Writer Fran Lebowitz claims that she has two hobbies — going out for cigarettes and plotting revenge. We can all relate. Nothing at the time seems more urgent, or more right, than making someone pay for their wrongs against us. A habit of revenge ensures that we can always be the victim-hero of our own story. There’s a logic and ego satisfaction to “getting them back.”
Because of this, the virtue of mercy is unlikely. It’s so unlikely that we could bring ourselves to withhold retribution to those who have wronged us that there is something supernatural about mercy. Supernatural because when we practice mercy, we stretch beyond our selfish interests, beyond the human boundaries of self-protection to love generously as God loves us. If God is ultimately taking care of us, then our need for self-protection diminishes.
The problem with revenge is that we’re seeing only one side of the story. The real victim-hero is Jesus Christ, who took the punishment for every wrong that will ever be committed and nailed it to the cross. He did that so that we could afford to be merciful to others as he is merciful to us. This means that exacting punishment no longer makes sense — because the debt my enemy owes me is already paid!
In the face of this reality, I have to give up some of my old habits. When a thoughtless coworker makes more work for me, I need to think gratefully of how many boneheaded things I’ve been let off the hook for instead of talking behind her back or giving her the silent treatment. When a driver on his cell phone almost runs me over, I need to remember how others have given me the benefit of the doubt when I’ve failed to pay attention.
We are created in the image of the good God to love and to be loved. We have total freedom to love precisely because after Christ’s sacrifice, revenge is no longer necessary. Because 2,000 years ago, revenge was for all time swallowed up in love and the need for it was destroyed forever.
In the 6th century, Leo the Great said it like this: “Mercy wishes you to be merciful … that the Creator may be seen in His creature, and the image of God may be reflected in the mirror of the human heart.”