in a meeting with your boss and a group of high level managers. And let’s say one of the managers asks your boss why something didn’t get done correctly and instead of taking ownership of it, he decides to blame it on you and throw you under the bus, even though it wasn’t your fault. I imagine most of us would be bitter towards our boss and be actively searching for an opportunity to get revenge.

But that’s not what David did. He didn’t attempt to get revenge on Saul because he didn’t see vengeance as something that belonged to him; he saw vengeance as something that belonged to God: “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay.”[2] That’s a starkly different way of looking at it than the way in which most of us are accustomed. Most of us think it’s our responsibility to get even with people who wrong us. That was the approach David’s buddies took. They were ready for him to seal the deal and get his revenge. But David trusted God as the righteous judge, not himself. Therefore, even when he had an opportunity to take revenge, he didn’t do it.

Up until a couple years ago, I would’ve been in the same camp as David’s buddies. If I was David, I would’ve killed Saul, reasoning that God had given my enemy into my hands to do with him whatever I wanted. But now, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to do it. Even if it was something much less life-threatening like my boss throwing me under the bus, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to do something in order to try to get even.

Here’s the problem with seeking revenge. First, we elevate ourselves to the spot of a judge; we believe it’s within our power to issue punishment to someone based on the wrongs they’ve done to us. As the biblical writers tells us, we aren’t judges; God is the judge. If one of us has been elected or appointed to a position of a judge, that’s a different story. These people need to give righteous judgment. But most of us aren’t in that position, so we have no right to elevate ourselves to that position. And second, in the end, revenge accomplishes nothing productive. It may offer a miniscule amount of instant gratification, but in the long run, the only thing it does is create a larger relational chasm between you and the other person. Is it worth it?

Are We Called to Be Pushovers?

At this point, you may be wondering if that means God calls us to be pushovers. I don’t think so. Jesus wasn’t a pushover. And I don’t think we’re called to be one either. So here are my thoughts in answer to this question.

Although getting even with someone is not appropriate, I think it is appropriate to send a message to someone who is trying to push us around. And I think there’s a stark difference between the two. I’ll give you an example. When I was in sixth grade, there was a kid in my class who randomly enjoyed picking on me. Most days I tried to ignore it, but one day I decided I’d had enough. While I was trading books at my locker, he walked by and shut my locker on me. With only four minutes between classes and three numbers to cycle through on my combination lock, I didn’t have time to waste opening my locker for a second time. So instead of fiddling with the locker, I followed him out of the locker bay, positioned myself in such a way that he was between me and the wall, and then I gave him a full on body check into the wall. I wasn’t trying to get even; I was trying to communicate a simple message: Stop messing with me. I’m pretty sure he got the message because that was the last time he picked on me.

As an adult, I don’t suggest body checking people into walls as a way of communicating a message. I’m sure you can come up with some other, more mature ways to deal with these types of situations. My point, however, is that sometimes it can be very productive to send a simple message to someone who’s trying to push us around. I would highly encourage this approach over trying to get even.

Have you encountered situations where you sought to take revenge on someone? How did it go? Is there someone on whom you’re actively seeking to take revenge? What might be a more productive approach?

[1] 1 Samuel 24:12.
[2] Deuteronomy 32:35.