When someone hurts me, I sometimes react and feel the need to seek revenge. That is, to take the matter into my own hands and hurt the other person so that I feel the scales of justice are balanced. Revenge starts with a mental attitude in which we seek to harm an offender for the injury or offence they caused, whether that injury or offense is real or imagined. The desire to retaliate against the offender is generally followed by action to hurt them, whether physically, psychologically, emotionally, socially, financially, or legally.
The desire for revenge can be coupled with very strong emotions that help inflame the injustice in our mind and to relive it over and over, which can eventuate in mental bondage as we keep recalling the hurt. Also, an injured person may feel helpless and victimized by an oppressor, so hurting the other person can make one feel empowered. It is true that personal revenge can offer a temporary sense of closure or satisfaction, but it can also establish a pattern of behavior that can be exhausting and endless, as we feel the need to retaliate against all perceived offenders. God’s Word speaks to the issue of dealing with offenders who cause hurt, giving directions on how we are to respond.
First, there is the positive directive concerning how to treat offenders. Jesus said, “I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). As Christians, we live in a fallen world and are surrounded by fallen people who, often unknowingly, help advance Satan’s agenda. These fallen people are identified as our enemies who operate by the mental attitude of hatred, openly curse us, and will mistreat us if given the opportunity. Being an adversary who operates on hate, and who curses and mistreats us, are all things that do not rise to the level of dangerous harm. Even a slap on the cheek, or stealing our clothing (Luke 6:29) does not constitute a life-threatening situation that requires self-defense. Loving others does NOT mean:
- It does not mean we expose ourselves to unnecessary harm. There were times when God’s people hid from their enemies (1 Ki 18:13; Acts 9:23-25). Jesus faced hostile people, who at one time “picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple” (John 8:59). Paul was greatly hurt by a man named “Alexander the coppersmith,” whom he told Timothy, “did me much harm” (2 Tim 4:14a). Paul then warned Timothy, saying, “Be on guard against him yourself, for he vigorously opposed our teaching” (2 Tim 4:15).
- It does not mean we trust all people. Jesus loved everyone, but He did not entrust Himself to all people, even believers. John tells us there were many who “believed in His name” (John 2:23), but then tells us that “Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men” (John 2:24).
- It does not mean we fail to rebuke others when needed. When Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem, He passed by a village of the Samaritans (Luke 9:51-52) whose residents “did not receive Him, because He was traveling toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53). Luke tells us, “When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’” (Luke 9:54). But this was a wrong attitude, so Jesus “turned and rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what kind of spirit you are of’” (Luke 9:55).
- It does not mean we interact or befriend people who are hostile to God (Prov 13:20). Solomon said, “Do not associate with a man given to anger; or go with a hot-tempered man, or you will learn his ways and find a snare for yourself” (Prov 22:24-25). Scripture also states, “do not associate with a gossip” (Prov 20:19), and “do not associate with rebels” (Prov 24:21), for “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor 15:33; cf. 1 Cor 5:11). The apostle Paul, when writing to Timothy, described the sinful attitudes and actions of people committed to godlessness (2 Tim 3:1-5a), and told his friend to “avoid such men as these” (2 Tim 3:5).
- It does not mean we forfeit the right to defend ourselves physically or legally when we come under attack. Paul, who at one time took a beating with rods (Acts 16:22-23), later used legal force by exercising his rights as a Roman citizen to protect himself from a flogging that might have killed him (Acts 22:25-29). And Paul eventually appealed to Caesar, hoping to gain a just trial (Acts 25:7-12).
By wisdom we come to know when to turn the other cheek and when to stand up and push back, as self-defense is valid if the injury rises to the level of great physical harm, is life-threatening, or threatens to harm or kill a loved one (see my article on Is Self-Defense Biblical?). Even though we may defend ourselves, we must never stoop to the place of hatred toward our enemies, but must always maintain love for them and be willing to forgive and help if/when possible.
As Jesus’ disciples, we are to love (ἀγαπᾶτε) our enemies, do good (καλῶς ποιεῖτε) to those who hate us, bless (εὐλογεῖτε) those who curse us, and pray (προσεύχεσθε) for those who mistreat us. All four of Jesus’ directives are in the imperative mood, which means they are commands to be understood and obeyed. To love our enemy means we care about them and seek God’s best in their life. To do good to those who hate us means we are kind and giving when possible. To bless our enemy means we wish them well rather than harm. To pray for our enemy means we ask God to save and bless them, even though they seek to mistreat us. Love manifests itself by doing good, blessing, and praying for those who hate us. This is not mere passivity, but requires great discipline of the mind and will, which can be contrary to our emotions. Nor does such behavior imply weakness on our part. Jesus, the theanthropic person, possessed all power sufficient to destroy His enemies, yet He restrained His power for the sake of love and grace. Divine truth, not feelings, must be what guides our thoughts, words, and actions. According to Joel Green, “Love is expressed in doing good—that is, not by passivity in the face of opposition but in proactivity: doing good, blessing, praying, and offering the second cheek and the shirt along with the coat.” Paul, when writing to Christians in Rome, used similar language, saying, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Rom 12:14). As Christians, when we think and act this way, we are like the “sons of the Most-High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:35). This is accomplished by faith and not feelings. Sproul is correct when he states, “We may not be able to control how we feel about them, but we certainly can control what we do about those feelings.”
