Forgiveness in the age of revenge? How do we deal with thoughts of revenge?

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If you look at news portals these days, the war in the Middle East takes up a lot of space.

You must have heard about it. Hamas supporters have invaded Israel and shot civilians and also kidnapped them.

These people also attacked a youth festival and murdered 260 people between 20 and 40.

It shocked me and it still shocks me.

Now there is talk of revenge. The Israeli prime minister has announced a crackdown on Hamas. "Every Hamas member is a dead man."

And now Gaza is totally blockaded by Israel, no electricity, no water, no food imports. I don't know what it's like on the Egyptian border.

More than two million people live in the Gaza Strip and almost half are under 18. In terms of area, the Gaza Strip is not even half the size of Hamburg.

In 2005, Israel left the Gaza Strip and evacuated all settlements there, handing over control to the Palestinian authorities.

In 2006, Hamas won the parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories and after back-and-forth there was a civil war where Hamas drove Fatah out of the Gaza Strip. Since then, Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip and Fatah the autonomous territories in the West Bank.

There was always fighting and attacks from Gaza and Israeli counter-attacks.

Hamas has very often misused civilians as shields, which has certainly led to civilian victims in Israeli counter-attacks. In addition, many raw materials and resources imported into the Gaza Strip were also used for rocket production and tunnel construction. According to Wikipedia, over 60,000 tonnes of concrete, actually for civilian buildings, have been used for tunnel construction since 2012.

By the way, there have been no elections in the Gaza Strip since 2006.

That was some information about the situation there, you probably already knew most of it.

How do you deal with that? I have to admit that I really feel aggression when I hear this. In my personal opinion, Israel is clearly in the right. I can also understand these thoughts of revenge expressed by various Israeli politicians. But it doesn't matter at all what I think about the situation. I am far away and have no influence on the situation down there.

And it should not be the subject of today's debate which action by the Israelis is the right one. We have no influence on this and we, who are far away, should not presume to judge.

Let us rather look at our own little world in which we move and in which we have influence.

How do we personally deal with such thoughts of revenge?

Revenge thoughts in the Bible

We do find thoughts of revenge in the Bible. There is a list of so-called vengeance Psalms (Psalm 35; 52; 55; 58; 59; 79; 109; 137). Some of them are against other people who have done evil to the psalmist, e.g. Psalm 35:8; NL

That is why their downfall shall come quite unexpectedly! They shall be caught in the traps they set for me and perish in them!

Some of these Psalms also ask for protection from the enemy, others simply wish the plague on them, so to speak, e.g. Psalm 55:16; NL:

Death strike my enemies unprepared, alive they shall go down into the realm of the dead, for evil dwells in their hearts.

Sometimes there are also thoughts of revenge in general against evil people (Psalm 58:4-9; NL):

4 These wicked are born sinners, from birth they have lied and gone their own way. 5 They are poisonous like snakes. They are like a deaf adder that shuts its ears, 6 so that they do not hear the flutes of the snake charmer, however artfully the magician plays. 7 God, smite their teeth and shatter the jaws of the young lions, O LORD! 8 Let them disappear like water that seeps into the earth. When they use their weapons, they shall be useless. 9 Like snails in the heat they shall dry up; like a miscarriage they shall not see the sun. 10 God will chase them away and drive them out faster than a pot gets hot over an open fire.

Now and then disaster is also linked to one's own mistakes, e.g. in Psalm 79:6-8; NL

6 Take your anger out on the nations that refuse to acknowledge you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name. 7 For they have destroyed your people Israel and laid the land waste. 8 Do not count the iniquity of our fathers against us, but have mercy on us again soon, for we are very weak.

Here, the desire for revenge is connected with one's own recognition of sin and the request for forgiveness. In the Old Testament, Israel's disaster was not infrequently justified by turning away from God. But I would never allow myself to make such a judgement today. Generally speaking, I cannot attribute external misfortune to the misbehaviour of a people, whether it is a raid like the one in Israel or a natural disaster like the one in Afghanistan. Once we are in heaven with God, then perhaps in retrospect we will understand some things or recognise how it was all connected.

