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Gospel Hope for a Culture Fixated on Getting Even

A particular theme percolates through pop culture these days, so commonplace we’ve almost called it normal: the desire for revenge.

It’s the underlying plotline of popular shows like Yellowstone or The Terminal List. It’s the fact that after Taylor Swift suffered a bad breakup, fans claimed she wore a revenge dress that paid homage to Princess Diana’s. The Iowa women’s basketball team’s recent win against LSU was widely described as “revenge.”

Cancel culture is built on the notion that if someone’s convictions don’t line up with the prevailing narrative, his livelihood and reputation can be ruined as retribution. This form of “revenge” is widely accepted and practiced—especially on social media.

The media argues daily about just proportion in the deaths accrued in the Israel-Hamas war—as though “an eye for an eye” represents a sustainable path forward. And political power increasingly seems dominated less by collaboration to solve problems as by wrenching power from “the other side” and punishing dissenters or the disloyal.

It’s clear our contemporary culture is wrestling, individually and corporately, with how to right a wrong. Yet when we normalize or even make light of revenge, we sink to our basest human level and then celebrate it.

Snapshot of the Human Heart

The cultural theme of revenge abounds because the desire to exact an eye for an eye gives a snapshot of the human heart. Who is unfamiliar with the sick, sweet longing to even the score? If I hurt the person who hurt me, maybe that’ll serve as protection against being wounded again. A potentially endless cycle is set in motion, one slight followed by another until there’s no way back. I can’t shake the mental image of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner falling from the chandelier to their deaths at the end of the classic love-hate movie War of the Roses.

As ubiquitous as it is as a cultural motif, few would claim getting revenge is ideal behavior, though. Even in a post-Christian culture, the firm command of Scripture rings in many ears: Don’t pay back evil for evil (Rom. 12:17). Let God right the scales (Rom. 12:19). Sometimes God partially rights the scales by using his instruments of justice in this world—civil and other authorities with the power to exact repayment—but he always finally rights the scales on the Day of Judgment.

As a therapist, I see the admonitions about revenge in Romans 12 as God’s merciful way of saving us from ruining ourselves—and possibly every relationship in our lives. A person bent on revenge will follow this path to ruin. A person who can cry out to God, appeal to authorities where appropriate, incline his heart to forgiveness, and leave the ultimate resolution to God, will do good for himself and point the offender to his need for Christ’s cleansing blood.

The ubiquitous presence of revenge in contemporary culture makes the hope of forgiveness a startling wonder and a crying need. If you’ve ever worked through a hurt that seemed impossible to forgive, you know how miraculous it feels to come to a place where you’re finally free of animus. You can pray for your enemy. You can rise above, or put behind you, what felt like a crippling betrayal or humiliation or loss you can’t replace (the three hardest things for human beings to forgive). It’s like being born again a second time.

The ubiquitous presence of revenge in contemporary culture makes the hope of forgiveness a startling wonder and a crying need.

Being able to forgive a deep wrong is both a choice and a gift. We can’t conjure forgiveness on our own. It’s just too hard. Getting even is our default. In the realm of revenge and forgiveness, psychology is of little help. Trying harder won’t get you there.

The gospel uniquely provides the basis—and the power—to overcome our human inclination to return evil for evil.

Power of the Cross

When Jesus met with his disciples after he’d been raised from the dead, some of his first words, strangely enough, were about forgiveness, as though the power that brought him back to life was now let loose and capable of breaking previously unbreakable bonds. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus said. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (John 20:22–23). Jesus let his disciples know his resurrection busted through the wall of hurt and endless paybacks, so common in human experience, to a new realm marked by forgiveness.

Perhaps the reason modern culture is fixated on revenge is that in a godless world, what else are you going to do but get even? Where do you go with the need for justice?

In the face of human impotence, the Christian faith makes audacious claims. There is a living God who doesn’t gloss over the wrongs we’ve done—or the wounds we’ve suffered—but rather bears the weight of both in his own suffering on the cross. This love transcends the damage done and, over time, uses the curse as fertilizer for some new display of mercy and life. Where can this be found apart from the power of Christ’s cross?

Perhaps the reason modern culture is fixated on revenge is that in a godless world, what else are you going to do but get even?

Edmund Burke, the 18th-century political thinker, famously noted that a culture couldn’t progress to a civil society until it had some means to rise above the human need to return evil for evil. Without an ethos that posits a rationale for forgiveness, we know only tribal wars of endless retaliation. We remain stuck in our own morass. Only the gospel offers us a way out.

As Christians, we can love our neighbors by helping them see that their inclination to get even, while understandable, is a destructive dead end. Jesus shows us a better, more effective, more satisfying way. Perhaps the recurrent theme of revenge is a just that: a black backdrop against which we see, for the actual wonder it is, the light of a gospel that makes it possible to forgive.

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