I don’t read most of the e-newsletters that show up in my email, but sometimes I do. Open Doors shares prayer requests and updates about persecuted Christians around the world, and Hope Outfitters partners with charities to donate all the money they make off clothing sales to a good cause. I’ll read their newsletters, and often when I do, I become angry and sad. When I read about Christians in India being denied food and medicine unless they renounce their faith or a little girl here in the U.S. whose parents started selling her for sex when she was 6 months old, I want someone do do something about it. People are trying to help–that’s part of what the newsletters talk about–but I want a more permanent solution. I want God to do something about it. The more I hear stories like this, better I understand why David wrote Psalms asking God to “break the teeth of the wicked” (Ps. 3:7, NET) and “pay them back for their evil deeds. Pay them back for what they do. Punish them” (Ps. 28:4, NET).
And yet, even though we have the Psalms as models for the range of emotions that godly people can feel and it is okay to take our anger to God in this way, we are also told not to give into that anger or be consumed by a desire for vengeance. Indeed, Jesus says, “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44, NET). This command seems terribly counter-intuitive, especially when the things some people do are so clearly evil.
To be clear, loving our enemies does not mean we ought to “call evil good” or make darkness out to be light (Is. 5:20). God defines what is righteous and what is not, and it is not our place to excuse what He calls wicked. We must beware that our mercy doesn’t turn into a permissive tolerance of sin (1 Cor. 5:1-6). Yet we’re also not to become raging, unforgiving avengers or legalistic judges who take it upon themselves to condemn others. There’s a challenging balance to strike in this, and I think there are several things we can keep in mind to help with that.
God’s Fairness to All
We have certain ideas about fairness and justice that come from a mix of our cultures, our gut reactions, and our thoughts and experiences. Typically, those ideas don’t match up exactly with what God thinks of as right and just. We can see this in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, whom the landowner gave the same payment whether they’d worked an hour or the whole day (Matt. 20:1-16). The men complained because those who’d worked less were treated as equal to them, but the landowner did give them what he’d agreed and he had the right to pay people what he chose. Whether someone has been a Christian all their life or just a few months, God can give them the same reward while still being impartial and just.
Something similar happens in God’s dealings with the wicked. He is always just, but it doesn’t always look the way we want or expect. And because we are to become like God, Jesus tells us God’s perfect justice should inspire us to treat people the way that God does.
But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. … So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.Matthew 5:44-45, 48, NET
The Greek word here for “love” is agapao. We don’t have to see our enemies as close friends with whom we have a lot in common and a closed bond (which would have been expressed by the word phileo) but we do need to love everyone, including our enemies, with the same active goodwill and benevolence that God has as a key part of His being. When we struggle to understand why God doesn’t punish certain people right now or stop them before they could do bad things, we need to keep in mind that He is loving and patient as well as good and just (2 Pet. 3:9).
His Justice With Us
Whenever we’re tempted to grumble about the fact that God shows mercy and patience to certain people, it’s good to remember how He deals with us. Don’t you appreciate God’s patience with your sin? Aren’t you grateful that His idea of justice means showing you mercy and grace? Doesn’t it make you rejoice and praise Him to know that instead of giving us what we fairly deserved (i.e. death for our sins) Jesus died in your place? To quote Chris Tiegreen, “we who have received a clean slate from our Savior can have no complaints against our God of justice. Justice once directed at us was poured out on Another, so we can hardly insist that others receive it” (365 Pocket Devotions, Day 128).
Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if someone happens to have a complaint against anyone else. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also forgive others.Colossians 3:12-13, NET
When we receive mercy, God expects us to show mercy. It’s such a big issue that Jesus even says God will withhold forgiveness from us if we don’t forgive others (Matt. 18:23-35). As God’s people, we’re to put on things like mercy, kindness, gentleness, and patience, remembering all the times we benefit because God treats us with mercy, kindness, gentleness, and patience. The more we remember how much undeserved mercy we have received, the better we can wrap our minds around God’s choice to treat others with mercy as He patiently provides opportunities for them to repent (Rom. 2:4; 1 Tim. 2:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:9).
True Justice is a Promise
Another thing we can keep in mind when we wonder what God’s going to do about evil (and why doesn’t He do it now!?) is His promise that there will be justice. “Our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29, WEB) who claims vengeance as His own and promises “I will repay” (Rom. 12:19). It’s not our place to try to pay people back for what they’ve done (Prov. 24:29). We ought to care about justice, since it is a godly thing, but only God–who is the Lawgiver and has perfect perspective on human beings’ motives and actions–can administer justice in the way we’re talking about here.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.Romans 12:16-19, NET
There is a day coming “when God will judge the secrets of human hearts,” including our own (Rom. 2:16, NET). We ought to “sigh and cry” and “groan and lament” over the abominable and detestable things done in our world (Ezk 9:4, WEB & LEB). We’re also to pray “thy kingdom come,” and trust in God’s timing. His patience and mercy and love means that He wants to give as many people as possible time to repent. These character traits do not mean He has forgotten the injustices done on this earth or that He will not avenge those who’ve been wronged.
Take Your Thoughts Captive
As we ponder the things we ought to focus on instead of anger and vengeance or apathetic helplessness, we probably also realize this is a hard thing to do. Changing the way we think and taking responsibility for the way we feel isn’t easy, but it is possible. It’s particularly doable with the help of the holy spirit. With God’s power working in us to wage war on a spiritual and mental level, we can even “take every thought captive to make it obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5, NET). Our thoughts often feel outside our control, but with God’s help we can choose what to think and how we react to what’s going on around us.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things.Philippians 4:8, NET
This is where we want to keep our focus. It’s not that we ignore all the bad things or pretend the world is full of nothing but sunshine and goodness. Rather, we ought not to dwell on the evil as if that were all there is. Then, instead of feeling helplessness or rage when we read or hear about an evil deed we can think on the truth of God’s promised, perfect justice. We can look for respectable, commendable ways to help people in need. We can pray for those excellent, praiseworthy people who are doing things like standing faithfully in the face of persecution or fighting to end sex trafficking. We can keep bringing our thoughts into alignment with Christ’s mind over and over again, asking God to help us hold fast to Him and live with faith, hope, and love until His kingdom comes.
Featured image by WhoisliketheLord Studio via Lightstock