The Ethics of Retaliation

All Christ-followers are fighters; they just know who the real enemy is. Ephesians 6:12 states, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Jesus puts this in practical terms. In the blood-soaked, Rome-dominated, dark world of the first century, He tells his followers “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). But the elephant in the room is: How do you shine for Christ in a twisted world full of selfish people who seem to get a buzz from making others’ lives into a living hell? Simply put, how do I let my light shine when I want to lay it aside so I can make use of both hands to jack up jerks who deserve what they have coming? Jesus’ words are very radical…“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

To be clear, Jesus isn’t saying getting ground and pounded is what we should all strive for in life or that martyrdom is to be sought after as a higher virtue (for a detailed treatment of whether or not Jesus is against self-defense or all use of force, check out the podcast). Rather, the driving thought seems to be that ministry begins the second mile

Refusing to be controlled by another person’s insults (the idea behind Jesus’ reference to being struck on the right cheek with the left hand), by returning grace rather than hatred is a tell-tale sign of genuine heart change. Our culture feeds on revenge. Without a culture of revenge no one would watch Reality TV which isn’t reality anyway. Revenge doesn’t have to be like cheesy 80’s Steven Seagal shoot em up fest. It can be through the tortuous means of slander or relational silence that screams rejection. Responding with the love of Christ in the face of irrational hatred profoundly confuses the enemy. Yes…the real enemy. Hell has no defense against the power of grace-driven forgiveness.

What makes this sort of retaliation against revenge possible? A firm faith in God as my defender makes it possible for me to not fight fire with fire. It is a firm reliance on the sovereignty of God and the transitory nature of human power to oppress. Psalm 27:1 says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” Genuine faith in God’s power to defend us requires a settled defiance of evil. It is a determined, teeth-gritting commitment to defy evil to its face and say, “you will not determine what I will become. I will not be your slave through bitterness and animosity. I will choke the very life out of you with the beautiful fragrance of forgiveness.” First Peter 2:23 says of Jesus, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” It’s not an MC Hammer-esque, ‘You can’t touch this” sort of arrogance. Rather, the refusal to respond with the vitriol of bitterness is an active, not passive, action of entrusting ourselves to our great defender. Another key in retaliating against the seductive voice of revenge is admitting that God can wield the sword of vengeance with far more skill than we ever could. Romans 12:19-21 reads, “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.” 20 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.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Launching this kind of ordnance into the enemy lines is bound to cause confusion because cruel people do not understand grace or the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14) and yet grace may be the only thing to penetrate the cold and hardened heart of an enemy thus circumnavigating a hardened intellect. We think, “But it seems like they’re getting away with it! They need to pay!” They won’t and they do. Yet when you choose to retaliate against revenge by extending grace you are the one absorbing the penalty of injustice…and who does that sound like? Isn’t the Gospel that Jesus, the Innocent One, absorbed every ounce of God’s wrath that was rightfully intended for us? As R.G. Lee proclaimed, there will be “Payday Someday.”1 As difficult as it may be, let’s let God take care of vengeance and until that dreadful day comes, let’s strive for the repentance of our persecutors.  

*Check out the podcast for an full treatment of the ethics of retaliation*


1. R.G. Lee, “Payday Someday,”