Should Christians “Get Even”?

Thanks to Facebook’s “On This Day” feature I was reminded that I wrote and published this post four years ago (on a different blog). At the time Donald Trump was not a politician and so there were no political implications involved. Even in this re-post I am not really posting it for political reasons. Instead, I am re-posting it now because (1) the topic is still relevant in today’s world and so needs theological clarification, which I’m hoping I can provide, and (2) to say that regardless of how you view Trump as a person or as a politician and regardless of how you plan to vote in November, I caution you against falling into his theology and frequent misuse of Scripture.

Donald Trump gave the convocation speech at Liberty University’s earlier this week and it should surprise no one that he said some controversial things. I haven’t listened to the speech, so I don’t have the whole context, but I was taken aback by one line:

“I always say don’t let people take advantage – this goes for a country, too, by the way – don’t let people take advantage. Get even.”

A few people took him to task, calling his comments un-Christian. Trump’s office defended his remark. Cohen, a spokesman for Trump said, “I conferred with Johnny Moore at Liberty University and questioned whether Jesus would ‘get even.’ The answer is ‘he would & he did.’ Johnny explained that the bible is filled with stories of God getting even with his enemies, Jesus got even with the Pharisees and Christians believe that Jesus even got even with Satan by rising from the dead. God is portrayed as giving grace, but he is also portrayed as one tough character – just as Trump stated.”

There’s a lot in this comment and I would like to address each of this points separately:

Did Jesus “Get Even”?

The statement refers to a two examples of Jesus “getting even.” First, it says, He got even with the Pharisees. I’m not sure this is correct to say, at least not in the way we generally speak of getting even. Getting even usually refers to personal vengeance. “You hit me so I will hit you.” I can think of no examples in the Gospels where Jesus responds with personal vengeance, towards the Pharisees or towards anyone else. Jesus definitely spoke hard words to the Pharisees. He called them “white-washed tombs” and called out their sin of hypocrisy. He even implicated them in the death of the prophets. On one occasion he cleared the temple (violently) of the money changers. But, I believe, a better word to describe these actions is “zeal”, which is the word John uses to describe this event (John 2:17). Zeal is a Christian virtue (Romans 12:11) but it is not the same thing as personal vengeance. Notice that zeal is not directed toward personal vindication or retribution. It is directed toward a passionate and jealous love for God. Even Jesus’ zeal was zeal for the Temple. And Romans 12:11 connects zeal with serving the Lord.

Second, he says Jesus “got even” with Satan by rising from the dead. In some sense, this may be so, but (1) it’s not explicitly stated as such in the Bible and (2) the explicit ethical implication for us when it comes to Christ’s victory over sin, death, and Satan, is that we are now free from Satan’s power, from the fear of death, and from slavery to sin. There is no implication that Jesus’ resurrection gives us the model for personal retribution.

In fact, we see a very different picture of Jesus when it comes to the way he treated his enemies. Even on the cross he prayed for their (the Pharisees!) forgiveness. In fact, Jesus’ death was an act of love and mercy for the very people that put him to death, for his enemies, for us.

Is God portrayed as a “tough character?”

The statement also says that God is “also portrayed as a tough character.” “Tough character” can have a lot of meanings, but I think the way it is being used here is actually at-least partially correct. God is, in fact, tough, in the sense that He is not weak. He is not a pushover. He will not be taken advantage of. He is all powerful, and He exercises that power in awesome and terrifying ways. In fact, God is “tougher” than you or I or Trump could possibly imagine.

God’s “toughness” comes from His character. He is omnipotent. He is just. He is holy. The result is that God, in fact, does and will “get even” (in some sense) with all of His enemies who refuse His free gift of salvation in Jesus. This is personal vindication and righteous retribution but, for God, because of His unique identity, it is right and good and just. We look forward to the day when God reigns with complete justice.

Should Christians “Get Even”?

The problem with Trump’s argument, though, is that he completely misapplies this truth. He says that because God is a tough character, we are supposed to be tough characters and get even with our enemies. The New Testament argues the exact opposite of this. It argues that because God will ultimately bring perfect justice, weshouldn’t act with personal vengeance.

Paul makes the argument in Romans 12:17-21

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  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. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Notice the clear commands – do not repay evil for evil, do not take revenge, overcome evil with good. These are clear commands (and not the only ones) against getting even. But also notice the reason – leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge.” So, we don’t need to, and in fact we are prohibited from getting even, because it’s not our job. When we take up the cause of personal vengeance, we put ourselves in the position of God. We are simply not given that authority. Instead, when we are cursed, when others take advantage of us, when we are persecuted, we are to respond in kindness, charity, prayer, and blessing, desiring the genuine good for our enemies, but also leaving the task of “getting even” to God and God alone.

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