Have you ever been wronged and wished that you could get even? I am almost certain you have. The desire for revenge is deeply engrained in the human psyche. Revenge plays a role in so much popular media. It is the plotline of many a film, TV series, and novel. We secretly (and sometimes not-so-secretly) revel in seeing the victim gain the victory over the perpetrator. When an opponent high tackles one of the players on our favourite rugby team, we secretly (or not-so-secretly) love to see that player high tackled in return. Revenge is a dish best served cold.
In an experiment on the psychology of revenge, a group of Swiss researchers scanned the brains of people who had been wronged during a game. They then offered the victim an opportunity to punish the perpetrator and recorded the brain activity of victims as they contemplated revenge. They immediately observed a flurry of activity in the caudate nucleus—the area of the brain known to process reward. Revenge, they realised—at least in the moment—is rewarding.
Commenting on this study, Vanessa Van Edwards, founder of the Science of People blog and author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People, notes that, while revenge may be “a form of emotional release … psychological scientists have found that instead of quenching hostility, revenge prolongs the unpleasantness of the original offense. Instead of delivering justice, revenge often creates only a cycle of retaliation.” Rather than finding resolution in revenge, “you end up punishing yourself because you can’t heal.”
Quoting Frank Sinatra, Van Edwards proposes a solution: “The best revenge is massive success.” Take the thirst for revenge, she says, and pour it into your goals, into getting what you want, and into personal growth. “Get the reward center of your brain pumping by thinking about how sweet it will feel when you meet your goals. This shifts the focus onto you and your mission and makes your perpetrator irrelevant–which is exactly where they should be.”
Understanding the psychology of revenge is helpful, but a far more helpful exercise is understanding and embracing the biblical injunction to turn over the thirst for revenge to someone else. David is more helpful than Sinatra. When God had finally given him victory over his enemies—without him taking revenge—he wrote, “The LORD lives, and blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation—the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me, who rescued me from my enemies; yes, you exalted me above those who rose against me; you delivered me from the man of violence” (Psalm 18:46–48). The words “God who gave me vengeance” translate the Hebrew name of God we are considering this week: El Nekamoth(“God who avenges”).
David knew by experience what it was to turn vengeance over to the Lord. Saul had tried time and again to kill him, but when David had opportunity to return the favour, he refused. His men encouraged him to take revenge: “Here is the day of which the LORD said to you, ‘Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you.’” Rather than killing Saul, he “arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s robe.” Even this action “struck him” with guilt: “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’s anointed.” In this way, he “did not permit [his men] to attack Saul” (1 Samuel 24:1–7). He knew that he was God’s choice for king, but he trusted El Nekamoth to deal with Saul in his time.
In 1 Samuel 26, David had another opportunity to avenge himself. He and Abishai found Saul asleep with his spear protruding from the ground next to him. “God has given you enemy into your hand this day,” said Abishai. “Now please let me pin him to the earth with one stroke of the spear, and I will not strike him twice.” Again, David would not allow this. “Do not destroy him, for who can put out his hand against the LORD’s anointed and be guiltless?” He then clearly articulated his trust in El Nekamoth: “As the LORD lives, the LORD will strike him, or his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish” (1 Samuel 26:1–5).
David faced many more enemies after Saul had died and always refused to exact personal vengeance, much to the chagrin of his followers. But he knew what he was doing. He knew that there was no need to seek personal revenge because El Nekamoth would vindicate him. That is why he could ultimately sing praises to El Nekamoth—“the God who gave me vengeance.”
Christians have much to learn from David. While the thirst for revenge lies deep within us, it can be quenched as we learn to trust in El Nekamoth to deal with those who wrong us. Here, briefly, are five reasons that we should leave vengeance to El Nekamoth.
First, we should leave vengeance to El Nekamoth because he will certainly act. He may not follow our timetable, but he will act. “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’” (Romans 12:18). God will not ultimately allow wrongs to go unrighted. We can trust him to act.
Second, we should leave vengeance to El Nekamoth because he knows all things. “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:10). We all too easily misread motives. We can far too easily take offence when none was intended. But El Nekamoth knows motives and will act accordingly.
Third, we should leave vengeance to El Nekamoth because he judges righteously. He will “give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:10). He judges people “according to what they [have] done” (Revelation 20:13). We are too easily prone to overcompensate in our judgement. Rather than giving what is just—an eye for an eye—we want to give a life for a tooth. But God knows and determines what is just and judges accordingly.
Fourth, we should leave vengeance to El Nekamoth because it honours his commands. Jesus once said, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). Our default is to find ways out of that. “How many times do I turn the cheek?” “I only have two cheeks!” “Christians should not be doormats.” But what if Jesus was serious? What if he meant what he said? Laying aside our desire for revenge is an act of obedience.
Fifth, and finally, we should leave vengeance to El Nekamoth because it displays Christlikeness. He did not revile when he was reviled. He did not threaten when he was struck. Instead, he continually entrusted himself to God, who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:21–22). As Ed Uszynski says, “Acts of revenge originate in this-world morality instead of other-worldly virtue.”
Muhammed Ali once summarised this-world morality when he said, “I’m a fighter. I believe in the eye-for-an-eye business. I’m no cheek turner. I got no respect for a man who won’t hit back. You kill my dog, you better hide your cat.” Mr. Ali apparently would have no respect for Jesus, who silently suffered wrongful abuse at the hand of his enemies, never striking back, but always trusting that his Father would judge righteously.
El Nekamoth is the God who gives vengeance. He is the God who vindicates his people, often in this life, but fully and finally in the life to come. El Nekamoth’s ultimate judgement will be final, irreversible, and completely just. With the promise of such judgement, what need have we of seeking personal revenge in this life?