When life takes an unexpected turn, you have a choice: Take matters into your own hands or do things God’s way and wait on him to fulfill his promises.
Say someone does something rude to you in traffic; maybe they pull into your lane and are up on your bumper. Then, they have the audacity to somehow act like it’s your fault, laying on the horn and zooming by, giving you the one-finger salute.
In that moment, do you instinctively roll down the window and yell, “Bless you, friend!”? Probably not (or if you do, it’s accompanied by a passive-aggressive snarl). Your instinct is most likely to respond to unkindness with unkindness.
Momentary traffic episodes may not be that big of a deal (usually), but that same instinct works its way out in every relationship. To restore righteousness, your gut instinct is to take matters into your own hands, to try to fix the situation by the power of your flesh. When wronged, you want to respond with vengeance. Perhaps, you think, when he gets a taste of how he’s hurt me, he’ll change his ways.
The only problem is that heaping vengeance on people rarely provokes change. James writes, “For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (1:20–21 ESV).
Righteousness in these verses would be synonymous with “the kingdom of God.” The anger of man cannot produce righteousness, nor will it build God’s kingdom.
We conquer evil in others not by repaying evil with evil, but by repaying evil with good—and trusting God.
Is there a place for justice in our world? Absolutely. Both in small situations and in big establishments, God’s people need to build God’s kingdom by overcoming injustice and pursuing shalom, God’s righteous rule of peace. But we need to be honest with ourselves—most of the indignation we feel day to day has less to do with pursuing justice and more to do with defending ourselves, which is why James tells us that human anger won’t get us God’s kingdom.
This was a big theme in Paul’s letters, too. He says, “Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (Romans 12:21 CSB). Most of us would like to conquer evil in others. But how does Paul suggest we do it? By lashing out? By giving people a taste of their own medicine? Hardly. We conquer evil in others not by repaying evil with evil, but by repaying evil with good—and trusting God.
After all, that’s how Jesus changes you, isn’t it? He doesn’t pay you back, though he has every right to; instead, he shows you grace. God’s law tells you what you are supposed to do, and his threats of judgment might scare you into some outward conformity, but only his grace gives you the desire to obey him. Only his grace changes you.
If you want to be vehicles of God’s power, producing true righteousness in the hearts of people you love and in the world, if you want to be vessels that God uses to build his kingdom, then you’ll leave vengeance to God and respond with grace instead.