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What Should We Think of Revenge and Retribution?

Jun 22, 2024 by Gary Hardin

An 1846 novel included these words: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” The idea behind the phrase is that retribution is more satisfying when it is doled out immediately after the offense.

   A group of Swiss researchers scanned the brains of people who had been wronged during a money game. These people had trusted their game partners to split a pot of money with them, only to find that the partners kept the loot for themselves. The researchers then gave the people a chance to punish their greedy partners, and for a full minute, as the victims contemplated revenge, the activity in their brains was recorded.

   The decision caused a rush of nervous activity in an area of the brain known to process rewards. The findings gave confirmation to what those who wanted retribution for the wrongs done to them have been saying for years: Revenge is sweet.  

   We are hearing much today from the political arena about revenge and retribution. But is revenge actually sweet? Research shows that retribution for wrongs done to us is not sweet, but bittersweet. We might feel good initially after getting revenge, but later we also feel guilt and regret for our acts of retribution. We might even suffer serious consequences from our revenge.

   Our best source for tackling feelings of revenge and retribution don’t come from science or psychology but from the Bible. Are you aware that 82 Bible verses speak about revenge? These verses serve as a guardrail for us when we seek vengeance or retribution on those who have hurt us. What are some of these guardrails?

   First, revenge, retribution, or vengeance belongs to God alone. Deuteronomy 32:35 warns us, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.” God does not want us taking out our personal grievances on others. God is in charge of that. Why? God has the better understanding of wrongs and other injustices. Our judgment of those wrongs, on the other hand, is faulty and often meted out in the heat of anger. God’s vengeance is not reckless like ours often is; His is redemptive.

   Second, when we take out retribution on others, we often see sad consequences. We might physically harm someone. Our revenge seeking is often impulsive and can result in crimes that lead to incarceration. Individuals who engage in vengeful behavior are more likely to be neurotic, hostile, brooding persons and predisposed to constantly dwell on slights and transgressions. What a sad way to live.

   Third, revenge carries long-term implications. Revenge seekers often find themselves living in a cycle of retribution and bitterness. One act of revenge is followed by another and then another, and so on. Personal healing from the bitterness of being mistreated never happens.

   Fourth, the Bible encourages us to pray for those who harm us. Jesus taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43). When we pray for those who hurt us, we are more likely to forgive them. We begin to view them through the lens of compassion. More importantly, when we pray for our enemies, we behave like Jesus who prayed for His crucifiers (see Luke 23:34).

   Have you ever been wronged by someone, taken advantage of, or seriously mistreated? How did it feel? Were your initial thoughts those of revenge and retribution? Seeking out revenge on others is not part of God’s will for your life. When you feel the temptation to seek revenge, turn to God who does a better job of handling wrongs than we do.