“I don’t get mad, I get even,” is what we used to say on the playground, trying to sound tough as we plotted our revenge. The Bible, however, has a different approach to the matter. “Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you,” it says.
But then it also says something else. Romans 12:19 says, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
What’s this? God will seek the revenge? We should ‘leave room for God’s wrath’ and let God repay the evil? Isn’t God supposed to be all-loving and forgiving? What’s all this talk about wrath and revenge?
First of all, the Bible is indeed clear– if someone does me harm, I should not try to get even. Instead, I am to return good for evil and leave the paybacks, if there are to be any, to God. In that same section it says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everybody… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good… and if your enemy is hungry, feed him…”
These are nice ideals, but it is fair to ask, does any of this work in the real world? Or do we just pay lip service to these kinds of nice thoughts on Sunday morning, knowing full well that it will have little application to our life on Monday morning? Will thieves stop robbing us if we don’t stop them? Will murderers cease killing just because we treat them nicely? Will ISIS stop beheading people if we ask them politely? Won’t evil run amok if we leave it unrestrained and unpunished?
The answer is, of course it will. Sinners con’t stop sinning out of the goodness of their hearts, because for one thing, our hearts aren’t good. So how can we who live in the real world follow Paul’s advice to never avenge ourselves, advice which seems so other-worldly and impractical? If we don’t stop evil, who will?
The answer to that question is in the Bible verse I began with. Who will stop evil? God will. God will stop the evil. And how does God do that? Well, there are a few ways he does that, but this meditation will be about how God deals with evil through his designated representatives. God’s designated representatives in the world to fight evil are described in Romans chapter 13, where Paul writes: “Be subject to the governing authorities, because they are God’s servants, established by Him, to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” There’s that word wrath again, and Paul is telling us here is that one of the ways God brings his wrath upon the wrongdoer is through the governing authorities. In other words, the government has something to do with stopping evil, by God’s own design.
But as soon as one starts talking about government things get complicated, so I’ll illustrate this with a less complex setting– the family.
Let’s say little brother hits big sister. Now big sister has at least three options.
Option #1 is she can just ignore it. If she does that, she runs the risk of little brother hitting her again– and again– and again. That’s how these things work. If the violence is allowed to work to bad guy’s benefit and go on without consequences, the aggressor will become bolder and even more wicked. In time, little brother may really hurt big sister. Obviously, that is not a good outcome. Option one, to just ignore the injury, is not a good idea; not for big sister who is getting hit, and also not for little brother who, if unrestrained, will just get worse, and may turn out to be a thoroughly bad person.
What else can big sister do? Option #2 is that she can hit little brother back. This is, of course, what the Bible says not to do. ‘Do NOT avenge yourselves,’ it says. But let’s say big sister doesn’t want to go by the Bible, and, since she is bigger, she is able to pound the daylights out of little brother, and perhaps even injure him. This is not a good outcome either, and, goes to show why it’s not a good idea to leave vengeance in the hands of the wronged party.
So what else could big sister do? You already know what option #3 is because that’s what usually happens. Big sister goes to Mommy and complains that little brother has hit her.
Now Mommy probably doesn’t want to have to deal with this, but she must. She would rather that her kids play without hitting, but when the hitting starts, she knows she has to get involved. So what follows is a little trial. Mommy asks the accused if he hit big sister. Little brother insists that he did no such thing. In a courtroom, this would be called, “pleading not guilty.” In the family, its called ‘telling a big fat lie’ (at least in this case). Mommy has already examined the forensic evidence, and she has seen the red mark of a chubby little hand on big sister’s cheek. So, Mommy pronounces the sentence: “Go to your room,” she says, or perhaps, “Sit in the corner,” or perhaps, worst of all in the mind of little brother, she might say, “Give your sister a big hug and apologize.” Justice is done and the evil is stopped, at least for the time being.
This is not Mommy’s favorite part of being a parent, but she knows she has to do it. It is part of her job. Mommy is, to use Paul’s words, “a servant of God, there to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” Parents are the ‘governing authorities’ in their families, which is why the fourth commandment does not tell us to love our parents, but to HONOR them. Honor includes love, but it is more than love. It also means, as it says in the catechism, that we are to respect parents, obey them, and serve them.
This little domestic situation is really a miniature of what government is supposed to do, according to the Bible. If we as individuals are not to avenge evil, then who will stop it? God will stop it through his designated representatives– parents in the family, and, in the larger society the governing authorities, who are servants of God to ‘execute wrath on the wrongdoer.’
If some stranger on the street mugs you, you don’t run to Mommy. You call the police, because they are the arm of government authorities appointed by God to deal with that kind of problem. Police, judges, juries, soldiers, and armies– these are all servants of the government to restrain evil. That is why, says Paul, we are to be subject to the governing authorities. We don’t have to like them. But we do have to respect, honor, and obey them. Their job is to protect us from each other, and from outside threats. It is not their job to forgive the wrongdoer, and we do not expect them to be non-judgmental. Their job is to judge and punish the wrongdoer.
Governments do many things. Sometimes they do horrible things, like commit mass murder against their own citizens. Those authorities who do that will have to answer to God. Other times governments do very good things, like build roads and maintain schools. And sometimes governments do downright silly things. But God has authorized the governing authorities to do one thing above all else– to execute his wrath on wrongdoers so that evil may be restrained, and the citizens of that government be protected.
It also must be said that the authority of a government is limited by God. If the governing authorities tell us to do that which is contrary to the Word of God, then we must not obey. In Acts chapter four Peter and John were told by the authorities to stop telling others about Jesus. The disciples refused to obey them, saying, “We must obey God and not men.”
As citizens under the authority of government we are called to vigilance and to virtue. Virtue is more than just abiding by the law because we are afraid of what might happen to us if we don’t. Virtue is doing the right thing freely and without coercion. It is what the Lord wants from us, and the Founding Fathers of this nation said many times that liberty cannot survive without a godly and moral people.
These are just a few words on just one aspect of what the Bible says about the governing authorities; and it doesn’t even begin to answer the question of why God doesn’t stop all the evil– except to say that He someday will. In the meantime, the good news is that Jesus sends his Holy Spirit to us to lead us and to guide us into all truth and obedience. Jesus, who was, you remember, crucified by the governing authorities, now lives and reigns in heaven. All authority on heaven and on earth is now His, says the Bible. And when Jesus comes again in glory, the kingdoms of this world will come to an end and our home will be in the kingdom of God, and Christ shall reign forever and ever.
Romans 12:17-19 — Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with 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.
Romans 13;1a…4 — Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established… For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
Oh God, Almighty Father, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, grant that the hearts and minds of all who go out as leaders before us, the statesmen, the judges, the men of learning and the men of wealth, may be so filled with the love of thy laws and of that which is righteous and life-giving, that they may be worthy stewards of thy good and perfect gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–Knights prayer, 14th century