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Forgiveness vs. getting even

Society today doesn’t really appreciate the concept of forgiveness. In fact, you might say that it is a lost art. Our culture today exalts vengeance. It exalts payback. It even exalts violence. Many people operate by the adage, “Don’t get mad; just get even.”

I once saw a bumper sticker on a car that said, “If you love someone, set them free. If they are yours, they will come back to you. If they don’t come back, hunt them down and kill them.” That is not the kind of person you would want to tailgate.

But why should things like that actually surprise us? Think of the movies you have seen where the hero, so-called, is wronged. Then the movie builds up to that big climax when the hero is going to have his moment of payback. Then we applaud, because that is what we are trained to do and what we are expected to do.

Nowadays if you upset a neighbor, you no longer work it out over a cup of coffee. Instead, it is taken into the local courtroom. There is no forgiveness. People don’t want to forgive anymore; they want to exact their revenge.

Unforgiveness is choosing to love hate. And it will produce bitterness, malignancy, anger, rage, anxiety and depression. Simply put, unforgiveness is sin.

Some might say, “But you don’t understand. This person ripped me off. … This person took advantage of me. … This person slandered me. … This person hurt me. They have to get their payback.”

I do understand. But unforgiveness will eat us up inside. As we experience all of that hatred toward another individual, it is tearing us up. It has been said that when you forgive someone, you set a prisoner free: yourself. What we don’t realize many times is that when we harbor a grudge toward someone or want to exact our revenge, we are actually destroying ourselves.

Jesus constantly pressed the issue of forgiveness. We read about it in his sermons, in his parables, and in his private talks. Even in his prayers, Jesus was always talking about forgiving people. We would be blind to miss this point.

Getting even comes quite naturally to us. But Jesus gives us a different model altogether:

“But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also” (Luke 6:27–29 NLT).

In the Jewish culture, slapping someone in the face was among the most demeaning and contemptuous acts. If you really wanted to insult someone, you would slap them in the face. Even a slave would rather have been struck on the back than in the face.

The idea here was not just this act in particular, but general mistreatment. Jesus was saying, “This is how you should react when people mistreat you.” The goal is an attitude that does not want to immediately strike back when someone hurts us.

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To be very candid, this doesn’t come easily to me. It is not an easy thing to turn the other cheek. But the choice before us is this: Either live in a stressed-out way where we feel compelled to get everyone back who wrongs us, or decide to just let things go.

Some people are so competitive. They have to be the fastest. They have to have more than other people do. They have to have everything. So when I encounter people like this, my thought is, You win. You got it all. You will probably have a heart attack in the process, but take it. It is not worth it.

Jesus was saying that we should have an attitude in life in which we don’t pay back evil for evil, but we instead overcome evil with good.

However, this does not mean that we should just let any evil thing happen to us. In fact, on one occasion when Jesus sent his disciples out, he told them to take a sword with them on the journey, which I assume was for self-protection. So I don’t think it is wrong to protect ourselves. I don’t think Jesus was saying that we need to sit around and let people inflict harm upon us unnecessarily. But there are times when we can turn the other cheek for his sake, because an unforgiving Christian is a contradiction. The two words don’t go together.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19 NIV).

This is not something that will come easily to us. In fact, if we wait for some feeling of love to suddenly overtake us, it is not going to happen. We must begin to pray for our enemies even before we are conscious of loving them.

From the cross, Jesus prayed for his tormentors, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34 NKJV).

One of the unique features of Christianity is to forgive like Jesus did. In the cruel torture of crucifixion, Jesus was praying for the very people who had inflicted such pain. So if he could do that, what kind of pain, prejudice, or unfair treatment are you receiving that you could not also forgive?

We need to learn how to forgive. That is what God is asking us to do.