Second, there is a negative directive in which we are not to retaliate or seek personal revenge. The Lord said, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18). The apostle Paul said, “See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people” (1 Th 5:15). Peter wrote, “All of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Pet 3:8-9). Solomon wrote, “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil;’ wait for the LORD, and He will save you” (Prov 20:22). Concerning this verse, Allen Ross states, “Leave retribution to the Lord. Let him bring about a just deliverance…The righteous should not take vengeance on evil, for only God can repay evil justly (cf. Rom 12:19–20).” Bruce Waltke says this verse “suggests that the Lord will help the disciple by compensating him justly for the wrong done to him. The Helper will both compensate the damage and punish the wrongdoer.” And David Hubbard adds:
Vengeance is an activity too hot for any of us to handle. Its motivation is selfish; its execution is usually extreme; its result is to accelerate conflict not to slow it down. In short, vengeance is God’s business not ours (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30). All human sin is sin against Him, so He is the ultimate victim; only He can judge accurately the damage done; only He can distribute fairly the blame; only He can exact freely the proper penalty. We are not entitled to ‘play God’ at any time.
The challenge for us is to put the offense in God’s hands, trusting He sees, and that He will dispense justice in His time and way. For this reason, Scripture states, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God” (Rom 12:17-19a; cf. Deut 32:35; Heb 10:30). Again, this requires discipline of mind and will, and is executed by faith and not feelings.
Third, place the matter in the Lord’s hands and let Him dispense justice in His time and way. The Bible teaches that God is the “Judge of all the earth” (Gen 18:25) and that He dispenses justice upon those whose who deserve it. Scripture reveals the Lord is a “God of vengeance” (Psa 94:1) and will punish the wicked. And Nahum tells us, “A jealous and avenging God is the LORD; the LORD is avenging and wrathful. The LORD takes vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies” (Nah 1:2). God told the Israelites if they listen to His voice, “Then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Ex 23:22). Paul, after instructing Christians not to seek their own revenge, explained that God will handle the matter, saying, “for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19b; cf. Deut 32:35; Heb 10:30). And again, “It is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you” (2 Th 1:6). Even Paul did not seek his own revenge when hurt by Alexander the coppersmith, but said, “the Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Tim 4:14). According to Warren Wiersbe, “The word vengeance must not be confused with revenge. The purpose of vengeance is to satisfy God’s holy law; the purpose of revenge is to pacify a personal grudge.”
It is true that God may extend grace to His enemies and those who hurt us, as He gives them time to repent and turn to Him for forgiveness. We must always remember that we were God’s enemies and terrible sinners before we came to faith in Christ, and God waited patiently for us (see Rom 5:8-10), for God is “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). But God’s grace does not last forever. At death, all of life’s decisions are fixed, and what the unbeliever does with Christ in time determines his eternal destiny. If a person goes his entire life rejecting God’s grace, not believing in Christ as Savior (John 3:16; 1 Cor 15:3-4), then he will stand before God at the Great White Throne judgment and afterwards will be cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:11-15). It is at that time that God will deal out “retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Th 1:8-9). Wiersbe states, “Certainly, the wicked who persecute the godly do not always receive their just payment in this life. In fact, the apparent prosperity of the wicked and difficulty of the godly have posed a problem for many of God’s people (see Psa 73; Jer 12:1; Hab 1). Why live a godly life if your only experience is that of suffering? As Christians, we must live for eternity and not just for the present.”
Fourth, if we fail to follow the Lord’s directives to love, do good, bless, and pray for our enemies, and instead decide to take matters into our own hands and seek revenge, then we are sinning against God and open ourselves up to divine discipline. The very punishment we may seek to inflict upon our enemies may be administered to us by the Lord, and this because we are walking by sinful values rather than being obedient-to-the-Word believers. However, if we put the matter in the Lord’s hands and let Him dispense justice in His time and way, we can rest assured that He will bring it to pass, for He says, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay” (Rom 12:19b), and it is “just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you” (2 Th 1:6). Plus, when we learn and live God’s Word by faith it frees us from the tyranny of hurt feelings which can be fatiguing to the mind and toxic to the soul.
In closing, we are to obey the words of Jesus, who tells us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). Assuming the hostility never rises to the level of requiring self-defense (which does not negate loving the attacker), we are to tolerate the hostility and abuse and respond in love by doing good, blessing, and praying for our enemies. It’s ok to hurt, but not to hate. Operating from divine viewpoint, we walk by faith and trust God to handle the matter, knowing He is the “Judge of all the earth” (Gen 18:25) and that “it is just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you” (2 Th 1:6), as God states, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay” (Rom 12:19b). In this way, we will follow the example set by Jesus, who, “while being reviled, He did not revile in return; and while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2:23). If we live as God directs, abiding by the royal family honor code, then He will dispense justice upon our attackers in His time and way. The challenge for us is to discipline ourselves to learn God’s Word and live by faith, not our hurt feelings or circumstances.
Dr. Steven R. Cook
- The Gospel Explained
- A Look at Grace
- Walking with God
- Enjoying the Spiritual Life
- Biblical Self-Talk
- Knowing and Doing the Will of God
- The High Calling of God’s Servant
- The Armor of God
- The Life of Faith
- The Righteous Lifestyle of the Believer
 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 272.
 R. C. Sproul, A Walk with God: An Exposition of Luke (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1999), 115–116.
 Allen P. Ross, “Proverbs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 1046.
 Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 15–31, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 152.
 David A. Hubbard and Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Proverbs, vol. 15, The Preacher’s Commentary Series (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1989), 308.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 194.
 Ibid., 194.