In 12:1-16 Paul has discussed our response to grace with a series of short statements that stem from the theme of sincere love, but in 17 ff. he seems to focus on one particular subject: Revenge. While the previous section can be said to deal mostly with our relationships within the Body of Christ, this section would seem more (hopefully) to deal with those outside of the Body of Christ. Paul set up his new theme in verse 17: Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. Our natural human inclination when we have been harmed or insulted is to strike back, to get even, but that is not the reaction of sincere love, and it has been rendered obsolete by grace.
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (12:18). We are not to stir up trouble or carry on in a provocative manner with other people, we should not be tossing insults and unkindness around, nor should we be looking for disputes, for our response to grace makes that kind of living hypocritical. God has forgiven us, He has shown love and mercy to us; do we honor Him by stirring up trouble with other people?
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.
If we are harmed by another, even if it is a violent attack; our response is to show God’s mercy and love to the other party, it is not for us to avenge the wrong we have suffered. If avenging or retribution or punishment is required, that is God’s job, and since God has been faithful in dealing with us, He can be counted on to be faithful in the final disposition of our having been wronged.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (12:21).
There, that’s the “official” lesson portion− now let’s get real.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
As we saw when we covered these verses earlier, this is not empty talk; there are serious implications in these words. These injunctions require a response to grace, a response that brings about a whole new way of living and thinking, and more than anything else, they require that we trust God like never before. Yes, dear reader, these verses call upon each of us to put it all on the line in faith. I can’t think of anything that puts this new way of life to the test more than being the victim of a violent attack of some sort, for these are the things of nightmares, fear and emotional as well as physical trauma. As though that isn’t enough, here we are called to respond in love to the very one(s) who have caused it all; this is about the most counter-intuitive thing I can think of… but that’s just me.
Paul still has not mentioned the word, but what he is describing is forgiveness.
The reality is that a victim of violence will not move on in life if they cannot find a way to let go of the anger, rage and hurt of their experience and this is not likely to happen if they lust for revenge. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m not sure if I can do this on my own, in fact I doubt it very much.
But there is good news…
Grace has a dual purpose. First grace takes our sin away, making it possible to receive the gift of eternal life, and second it provides us with the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and it is by the strength and mercy of the Holy Spirit that we can overcome serious traumas of whatever kind in this life, not by our own will. God has given us the path and the resources to travel the path of this life; the only question that remains is that ancient question we all must answer: Will we trust God?
And with that question, we have come full circle; back to the where we began.
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That is a difficult teaching. Where does one draw (or cross) the line. If you mug me, hack my identity, shoot my wife. Justice v revenge? WWII, Vietnam War, Iraq. Enter the war or conscientious objector?
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