Justice, Revenge, and Turning the Other Cheek

This past week we finished our sermon series derived from questions submitted by our congregation.  During the series we allowed people to text questions in and we answered some of those in the service.  Those we did not get to in the service I have been using the blog to respond.  This is a question submitted this past week during the sermon dealing with the question, How do I find the balance between turning the other cheek, loving others, but not being taken advantage of?

If someone wrongs you criminally, is it wrong to take joy when justice and punishment is brought towards them?

The key to answering this question lies in the difference between justice and revenge.  When we are wronged our natural response is to become angry, and to seek the punishment of the offender.  Our hatred of evil actually comes from the reality that God has created us in his image and likeness.  He is a just and holy God who hates evildoers and despises wickedness.  Moses declared of God that, “All his ways are justice.  A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4).  As the judge of all the earth (Genesis 18:25), God will do right, punishing the wicked and demonstrating his righteousness in the affairs of people.  The Bible tells us countless times that God’s justices is demonstrated through is holy wrath toward sin.  But God’s justice also means that he is impartial and will always judge fairly.  The basic definition of justice is the idea of rightly judging evil and giving sinful actions the fair and just response.

As God’s character is expressed in the people whom he created, he placed the love for justice and righteousness in the human heart.  God also commands that His people are to love and do justice (Deuteronomy 16:20, Isaiah 56:1, Micah 6:8).  When we have a righteous anger toward evil and sin that is an expression of the Imago Dei (Image of God) within us.  When we are angered by a child-molester, broken hearted over stories of rape and murder, disgusted by those who steal and treat others cruelly, we are having the same attitude toward sin that God does.  On this level, when a person is arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced, we should be satisfied that justice has been done.  As the nation of Israel expressed God’s justice they were commanded to install kings,  judges, and law enforcement officials in place that would be an extension of God’s justice by caring for the poor, punishing evildoers, and even executing those who committed the most horrible of crimes against God or His people (Deuteronomy 16:18, Jeremiah 21:12, Proverbs 29:14, Isaiah 1:17).  In fact, the very role of the Old Testament king was to serve as a ruler under the divine kingship of God.  In other words, God was the righteous king who exercised justice, and the instrument through whom he was to do this was the human king who rules in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 8:15, 2 Samuel 23:3, Ezekiel 45:9).

The problem here is that God is perfectly holy, and therefore perfect in his justice and righteousness.  We are not.  While we are created in the image of God, we are sinful people who often mix our self-centered narcissistic feelings in with the emotions of the Creator.  In this case, we can have feelings of joy that are motivated by justice, but also driven by our desire to experience revenge.  Justice desires fair treatment that will protect the innocent and punish evildoers.  Revenge on the other hand seeks to punish the person so that one’s own feelings and rights are defended.  The motivation of revenge is often our own idolatry.  When a person offends and wrongs us often it attacks our sense of self-righteousness or self-sufficiency.  When this happens we will lash out at that person seeking to put him or her a position of owing us and we seek some sort of payment which will appease our own feelings of being violated and angered.  While the Bible calls us to love justice, it also commands that we avoid seeking revenge (Leviticus 19:8, Proverbs 24:29, Romans 12:17-19)

The question then is how do we know the difference between justice and revenge.   A couple thoughts.  First, justice allows the proper authorities to complete their tasks, while a person seeking revenge will often be so motivated by feelings of anger and resentment that he will often try to step in and do things themselves.  Second, the motivation for justice is the desire to see God’s goodness exalted, while a person who is driven by revenge is seeking to lift up their own rights and worthiness.   Third, a person truly motivated by justice will realize that God also provides forgiveness through the cross of Jesus.  This forgiveness can extend to the person who has committed the crime against you.  When we are driven by God’s justice we will find joy in the reality that God’s ordained means to punish people has rightly judged the actions of the individual to be evil and has rightly punished the criminal, while at the same time praying for this person in hopes that he will find Jesus and find ultimate forgiveness from God.  A person who is motivated by revenge will despise the possibility that God might consider forgiving this person and may even become angry with God Himself if the person becomes a follower of Jesus.  The reason is that we often think the offense against us is greater than sin’s offense against God.

At the end of the day, if you or someone you know has had a crime committed against you, it will be very difficult to separate feelings of Godly justice and sinful attitudes of revenge.  This is why we must always live under the cross of Jesus as the driving symbol of our faith.  At the cross we are confronted with the beautiful righteousness of Jesus, the horror of our own sin, and the amazing price that was paid to offer forgiveness.  Only by living here can God give us the grace to forgive people who have wronged us while at the same time loving justice as He does.

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