Vengeance is Not Ours, and We Can Refuse It

Last night I was reading my friend Marcus’ Catching RicebirdsAs a child, Marcus experienced the horrors of war in Liberia. The brutality can sicken us, but it’s the predictability that tells us the true tragedy of our world:

“The men were crying and asking the rebels to forgive them. I stood on the porch looking down and I saw in their eyes a look that I was beginning to recognize: the look a person gets when death is near and certain. It’s a look of desperation and vain hope and repentance. Many people never see this look. I can never efface its imprint on my heart” (Marcus Doe, Catching Ricebirds, p.113).

I’m struck, on the one hand, that I have never seen this look. I’m saddened, on the other hand, that I’m not surprised that it exists, that it’s common, that someone is probably wearing it right now. Our world works this way. We’re disgustingly used to it.

My imagination took up these paints as I read 2 Samuel 16 this morning. Like the rebels, above, David is fleeing from the city he had ruled. His men are marching on anger, so when Shimei, from a rival family, comes out and throws rocks at David and mocks, “Get out, get out, you man of blood, you worthless man!” we expect that he will be seized and beaten, certainly killed. In fact, the man beside David says, “Let me go over and take off his head.”

David, however, replies:

“Leave him alone, and let him curse, for the LORD has told him to. It may be that the LORD will look on the wrong done to me, and that the LORD will repay me with good for his cursing today” (2 Samuel 16:11-12).

Even as they flee in disarray, an otherworldly melody whispers through David. There’s a faint suggestion, along the road, that what we have come to expect can be different. David is different because David looks to the Lord.

The Lord changes things. Because the Lord brings vengeance, we need not mete it. Because the Lord bore vengeance, we need not fear it. When the Lord breaks into human history, things can be different than they’ve always been, because he comes with the power of life and death that silences crowds. He comes with the power of one killed and raised that still the earth. David’s story is just a momentary glimpse of God’s reign, but that reign is coming, and things will be different before long.

Even now, we can pass on what other gorge on, drink the cup that others mock. Vengeance is not ours, and we can refuse it, because we know the King to whom it belongs. We know he is coming; we believe deliverance and justice are near.


Marcus’ book is subtitled, “A Story of Letting Vengeance Go.” I’m only halfway through it, but I recommend it based on what I’ve read so far. Amazon has it on Kindle and in paperback here (this is an unsolicited recommendation).

So Should We Judge or Shouldn’t We?

“Judge not, that you be not judged.”

-Matthew 7:1

“But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”

-1 Corinthians 6:11-12

Lately, I’ve been wondering to make of these two themes in the New Testament. Are Jesus and Paul at odds here? Which one is it–should we judge or not judge? Today, as I was typing up highlighted quotes from Jonathan Edwards’ The Religious Affections, I came across a passage that helped me make a bit more sense of this paradox.

In Edwards’ time, Christian conversion was very popular. It seemed like everyone was professing a life-changing religious experience. Yet, before long, many of those professors seemed to move on to something new. Were they ever really Christians? What were the marks of a true encounter with God? These were the questions Edwards tried to address; he wanted to help his readers judge between true religious affections and counterfeit ones.

It would seem that Edwards is for judging. However, as he introduces the chapter on marks true Christian experience, he paints a more complex picture:

“Though it be plain that Christ has given rules to all Christians to enable them to judge of professors of religion whom they are concerned with, so far as is necessary for their own safety, and to prevent their being led into a snare by false teachers and false pretenders to religion; and though it be also beyond doubt that the Scriptures do abound with rules which may be very serviceable to ministers, in counseling and conducting souls committed to their care in things appertaining to their spiritual and eternal state; yet it is also evident, that it was never God’s design to give us any rules by which we may certainly know who of our fellow professors are His, and to make a full and clear separation between sheep and goats. On the contrary, it was God’s design to reserve this to Himself as His prerogative.”

-Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Banner of Truth Trust: 1994), p.120

God equips us to make judgments about ourselves and others–in fact, urges us to judge–for the sake of our safety and for pastoral care. That is, there is a time and place to judge for others’ good. What helps me is that Edwards comes out and specifies that these are the times and places.

We are not to judge for others’ harm, simply to exalt ourselves above them. That’s probably why God has made it impossible for us to judge for certain, and it’s surely why Jesus commands us not to judge in Matthew 7. When we do evaluate or “judge” our and others’ Christianity, it is not be lifted up above other people; it is to be built up in the image of Christ, “from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

The Chair and the Desk, 5/12/16

From the chair and the desk small group:

Last night, my friend Marcus shared a though-provoking quote during our discussion at small group:

“Acquire a peaceful spirit and thousands around you will be saved.”

