Do we want biblical justice or do we just want revenge?

Bryant Golden Blog

The last six months of headlines have been heavy. School massacre. Formula shortage. Straight-up genocide in Ukraine. Anyone else feel like screaming under the weight of the injustice we’re forced to witness?

What is that? That gnawing feeling that something isn’t right, that things aren’t fair. It’s this universal acknowledgment of the standards of right and wrong that surpass all cultural differences. It’s the inherent understanding that human life is sacred, and innocent lives should always be protected.

We ache for justice. Whether we admit it or not (depending on your belief system), we want the swift hand of God to stretch down and turn this wrong into right. We want some Old Testament Exodus-style justice when God dealt with sin right then and there. Because the God of the Old Testament was swift, angry and didn’t let anything slip. Right?

Let’s pause here for a moment. 

It’s important to clarify the difference between justice and revenge, because what most people may recognize is that we as humans mainly want revenge more than justice. Stick with me here. 

Justice and revenge may end up with the same outcomes, but there are two main distinctions between justice and revenge:

  1. Revenge is driven by emotions, while justice is driven by rationale. 
  2. Revenge is personal, while justice is impartial. 

So, let’s go back to the angry-God-of-the-Old-Testament thing. God’s justice was slow and measured. It was buffered with warnings and calls to repentance for any evil done. In fact, more often than not, the Old Testament writers became impatient waiting for God’s justice. The idea of an angry God was not on their radar; if anything, God was too lenient and too slow to deliver justice (really revenge) on their enemies for the evil done to Israel. 

While the law of “an eye for an eye” seems archaic and violent to us in modern times, it’s actually still a law that we cannot live up to, even in our “peaceful and love focused” society. “Eye for an eye” is a law that describes justice, i.e., punishment that fits the crime. Not emotionally based, but a logical repayment for a wrong that was done. Impartial, equal consequences for a wrong. 

Think about the last time you were wronged. You probably didn’t feel impartial or exacting. You wanted to show the other person how that particular situation felt. Whether you acted on it or not, in your heart of hearts you know that what you wanted probably lined up more with the definition of revenge than with justice. 

Let’s get back to our current headlines now and the ache we all feel that things need to be corrected. If you’re anything like me, you may have found yourself praying 1,000 times lately for the God of justice to come down and act. Swiftly. Boldly. Because that’s what I expect a God of justice to do. 

But the reality is that God is exactly that — He’s a God of justice. He is not a God of revenge. And over and over again He says that He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Meaning, He waits. He waits for repentance. He waits for the right time to deliver impartial justice. But He does promise that He does not leave the guilty unpunished. 

Sometimes I wonder if God is like a parent, allowing Himself to take an extra beat and calm down before He deals with a kid who has gone off the rails. Maybe that’s why it feels like justice comes slowly sometimes; maybe God needs an extra beat to calm Himself so He can deliver impartial justice and not amped-up revenge. Who knows. I’ll add that to my list of questions for when I get to heaven. 

But this is what we truly need to ask ourselves as we sit in the weight of current injustice: Are we desperate for God’s justice or for God’s revenge? If we are truly desperate for God’s justice, then we need to also be ready to accept that His justice is often outweighed by His mercy, and He is slow to anger. Which means we may be waiting for a while. But the good news is that He waits in the in-between with us. And the promise of Jesus is that one day we will witness all the hurt and injustices of the world made right.