The Cycle of Vengeance and Mercy
There is an unfortunate cycle to vengeance. One man hurts another, so the second retaliates to hurt the first. The newly injured party, rather than feeling that all things are even, likewise strikes back. And so it frequently goes, back and forth, with neither the better for the injuries.
Jeremy Taylor once observed of revenge that it was “like a rolling stone, which, when a man hath forced up a hill, will return upon him with a greater violence, and break those bones whose sinews gave it motion.”
Biblically, believers are enjoined to forgo vengeance and revenge, remembering always that the Lord says, “vengeance is mine, I will repay (Deuteronomy 32:35; cf. Romans 12:19).” Learning to leave such matters in God’s hands frees us from this cycle and likewise reminds us that God will bring all matters into judgment, rendering to each man according to their deeds (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:14; Romans 2:6).
More than just letting things slide, however, God actually calls us to go one step further. Some might be content to merely hold a grudge for years without retaliation, and others might think that a mere lack of action shows a certain amount of piety, but the true man of God seeks to actively show mercy.
In the beatitudes, Jesus calls His disciples to consider the importance of mercy in His Kingdom and in His followers, teaching, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).”
The beatitudes are a description of the qualities necessary to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven, a verbal picture of what it means to be a Christian, and a short list of some of the qualities necessary to find salvation through Christ. Mercy is certainly one of those necessary qualities, and without mercy, the Scriptures make it clear that men will not find salvation. The words of Christ also serve to remind us that just as vengeance can be cyclical, so too is there a cycle to mercy.
When we think of mercy, the first and most obvious application of mercy is that of forgiveness. Just as Jesus prayed on the cross, concerning His persecutors, “Father forgive them (Luke 23:34),” so too did He teach His followers to forgive all who trespassed against them.
When we pray, Jesus taught us to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors (Matthew 6:12; ESV),” and further taught in that connection, “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:14-15; ESV).” Jesus additionally taught that a lack of forgiveness would itself bring judgment upon us (cf. Matthew 18:35).
If we wish for God to forgive us, we cannot afford the luxury of grudges or the temporary satisfaction of vengeance but must instead learn how to forgive others.
Yet mercy is more than just the act of forgiving others. The mercy God teaches goes further, showing compassion, empathy and kindness to others. When the Pharisees failed to show these qualities in their interactions with others, Jesus reminded them of the passage which taught, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13, 12:7; cf. Hosea 6:6).”
As opposed to seeking vengeance, God teaches us, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you. (Proverbs 25:21-22; ESV; cf. Romans 12:19-20)” By doing so, we will “overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).” This active kindness is the true sign of mercy: treating others well regardless of what they may or may not deserve.
There is no better way to break a cycle of animosity and vengeance than through the proactive application of love and kindness. Moreover, not only will doing this please God, but it has the added bonus of potentially starting a different cycle: one of love and kindness. Imagine how much more pleasant life would be if more people were trying to pay back the kindness of others by themselves being kind. Such a life would truly be blessed.