There are also two vengeance Psalms where the psalmist also wishes evil on the children of the evildoer. The worst is in Psalm 137:7-9; NL:

7 Lord, remember what the Edomites did on the day the Babylonian armies conquered Jerusalem. They shouted, "Destroy it! Level it to the ground!" 8 Babylon, you yourself will be destroyed. He is well off who takes vengeance on you for what you have done to us. 9 He is well off who smashes your little children on the rocks!

I shudder when I read something like that. Unfortunately, it was not uncommon for children to be murdered in such wars, and the Israel of that time also suffered such things from time to time. And in retaliation, one wants the other to experience the same or even a little more.

The Old Testament "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" is already a containment of personal revenge, so that one does not go beyond what has been suffered and thus trigger a spiral of increasing revenge.

Assessment of the thoughts of revenge

How do you deal with something like that?

If you read commentaries on these vengeance Psalms, there are different interpretations.

Some say the authors prophetically anticipate God's judgement.

Others write that such desires for vengeance were appropriate for the Old Testament period, but no longer for the New.

Still others interpret that the psalmist is describing what sinners deserve, without any personal desire for revenge. I find this statement somewhat silly.

The most plausible idea seems to me to be that these authors really felt this and expressed it. These are not instructions for action, but in the Bible texts true human nature becomes visible again and again, and the desire for revenge is unfortunately part of it. Nevertheless, these Psalms are also God's Word, if we believe in the inspiration of the Bible by God. The feelings and the personality of the biblical authors are nevertheless often visible in the text.

But what becomes clear in all these statements, some of which are strange, is that God is being asked for vengeance.

One always imagines the Old Testament as being violent, vengeful, etc., but even then there were commandments pointing in the other direction, e.g. Deut. 19:17, 18; NL:

17 Do not harbour hatred in your heart against any other person, but rebuke him, so that you do not incur guilt because of him. 18 Do not take vengeance on a member of your people and bear him no grudge, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD!

That is simple. But how do we deal with such thoughts? Here, at least in v.18, it seems to be a bit limited to one's own people, but that is already difficult enough. After all, the neighbour is close by.

Dealing with thoughts of revenge

How do we deal with this now?

I would like to look at a few verses from Romans 12. From verse 9 onwards, general instructions on how to live together in the church begin. In Romans 12:16-18; NL then comes:

16 Live in peace with one another. Do not try to make yourselves important, but turn to those who are less respected. And do not think you know everything. 17 Do not repay others evil with evil, but strive for good towards all. 18 Do your part to live in peace with others as much as possible.

These are quite reasonable statements that are a good basis for living together. Hardly anyone will contradict that.

But then it gets interesting (v.19-21):

19 Dear friends, never avenge yourselves, but leave vengeance to the wrath of God. For it is written, "I alone will take vengeance; I alone will repay the wrong," says the Lord. 20 Instead, act as the Scripture says: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him drink, and he will be ashamed of what he has done to you." 21 Do not let evil overcome you, but overcome evil with good!

We actually find here the connection to the vengeance Psalms mentioned earlier, namely that God is responsible for vengeance.

Revenge and thoughts of revenge are apparently seen as something normal here, but where one is supposed to stay out of it when it comes to implementation. On the contrary, one is even supposed to do good to the enemy somehow.

I don't think this is about naivety towards the enemy, but if he is in need, if he is hungry and thirsty, help him.

Actually, this looks quite logical, but no one is so rational that he simply implements this text. And the enemy will certainly not be ashamed in every case either, but he too is a human being on whom good things he experiences often do not pass by without consequences.

Literally, it does not say ashamed here either, but:

"and you will heap burning coals on his head".

That is an image that is well understood.

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This is actually one of the goals of a Christian's life, and we can't just do it on our own. We cannot control our feelings just like that, we need Jesus Christ and the change through him so that we can really manage to give up thoughts and desires for revenge to God and seek the good.

In thoughts of revenge, one is often trapped and unfree. And when you take revenge, you often create unwanted collateral damage.

Our minds and our experiences know this, but without Jesus Christ we can only overcome these thoughts with difficulty. Of course, this involves learning to forgive, just as we have also experienced forgiveness through Jesus Christ. And that can be the basis for such behaviour.

How to implement this biblical text on a political level, I don't know. I find it hard enough to implement in my personal life, so I will not presume to offer solutions for major political conflicts, especially not for current war scenarios.


I summarise: