The desire for vengeance is a common and strong human emotion. How are Christians to respond to offenses? What does the Bible say about revenge?
Since creation, the cry for vengeance has been a recurring theme of human interactions.
The words vengeance and revenge can also be found throughout the Bible, 51 times and three times respectively in the New King James Version.
The revenge of Samson
A classic example of the cycle of revenge is the story of Samson and the Philistines.
First, Samson was cheated by the Philistines during his wedding feast (Judges 14:10-19). In his anger, Samson left, only to return later to find that his bride had been given to the best man (verse 20).
Samson got revenge by burning some Philistine crops. The Philistines responded by killing his bride.
“Samson said to them, ‘Since you would do a thing like this, I will surely take revenge on you, and after that I will cease’” (Judges 15:7).
But the cycle of revenge did not stop there. Throughout the rest of his life, Samson and the Philistines spiraled deeper and deeper into a vortex of vengeance and hate. (Of course, the Bible shows God used these events to strike back at the Philistines, who were oppressing His people.)
An example of revenge in American history
Aaron Burr was a prominent American politician with high ambitions and a bitter rivalry with Alexander Hamilton. Burr was already vice president of the United States when he ran for governor of the state of New York in 1804. When Burr lost the election, he blamed Hamilton for spreading slander about him, causing him to lose.
Burr was so angry and determined to have revenge, he challenged Hamilton to a duel, and Hamilton accepted. In the duel Burr shot Hamilton, leading to his death. Burr had his revenge.
But the public was outraged against him, and the authorities sought his arrest for murder. Burr moved to the southern United States and later to Europe before returning to New York years later. His political career was over, and Burr is viewed negatively to this day.
Desire for revenge
The desire for revenge can be strong. Mistreatment and disrespect can offend our sense of fairness, and our yearning for justice can burn hot. Pursuing revenge can seem to be the right thing to do. But it never is.
If we strike back at someone in revenge, it might feel good and satisfying at the time, but that will likely not be the end of it. The other person may feel the need to attack us again, and so it will continue.Like Samson and Aaron Burr, we can feel we are getting unfair treatment from our bosses, our coworkers, our neighbors, our friends and even our relatives. Maybe someone publicly insults us. Maybe someone spreads untrue negative gossip about us. Maybe someone cheats us in a business deal. Vengeance can look very appealing.
But when these offenses happen, Christians are not to respond with vengeance. We must not keep anger and resentment in our minds. Revenge may be the way of the world, but it is not the approach Christians are to have. We are to be meek and inherit the earth. We are to be merciful and obtain mercy. We are to be peacemakers and to be called the sons of God (Matthew 5:5, 7, 9).
Biblical instructions about revenge
Let’s examine what the Bible says about taking revenge. Moses quoted God’s instruction: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18).
That’s very clear. We are not to hold on to grudges or try to get even with someone who has done us wrong. God sees what happens to us. He knows our circumstances. Though it is okay to use legal means of recourse or to seek reconciliation, we are to let God take care of vengeance.
King David refuses to take revenge
King David gave us an example of letting an insult pass, of not seeking to defend himself and get even.
In 2 Samuel 16 we are told about the time David had to leave Jerusalem because his son Absalom was going to take the city. In his escape, David came to the little town of Bahurim. There a man named Shimei came out throwing rocks at him, cursing and saying that David was getting what he deserved (verse 8). Shimei was a relative of the previous king, Saul, and he likely thought that his family should still rule over the nation.
One of David’s soldiers angrily requested permission to kill Shimei for slandering David, the true king. But David refused and didn’t let him harm the man. “Let him alone, and let him curse; for so the LORD has ordered him” (verse 11).
Getting revenge on someone who might be doing you wrong is not the best way to take care of a problem. It is better to put it into God’s hands and let Him handle it.
More advice about revenge in the Bible
King Solomon also told us not to pursue revenge. “Do not say, ‘I will do to him just as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work’” (Proverbs 24:29).
Peter wrote: “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:8-9).
Paul also told us to not go after vengeance. “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19).
Vengeance vs. forgiveness
Some might be so angry that they might choose to pursue revenge regardless of what Solomon, Peter and Paul said. But please consider what our Savior, Jesus Christ, said about it.
“And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:25-26).
We must forgive others if we are to have our sins forgiven. If we seek vengeance against someone who wronged us, we are not forgiving him or her. Seeking vengeance puts the forgiveness of our own sins at risk—and thus also our eternal life.
Why not pursue revenge?
But why? Why are we not to go after vengeance? Why do we not get to take revenge? It’s because God loves us. It’s for our sake—He wants what is good for us.
If we strike back at someone in revenge, it might feel good and satisfying at the time, but that will likely not be the end of it. The other person may feel the need to attack us again, and so it will continue.
Also, it’s because we are to be like Christ. We are to be gentle with people. We are to be tenderhearted with the people we encounter (Ephesians 4:32). If we are seeking revenge, we are carrying anger inside of us, not the softheartedness we are supposed to have. Carrying a grudge, carrying a desire for revenge, carrying anger inside can turn into hate.
The Bible tells us that hating others is a type of murder. “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15).
Instead of holding on to anger and grudges, we are to meditate on things that are true and noble and lovely, not feelings of hate (Philippians 4:8).
And consider that the other person may have already repented of his or her wrong and asked for God’s forgiveness. Thinking about this possibility can give us a different point of view on revenge.
The perspective of the Kingdom
Christians can look at this with a perspective other people cannot. Let’s suppose we have been wronged by someone and there is no legal recourse for solving the problem. It’s clear that the guilty person doesn’t even care. And we’re mad about it. What about our revenge?
Christians need to remember they have been called by God to be His special people. For His own reasons, God chose us. We need to consider everything from the perspective of life in God’s Kingdom. When we are changed to spirit, given God’s power and can’t sin anymore—when we are given the gift of eternal life forever and ever—how important will whatever we are mad about today be?
We won’t even think about it.
So, when we are treated badly by someone, let’s not seek revenge. Vengeance belongs to God. Leave it in His hands to repay.
For further study, see “Grudges” and other articles in the “Forgiveness” section.