-St. Seraphim of Sarov, 19th c. Russian monk

A verse from my Bible reading this morning reminded me of it:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”

-2 Corinthians 4:8-10

Jesus’ resurrection does not only change what we experience in suffering; it changes what we display in the world. The Spirit does help us make it through hard times; he also helps us make Jesus known. It is not so much our tenacity and strength that will strike the world; rather, it is our peace and trust.

We carry in our bodies the death of Jesus. Perhaps this means, in one sense, simply that we suffer, for the one who loves “does not insist on his or her own way…[but] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”Perhaps we carry the death of Jesus in our very willing to endure all things, for “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who love but Christ who lives in me.” Probably it is both.

We are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” When we not only endure all things, but endure all things with “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” God will not only “guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” but also “manifest the life of Jesus in our bodies”–God will raise our spirits and set them up as testimonies before the world that Christ has come and Christ is risen. 

“For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”


“The chair” is the one Annie aptly chose for the corner of our living room, and it’s where I am committed to daily hearing from God’s Word–the Word I above all else hope to speak to others. “The desk” is the one by my coffee grounds and spare charger (if I get to the library early enough); it’s where I have the privilege of reading and thinking all day, where I intend to learn for others’ sake.

The Chair and the Desk, 5/11/16

From the chair:

“You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.”

-2 Corinthians 3:2

Something about this week’s Bible reading is just a walk down memory lane–maybe it’s that the term is over and my mind is finally free to wander past what’s right in front of my face. This verse reminds me of something Mark Driscoll said in a sermon when he was my pastor. I don’t think it was about this verse, but I do remember that it was about the Corinthian congregation: It’s amazing that Paul is willing to call this congregation his “letter of recommendation.”

Among the recipients of New Testament epistles, the Corinthians may be the most infamous for blowing it. So many things Paul has to reprimand them for seem like they should go without saying (not that we, you know, have mastered these things, but they’re, like, in the Bible and stuff). Yet, Paul doesn’t think too much of himself to associate himself with this congregation. In fact, he realizes that he is associated with this congregation, and takes some responsibility for having to lead them. He’s not too self-righteous to delight in this slowly-being-sanctified group, and he makes his pastoral affection for them public.

This is a good reminder to those of us who minister to God’s Church. We are not better than the people we lead, as people or as their leaders. If we consider ourselves holier than the people we serve, waiting for the group that deserves us, we’ll probably drag that group down if we ever find it. These are the people God has given us to, for now. Any good in them is grace, just as any good in us is grace. So, why would we be ashamed of God’s people, unless we are ashamed of God? We are not better; we are unbelievably blessed to serve like our Lord.

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”


From the desk:

“By afternoon Amory realized that now the newest arrivals were taking him for an upper classman, and he tried conscientiously to look both pleasantly blasé and casually critical, which was as near as he could analyze the prevalent facial expression.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise, kindle loc.492


“The chair” is the one Annie aptly chose for the corner of our living room, and it’s where I am committed to daily hearing from God’s Word–the Word I above all else hope to speak to others. “The desk” is the one by my coffee grounds and spare charger (if I get to the library early enough); it’s where I have the privilege of reading and thinking all day, where I intend to learn for others’ sake.

The Chair and the Desk, 5/10/16

From the chair and the desk:

“When Joab saw that the battle was set against him both in front and in the rear, he chose some of the best men of Israel and arrayed them against the Syrians. The rest of his men he put in the charge of Abishai his brother, and they were arrayed against the Ammonites. And he said, “If the Syrians are too strong for me, then you shall help me, but if the Ammonites are too strong for you, then I will help you. Be strong, and let us use our strength for our people and for the cities of our God, and may the Lord do what seems good to him.”

-1 Chronicles 19:10-13

We read this in our Bible reading plan this morning, and every time I come across this verse my heart stirs within me. Like the 1 Corinthians 16 verse, this is a passage that ran through my head often in my college years and shaped who I am today. John Piper first introduced me to this verse in a very worthwhile sermon on taking risks for God, in which he tells of Esther and Paul and Daniel’s companions; he starts with this short declaration from Joab:

“What does that mean? It means that Joab had made a strategic decision for the cities of God and he did not know how it would turn out. He had no special revelation from God on this issue. He had to make a decision on the basis of sanctified wisdom. He had to risk or run. He did not know how it would turn out. So he made his decision and he handed the results over to God. And this was right. It is right to risk for the cause of God.”

-John Piper, “Risk and the Cause of God” 

Piper’s point–more importantly, the implication of these stories–is that it is right to risk for God. It will not always turn out the way we hope. Sometimes, in the short term, it will appear that we have failed. To those who do not know Christ and the hope of his appearing, it will appear as if we have made a mistake.

