Learning to forgive those who wrong you is one of the more difficult virtues to cultivate. The desire for revenge is one of the most robust and typical human emotions. Our movies, our music, our books–they reflect this.

Vigilantism is a great American past-time. I admit openly many of my favorite movies have the plot-line of “justice being served” or someone getting what’s coming to them. Gladiator, True Grit, Unforgiven, and other “guy movies” have this quality. But, interestingly, so do many “chick flicks”–though it sometimes takes place at a less physical, more emotional level.

These books, movies, and music are popular because they come from human hearts that know what it is to be hurt and want “justice.” The temptation for us to carry out our sense of “justice” by taking matters into our own hands or harboring hatred toward others is so strong that at times it’s nearly irresistable. So, many of us give in. Just one problem with this is that we ourselves are not just. We judge others harshly and ourselves leniently, for instance. There is a bigger problem with taking “justice” into our own hands: it betrays a lack of faith in God as judge.

Once, in an age of religious faith, people believed that they could trust in God to punish the criminal who defeated justice in court. Harold Kushner notes: The Jewish Talmud describes an incident in which the head of the Israelite Supreme Court saw a man with a knife chasing another man into a cave.  He heard a scream and saw the pursuer come out of the cave with his knife dripping blood.  The man laughed at the rabbi, saying, “You probably believe I did something terrible, but the evidence is all circumstantial, and, besides, there is no second witness, as the law requires.  There is nothing you can do to me.  As the Talmud tells it, before the man had taken 10 steps, a snake bit him and he died. 

As secularism crept into society, a feeling that God was somehow detached from what was really going on gave birth to a form of vigilantism. Within the Christian sphere, off-track theology began to teach God’s pacifism and non-engaged posture toward the world He created. God was made out to be like one of the hyper-lenient judges most of us despise–He allows wrongdoing to go unchecked. Or, in the social justice era, a mutation of the biblical pursuit of justice morphed into a sense that God has left it in our hands alone to pursue justice for the poor, etc.

Of course, at one level, God has done so. At another level, we must always pursue justice knowing that we aren’t very just and that God is altogether Just. So, our view of justice needs to be consistently checked and carried out with humility. We also need a theology check: God is active in His world, meeting out justice himself as He sees fit–even as He calls us to live justly in His world. God, the Just One, says that vengeance is His, He will repay. So, when we are grievously wronged or injured by others, we refuse to return evil for evil–because God will carry out justice as He sees fit. When we see injustice in the world, we remember that God sees and will respond justly.

Paul writes:

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19-21).

The difference between seeking justice for ourselves or others and seeking vengeance for ourselves or others can be a nuanced one. God who knows the heart, knows the difference. I wonder sometimes if we do. We seem very sure of our views of justice. We also seem to think it’s up to us. God isn’t a laissez-faire moralist. He is engaged in the world and we are called by Him to do justly. However, we must recognize the limit’s of our sense of justice, acknowledging God’s Lordship over all as we pursue justice in the world.

Trusting in God’s justice is the foundation of learning to forgive others, and vitally important to living joyfully and justly in this world. It’s a huge chunk of gospel to realize that God not only abounds in mercy, but in justice. The parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21ff.) reminds us also of how much we’ve been forgiven and how we ought to respond as the Forgiven to others who “owe us” or others.

So then, how do we live graciously toward those who “owe” us and others in this world while also seeking justice?