I haven't seen the movie Heaven is For Real yet---(and I don't need a 4 year old's testimony to know it's real). But I do know that Hell IS for real as well. After the Sadness and Sloth, when we reel from disaster and hurt and curl up eating ice cream and crying---watch out. Hell may be even closer than that slice of violence that's just eviscerated you. Because we often start out well, wanting only justice, equity, just to make things right. But, untreated, and left to ourselves, soon we descend down those heated steps----and we want something more. We want revenge.
In Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a World Stripped of Grace, Miroslav Volf warns us that “in trying to overcome evil by enforcing justice, there is always the danger that we may be ‘overcome by evil’ ourselves. . . . Revenge multiplies evil . . . and threatens the world with destruction.”
Here is a moment of destruction from my own revenge files (told in a different form in Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hate and Hurt) And please don't laugh. I know you know I'm not an axe murderer; neither can I give you "Thelma and Louise" kind of drama---but it's chilling all the same.
Years ago, I lived on another Alaskan island, sharing it with seven others. Everyone worked long intense hours on the ocean in all kinds of weather. But the work was assuaged and fueled by lavish meals prepared by the matriarch, "Polly." For breakfast, she would often serve fried potatoes, homemade muffins, eggs, fruit, juice, and coffee. Her husband, "Duane," was usually on time for breakfast, but never any other meal. When called for lunch, which was a similarly bountiful spread, or the more simple suppers, all fixed by Polly, he would putter, finish whatever task he was doing. and eventually wander toward the cabin where the meal awaited.
He was the patriarch with many good qualities but timeliness wasn’t one of them. He knew we wouldn’t start without him, and he was stalwartly oblivious to the fact that he was keeping the rest of us waiting anywhere from ten to thirty minutes nearly every meal. The food would get cold; we’d all be watching our watches. But we were patient. No one complained. (Yes, you're right. We should have.)
One morning Duane announced, with great flourish and drama, as well as irritation, that he was making breakfast. This was a landmark event. Like many men of his generation, he didn’t cook. I had not seen him so much as cut a carrot or wash a pan, so this was big news. Apparently he hadn’t liked the fried potatoes that morning, so he was going to "do it right." I bristled, thinking of Polly's daily sacrifices for his meals, which were largely unnoticed.
That next morning, Duane got up early and started making the fried potatoes, putting in lots of onion, just the way he liked it. While he was cooking, making a great show of his efforts, I cooked up a plan of my own. Tired of his come-when-I-please approach to the meal table, and his snubbing of Polly's valiant and unceasing work in the kitchen, I decided to give him a taste of his own tardiness and ingratitude. I made the rounds on the island to the others and gave the same message to each one: “When he calls you for breakfast, wait at least ten minutes before you go. Just wander in when you feel like it.” They looked askance at me—this was clearly an act of insurrection, but they were annoyed, too, with his thoughtless habit and agreed.
At last the two massive skillets of fried potatoes were done. The call to come to breakfast was issued with great excitement and anticipation. Duane expected us all to drop everything and come running to his fresh, hot meal. But everyone was good at their word and didn’t come right away. I sat in my kitchen in my own house, watching the minutes tick by, with anticipation of my own. Finally Duane would know how it felt! But every minute that passed felt heavier rather than lighter. Finally I could hold out no longer and ran to their cabin.
By the time I got there, a few others had just come. We were about ten minutes late. Duane was clearly frazzled and annoyed that we hadn’t come just when he called. I felt a brief stab of "So there!! Now you know how it feels!" But that momentary sense of delight and equity vanished. An air of gloom settled over the room. We all felt guilty for purposefully coming late. Duane was crushed that the acclaim he had hoped for hadn’t come. I was glad that the meal was not eaten in celebration of his superior efforts over his wife---that was good---but my meal was nothing but a pile of guilt-fried potatoes, crisped up with vengeance, and it didn’t taste very good. The aftertaste was worse—a distinct bitterness that wouldn’t wash away with water, milk, or anything. And nothing changed. Meal times went on as before. The venture was a bust all the way around—except I knew I would never knowingly pursue revenge again.
You have been injured, I know. So have I. I thought maybe it was unto death---but no. YOUR prayers, my children's love and my husband's support have given me back my life. It's too easy to go the other way. To strike back with venom and truth. We can refuse to forgive, even when the perpetrators "don't know what they do." But if we choose vengeance, we will ourselves be overcome with evil---and the world will see yet another flare of hell explode and burn, bloody burn all those around it, including us.
There IS a time for justice. For equity. But there is never a time for vengeance. It is time to pray for those who hurt us. It is time NOW to love them, to pray for them their good, their healing, their well-being. These are my prayers this week.
May Peace return to all of you, and
May you disarm your enemies and families
through the peace of Christ.
May you trust God's perfect justice---and mercy,
and leave them in God's own ragged hands.
And don't give up. There is no power stronger
than Love, which can vanquish
even the vanquisher.