Piper goes on to say, “There is no promise that every effort for the cause of God will succeed, at least not in the short run. John the Baptist risked calling a spade a spade when Herod divorced his wife to take his bother’s wife, Herodias. And John got his head chopped off for it. And he had done right to risk his life for the cause of God.”

We still have the opportunity to risk today, because we do not know what will become of our decisions. In this, we can give great glory to God. Yet, our risks only cost what they appear to and no more, because we know what will become of this world. “For while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened–not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 5:4-5).


“The chair” is the one Annie aptly chose for the corner of our living room, and it’s where I am committed to daily hearing from God’s Word–the Word I above all else hope to speak to others. “The desk” is the one by my coffee grounds and spare charger (if I get to the library early enough); it’s where I have the privilege of reading and thinking all day, where I intend to learn for others’ sake.

The Chair and the Desk, 5/9/16

From the chair and the desk:

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

-Titus 2:11-14

“Canon Hay Aitken suggested that the two comings of Christ are like ‘two windows … in the School of Grace’. Through the western window a solemn light streams from Mt. Calvary. Through the eastern window shines the light of sunrising, the herald of a brighter day. ‘Thus the School of Grace is well lighted; but we cannot afford to do without the light from either West or East.’”

-John Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus, Titus 2:13-14, quoting Canon Hay Aitken, The School of Grace, p.253-254

Sometimes Scripture starts with what we should do, sometimes it starts with what God has done, but the two always eventually come together. We can only serve God because Jesus Christ has redeemed us. We can only walk with God because Jesus Christ has reconciled us.

I’m struck by how Aitken puts it here, the grace of the past and the glory of future shine through opposite windows in the school of grace, both allow us to learn from grace, to put on the image of Christ in the present. As Stott later reminds us, “Christ had died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.” Therefore, we not only must but we also delight to learn to be God’s people, his own possession, zealous for good works.


“The chair” is the one Annie aptly chose for the corner of our living room, and it’s where I am committed to daily hearing from God’s Word–the Word I above all else hope to speak to others. “The desk” is the one by my coffee grounds and spare charger (if I get to the library early enough); it’s where I have the privilege of reading and thinking all day, where I intend to learn for others’ sake.

The Chair and the Desk, 5/6/16

From the chair:

“Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” 

-1 Corinthians 16:13-14

Here’s a passage that’s dear to me, a passage we repeated often to one another on 4th Hill in my days at Seattle Pacific University. It’s a simple, straightforward, and extremely difficult command.

I think often we assume that people reject Christianity because it seems to hard, so we try to make it easier. We try to take off the hard edges, smooth out some of the rough spots. For example, we emphasize how much God loves, but we often wait until later to say how demanding loving others can be. We are quick to say that we are saved by faith alone, but we’re slow to say that faith is hard; the faithful response is often the courageous response.

We make Christianity sound easier and easier until it sounds…trivial. There are plenty of easy things that we can add to our lives today: It’s easy to start a new TV show, sign up for a mailing list, subscribe to a magazine, download an app. We’re used to getting what we pay for, and in a freeware society, we’re actually tired of these easy little add-ons to our lives. “Easy” sounds hucksterish. “Easy” sounds like probably not worth while.

Something worthwhile would sound like this: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” Many people without Christ, especially my younger generation, would rather consider something great that would cost their whole lives than something that will “only take a minute.” This isn’t to say that we need to go back to the drawing board and become more strategic salesmen for our faith. This is to say we need to go back to Scripture and become more honest witnesses to what is revealed in Jesus Christ.


From the desk:

“the more a man experiences and knows this excellent, unparalleled, exquisite, and satisfying sweetness, the more earnestly will he hunger and thirst for more, until he comes to perfection. And therefore this is the nature of spiritual affections, that the greater they be, the greater the appetite and longing is after grace and holiness.”

-Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (Banner of Truth, 1994), p.305


“The chair” is the one Annie aptly chose for the corner of our living room, and it’s where I am committed to daily hearing from God’s Word–the Word I above all else hope to speak to others. “The desk” is the one by my coffee grounds and spare charger (if I get to the library early enough); it’s where I have the privilege of reading and thinking all day, where I intend to learn for others’ sake.

The Chair and the Desk, 5/4/16

From the chair:

“You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.”

-Psalm 22:23-24

This is such an essential theme in the Bible: God hears. God sees. God knows. We have to hear it from the Bible, because sometimes we wouldn’t guess it from life. When things aren’t how we would choose, it can be hard to trust that God actually sees, that God actually has a plan, that God will actually will take care of us and make it all right in the end. That’s why Scripture reminds us of this over and over again.

“During the those many days the king of Egypt died,” Exodus says, “and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel–and God knew.”

