“It is mine to avenge; I will repay.” Deut 32:35a
There are people in my life who owe me revenge.
When I was young, I was on the receiving end of some pretty brutal bullying. It was systematic and unending. I cannot remember happiness in my school life because of it. I remember being terrified, as well as punched, kicked, spat on, cursed and shunned, blamed and rejected. I was called “a reject” from the age of nine or ten until I graduated high school – not once or twice, but daily. One of the worst parts was that several of my teachers supported and encouraged this behaviour. I was a precocious, clever kid and I think it annoyed some of the teachers.
I learned to hate myself as weak and deserving of hatred and even now, in my late forties, a lot of those feelings haven’t gone away. I can see these children in my memories. I can list them by name and fill multiple pages. The older boy who chased me down with a machete. He probably never intended to hit me with it, but I ended up crouching in a corner screaming and crying in terror while he hammered the machete blade into the wall beside my head.
There are people I can remember but can’t even name – there’s one girl at school, her first words to me ever were “I hate you, Barron!” I had never spoken to her before; I didn’t even know her name at that time. How could she hate me? There are groups of people I can’t name. A crowd of kids who surrounded me at a shopping centre, punching me and flicking cigarettes in my face. They were stirred up by a single kid who used to go to my school.
Another girl told me in middle school that she hated me because she had met someone like me once and hated them, so she would hate me too. That girl held onto her hatred all the way to graduation and made a point of playing a small, but very cruel prank on me, to make sure I didn’t leave school forgetting how much she hated me.
So yeah, there are people who owe me revenge.
When I became a Christian, I began to repent my sins, including my hatred of these people who hurt and harmed me. Then came the next part – I was told to forgive them. I cannot express how hard that was; it’s been hard from the first time I heard it. I have deep wounds in my psyche that can rob me of sleep still. What they did is wrong and now I’m being told, by God no less, to just let them off the hook.
I got knocked down, and kicked when I was down there, time and again, and at the end I have to say, “No, that’s alright, you walk away and enjoy your life, I’ll just stumble along as an emotional cripple. After all, Jesus’ grace, won at the cross, lets you all off the hook for what you did. He commands me to forgive you, so I must forgive you or my salvation is in danger! My salvation will only be secure if I pay the debt of your sins against me, carrying the burden while you go free.”
That’s how it felt. I came to hate hearing forgiveness preached from the pulpit, because it was so often some bloodless sermon about how we need to learn to forgive the person who cuts us off in traffic, or forgive the mean things someone said about us. That’s not the forgiveness I need help with.
This week our church had a course on in the evening and the first session involved, among other things, forgiving people who had sinned against us, with a view to freeing ourselves from the emotional and spiritual baggage of their sin and entering more fully into the freedom of Christ. As I sat, developing my list of people I felt the Lord showing me something new. It started with an acknowledgement: these people do owe me.
They owe me a debt. They owe me revenge. All their bullying and abuse did harm me and rob me. I was robbed of peace, robbed of security and left wounded.
Then the Lord explained, that the forgiveness He wanted me to give them was not to write off their debts or pretend it never happened. He didn’t want me to give them retroactive permission. Instead, the Lord will buy their debt off me. He wants me to sell the debt to Him. He promises to repay everything that was stolen from me, every little bit. He’ll pay the debt, and I will be fully restored. Every cent repaid, every injury healed and made strong.
Jesus hasn’t just paid for my sin – which He has – He has also paid for everyone else’s as well. I used to think that meant God had forgotten me, forgotten my pain. I thought when I hurt, that God was like those adults who blamed me for what I went through. Except that instead of telling me to stand up to the bullies, He was telling me to forget what they did because He wanted to forgive them. I was wrong.
God hasn’t forgotten what I am owed. He wants to see it fully paid back to me, completely restored. And He wants me to sell that debt to Him. When I do, then He will choose how He will reclaim those debts from the ones who owed me. Maybe He will accept their repentance and forgive their debt; maybe He will exact revenge upon them.
But I don’t have to worry about that, because everything I’m owed is paid back to me, in Christ. Am I hurt? Jesus will heal that pain. Was I robbed? He will restore what was stolen. Was I shamed and humiliated? He will lift me up, clean me off and clothe me with His glory and righteousness.
And when I look at forgiveness this way, I can see how foolish it would be for me to hold on and not forgive – to not sell these debts. After all, how many of these bullies could pay me back anyway? Some might be dead by now; some so damaged in their own life that they wouldn’t even be able to hear my anger now without collapsing under the weight of it; and most would probably not even remember. They would probably be confused by the suggestion.
I’d rather have what’s owed me paid back in full, than wait for some half measure of return from debtors who, no matter how much worldly success they’ve had, are as bankrupt as me or even worse.