Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.
–Romans 12:19

One of the greatest misunderstandings about forgiveness is this: “If I forgive somebody, I erase the consequences that person has to experience.” Is that true? Does forgiveness remove consequences? Have we really forgiven somebody if we still want him to experience consequences for his actions? Many people have become prisoners of bitterness, refusing to forgive an offender because of this misunderstanding. For example, let’s say a wife finally, after her husband’s numerous affairs, decides to divorce him. She also decides to forgive him because she doesn’t want to hold onto bitterness. One day her ex-husband tells her, “These child support payments are choking me. If you have really forgiven me, you would stop insisting I make these payments.” Does forgiveness mean she doesn’t take child support payments any longer?

Or let’s say the church treasurer is embezzling funds. He is caught and apprehended. He asks for forgiveness and makes restitution. Does that mean he is automatically placed back into his position as the church treasurer? Does forgiveness remove the consequences of our offender’s actions? Or let’s put it on a personal level: if we have been forgiven, should we expect God and others to erase the consequences of our sins? The answer to that dilemma is found in understanding the difference between vengeance and justice.

Vengeance is my desire to see another person suffer for the pain he has caused me. The Bible includes many warnings against vengeance. Proverbs 24:17 says, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” And Romans 12:19 warns, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Don’t try to settle the score yourself, God says. And if God or others do settle the score, don’t gloat when your offender is dealt with justly.

But there is a difference between vengeance and justice. Justice is the payment that God or other people demand from our offender. And while we are to surrender our desire for vengeance, we can never surrender our desire for justice. In fact, Scripture repeatedly says we ought to seek justice. Psalm 82:3 says, “Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.” And Isaiah 1:17 instructs, “Learn to do good; seek justice.” We are to surrender vengeance, but we are to seek justice. What’s the difference?

Vengeance is our desire for retribution against our offender; justice is the repayment that others demand from our offender. Vengeance is striving to settle the debt ourselves; justice is allowing somebody else to settle the score. Vengeance leads to bitterness; justice leads to healing.

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Today’s devotion is excerpted from “Why Forgiven People Must Still Sit in the Electric Chair” by Dr. Robert Jeffress, 2015.

Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.