As a student recently reminded me in a sermon, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

God does hear and see and know, and we trust that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” I’ve often heard, lately, that this is a harsh verse, hard to hear to trying times. It is certainly stark; I wouldn’t want to rattle it off in a trite way. However, this is our stark hope, and without stark hope we would have no hope in the face of a world that can be so dark.

Yet, O Lord, our eyes “have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”


From the desk:

“But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow.”

-“Johannes Climacus” (i.e., Søren Kierkegaard), Philisophical Fragments (trans. Hong and Hong, 1985), p.37


“The chair” is the one Annie aptly chose for the corner of our living room, and it’s where I am committed to daily hearing from God’s Word–the Word I above all else hope to speak to others. “The desk” is the one by my coffee grounds and spare charger (if I get to the library early enough); it’s where I have the privilege of reading and thinking all day, where I intend to learn for others’ sake.

The Chair and the Desk, 5/3/16

From the chair:

“For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

-1 Corinthians 15:16-20

Yesterday in “from the desk” I said I admired Hegel for clear and bold thinking and writing–well, I was reminded that that’s even more true of 1 Corinthians 15, which is not afraid to say that if Jesus hasn’t been raised from the dead, following Jesus isn’t “almost as good anyway.” If that’s not true, then following Jesus isn’t worth it. Thankfully, it is true. Jesus has been raised from the dead. He is, in fact, the first fruits from the dead, the promise that we too will be raised back to life, better than ever before.


From the desk:

“we cannot simply regard this as a problem at which we simply shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Well, there are different views on these topics.’ What we say about death and resurrection gives shape and color to everything else. If we are not careful, we will offer merely a ‘hope’ that is no longer a surprise, no longer able to transform lives and communities in the present, no longer generated by the resurrection of Jesus himself and looking forward to the promised new heavens and new earth.”

-N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, kindle loc. 534

I may have picked that verse before; I may have picked this quote before. I may even have written this whole blog post before, but I’m not particularly worried about that. I need this reminder. We believe something drastic: We believe that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and that we, Christ’s people, will be raised from the dead, too. Only this drastic hope is enough to say “It’s worth it. There is a point. There is a deliverance, yet unseen, worth striving for still.” The worst stains will be washed off this world; the constantly victorious death will be thrown down for good. We believe something hard to believe, but God, in his grace, has helped us to believe it, and it is only this drastic faith that offers such a drastic hope for such a glorious future.

The Chair and the Desk, 5/2/16

From the chair:

“If a stranger or sojourner with you becomes rich, and your brother beside him becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner with you or to a member of the stranger’s clan, then after he is sold he may be redeemed. One of his brothers may redeem him, or his uncle or his cousin may redeem him, or a close relative from his clan may redeem him. Or if he grows rich he may redeem himself…He shall treat him as a worker hired year by year. He shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight. And if he is not redeemed by these means, then he and his children with him shall be released in the year of jubilee. For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants. They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

-Leviticus 25:47-49,53-55

I love this picture of the “redeemer,” the one who hears that his relative has nothing (he had to sell himself into slavery!) and comes to help. He’s not hoping for a fair return–the relative has no fair return–he simply rescues him out of duty and love.

It strikes me even more to think that God chose to be called our Father when he didn’t have to. God did not care about our pre-existing conditions. He became our Redeemer at the least strategic time, when we most needed redeeming, when it would cost him so much, but he did so because God is love.

It also intrigues me that the redeemed person then comes an works for the relative, not under ruthless oversight, but working nonetheless. It reminds me of having Redeemer and Lord who on the one hand says, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10), but on the other hand assures us, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15).


From the desk:

“the time created these men for itself just as much as it was created by them; they were as much the instruments of the spirit of their time and their people, as conversely their people served these heroes as an instrument for the accomplishment of their deeds.”

-Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, Inwood 2007 ed., p.14

I am increasingly convinced that if society is going to support someone to read, write, and think for a living, he or she is responsible to try to think and speak this clearly and boldly.

It is not easy to admit that we are both the shapers and products of our time, but we are. It does not mean we should stop believing what we believe; everything that led us to believe it is still there. This includes Hegel’s very statement–even recognizing our intimacy with our “time” is something unique to our time, something they would not have recognized 500 years ago. We are fallible and impermanent. Yet, not all we believe is false. We do see now…though as in a mirror dimly. And someday we shall know fully, even as we are now fully known by God.


“The chair” is the one Annie aptly chose for the corner of our living room, and it’s where I am committed to daily hearing from God’s Word–the Word I above all else hope to speak to others. “The desk” is the one by my coffee grounds and spare charger (if I get to the library early enough); it’s where I have the privilege of reading and thinking all day, where I intend to learn for others’ sake.