When violence strikes, I want justice. I want action. I want to make the evil stop.
Just the other day, there was another school shooting in the news. At least six innocent people lost their lives, and another community was ripped apart by grief, shock, and anger.
But is it really justice that I am seeking? Or is it vengeance?
Justice is permanent. Justice is final. Justice takes time. Vengeance is visceral and immediate. Vengeance is a reaction; a retaliation. Justice, on the other hand, is blind to the emotions of the initial event. Vengeance is driven by emotion. Justice comes through the objective application of the law.
Justice is God’s business. I do NOT understand why or how God allows evil to happen in the first place. It hurts. It doesn’t make sense. It is destructive. But it is the nature of Sin. And Sin infects the entire world. We cannot escape from it. We cannot deny its existence. We cannot put an end to it. We can only follow the arduous and imperfect justice systems that are in place for our community or our country. We cannot achieve perfect justice. But God can. And He has promised to do so– in His time, and in His way. This can be comforting, but it can also be frustrating.
Vengeance is also God’s business. God has emotions, just like we do. But His are always under perfect control. God’s wrath is frightening in its power, and paralyzing in its purpose.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”Romans 12:19 (ESV)
As imperfect as our systems of justice may be, they are still systems, with order and time to look at the total situation. Vengeance doesn’t stop to count the cost. It doesn’t stop to listen to the full story. It seethes and coils like a rattlesnake, waiting to inject venom into the first victim to cross its path. Human vengeance never leads to peace.
Also, vengeance is limited to the strength and resources of the avenger. If a shooter takes the life of my loved one, my vengeance is limited to the actions I can take. I may kill the shooter; I may take the life of their family members; but I cannot bring my loved one back, nor can I guarantee that the killer will suffer the same amount or the same way I do. Vengeance never looks forward, and it never offers a solution to move forward. It lives in bitterness and anger and discontent.
As followers of Christ, we are asked to take a stance that seems impossible from a human standpoint. We are asked to keep our hands clean, to keep our minds at peace, and to give our grief, our anger, and our craving for vengeance over to God with no reservation and no option to set the limits or timelines.
To the world around us, this seems weak and even unjust. What if the evildoer “gets away” with her/his crime? What if the victim never gets “justice” in their (or our) lifetime? What if we never “see” justice done? What if God “fails” to avenge us or our loved one? What does the Christian “do” in the face of evil? Nothing?! Fall on our knees and pray?! Offer lukewarm assurances and empty promises?
The problem with evil– especially shocking violent events– is that we can’t see beyond the immediate shock and pain. That doesn’t mean that there IS no pain or shock or anger or frustration if we choose not to react with vengeance. The pain is still very real, and overwhelming. But we choose to make room for faith that sees the larger picture. Faith makes room to see not just justice, but mercy. It allows us to see the overall tragedy of Sin, beyond our immediate tragedy of an individual act. Faith sees beyond our helplessness to God’s Sovereignty. It sees beyond the present pain to future healing.
I pray for the families of the victims in this latest shooting– and for all those who have experienced such violence. And I pray that God will show me what I can do to make a positive difference going forward. I pray for the strength and the faith to let go of hatred, bitterness, malice, and outrage. Finally, I praise God, even in the middle of pain and shock, knowing that He can be trusted to bring perfect Justice– and perfect vengeance–the kind that leads to a peace beyond our understanding. These are not “easy” prayers. They are not blind prayers, or prayers prayed without tears and groaning and questions. But they are real prayers, not empty wishes that I could avoid all unpleasantness or that I could exempt myself (or others) from tasting sorrow, grief or pain. Rather they are prayers that acknowledge that Life is more than struggle; that Love and Mercy are stronger than despair, and God has already won the ultimate victory.