Outrage: When Vengeance Fills Your Heart
“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him,” says Corrie ten Boom. “A balding heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.”
The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.
And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were! Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!” And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course – how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me. “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein” – again the hand came out – “will you forgive me?”
Outrage. It’s more than anger. Deeper, and bigger. We’re outraged when we become aware of or experience something very wrong, deep, deep injustice, a horrific evil, happening on a larger scale … something happening in our community, in our country, in our world. Just this past week, on Tuesday, we remembered a terrible day 17 years ago – September 11, 2001. It was a day that united Americans in sadness and outrage, and many around the world with us. With cries of “never forget!” we still feel and express our outrage at the unbelievable events of that day; a day that ushered us into a new era in America and throughout the world.
The Psalmists knew outrage. You’ve heard me say before that roughly 1/3 of the Psalms, about 50 of the 150 Psalms, are Psalms of lament, pain, struggle, blues. But mixed within those Psalms of lament are a smaller sub-group of Psalms that scholars call the imprecatory Psalms. To “imprecate” is to speak a curse or call down an evil on someone or something. So in the imprecatory Psalms, Psalms like Psalm 137, the Psalm we’re looking at this morning, the Psalmist curses someone, calls down an evil upon someone. Basically, they want someone harmed … or worse. They’re outraged, and they want someone to pay for the evil they have done.
These Psalms tend to make us uncomfortable. And they should. They use language that we have been taught since birth not to use. In Psalm 58, also an imprecatory, cursing Psalm, we read “O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord! Let them vanish like water that runs away; when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.”
Hello. Not what most people expect when they open the Bible and start reading, is it? But let’s be honest. Every one of us has experienced SOMETHING that’s made us want to pray something like that, haven’t we. We’ll never admit it, but we have. Maybe we HAVE prayed something like that … and then offered a quick confession to God. Just doesn’t feel right, talking to God about people that way, does it. Give a whole new meaning to the phrase “I’m praying for ya!” doesn’t it? Yeah I’m prayin’ that God nukes your no good, good for nothin …” Maybe NOT the thing you want to hear sometimes. Turn in your Bibles or on your Bible app to Psalm 137. The words of an outraged Psalmist …
This Psalm was written either during the exile in Babylon or shortly after the return from exile and is reflecting back on the time there. The ruins of Babylon are located about 50 miles southwest of the modern city of Baghdad in Iraq, near the place where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers unite. The Babylonians had built an incredible system of irrigation canals from the rivers to provide water for their crops, so there was water running everywhere in the city of Babylon.
They weren’t all enslaved as a people, as they were in Egypt hundreds of years before, but they were quite obviously outsiders. And they were surrounded by a powerful people who wanted them to sing the joyous songs of their people. But it wasn’t an interest in culture that motivated them. You see, in the ancient world, when a nation was defeated and overtaken, it meant that nation’s god was weaker than the god of the victors. And so to sing their songs of victory and praise to God surrounded by and weaker than a people who worshipped the false god Marduk as god … it was like rubbing salt in their wounds. And although wars were and continue to be cruel, Babylon was famed for its cruelty. They were humiliated, shamed and disgraced, outraged by their treatment there. And down in V. 7, he wants vengeance on the Edomites too. The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, the oldest son of Isaac and brother of Jacob. They were related to the Jewish people. And yet, when they were in trouble, the Edomites, now a neighboring people, cheered Babylon on, asking them to destroy Jerusalem to its foundations, to make Jerusalem a ruin. How do we deal with our own outrage? How are we, as followers of Christ, supposed to deal with our own outrage?
We start by facing the wrongdoing and expressing our outrage. When we’re outraged, its typically because a real wrong has been done. Now remember, with anger there’s justified, legitimate anger and there’s unjustified, illegitimate anger. Our anger is justified when we really have been morally wronged in some way. But our anger isn’t justified when we THINK we’ve been wronged, but no moral wrong has been done to us. So it’s probably not legitimate anger when we get behind someone driving too slow. They might even be driving illegally, but they aren’t necessarily committing a moral error. There’s a difference between moral and legal.
The Psalmist does two things really well here: he refuses to sugarcoat the wrong that has been done to him and to his people, and he expresses his outrage. We can’t, and shouldn’t, sugarcoat things when a real wrong has been done. He names the wrong. And look at V. 1. “WE sat down and wept.” The people shared their sadness and outrage together. But they didn’t just share their outrage with one another. They also shared it with God. That’s what this Psalm is. It’s a prayer, and an expression of outrage to God.
But we don’t stop there. As children of God, we resist the power and activity of evil. Look at V. 2. They hung their lyres up in the trees. In other words, when their captors tried to either force them to sing or asked them to sing, they refused. This is active resistance. Wrongdoing requires at least one wrong doer, and as children of God we are to resist the powers of evil in our world, both personal evil and those evils that operate at a cultural level … the -isms that we know of … racism, sexism, classism. Legitimate injustice in all of its forms. And we can each do that within our own spheres of influence. Some of us have more influence at the community and cultural levels than others, but every human being alive has influence somewhere.
For starters, we each have the right to influence our own hearts and minds. So we are to seek out and seek to destroy sin and evil in our own lives as we become aware of it. With David we pray “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139: 23-24). That includes my own responses to injustice, my own outrage.
This story ran in a British and then an Australian newspaper: Taking away electronics is a common parental punishment, but this mother decided to take it one step further—and shoot up her children’s iPhones with a rifle. “I hereby denounce the effects that social media have on my children,” the mom shouts at the beginning of a YouTube video, a gun in her hand. “Their disobedience and their disrespect.” She then points the gun and the camera moves to reveal that she’s not about to shoot a pheasant or a bottle, but is aiming straight for an iPhone perched on a tree trunk. With perfect aim she blows the smartphone to smithereens, as its pieces go flying into the grass. “I also take back my role as parent to my children,” she then yells … She then blows the remnants of the iPhone to bits, once again hitting it on her first shot. “My children’s lives are more important to me,” she begins, as the camera reveals she is standing over the iPhones with a sledgehammer, “than any electronic on this earth.” She then hammers the remaining pieces a few times, her dog watching, before screaming: “I’m done!” And with that, she drops the hammer and walks away.[i]
Okay, so maybe not the best way to express your outrage. I could have shown you the video, but as you can imagine it has quite a bit of language in it. We have to be willing to allow God to shine his light on the recesses of our own hearts. Is my anger here legitimate, or not? And I cannot answer that question for you. You cannot answer it for me. We have to be willing to allow God to show us things in our own hearts that we might not want to see, things we might deny are there. And we’re also to stand against evil and injustice, in our legitimate outrage, in this world. Sometimes we are able to stand with others and create change at a community level, or even higher. At other times, we seek to help change things for someone we see being treated unjustly, as this man did. SHOW VIDEO.
Then we turn the situation, and the people involved, over to God and justice and wrath. The wrath of God isn’t something we’re comfortable talking about, but its what the Psalmist is banking on. Unlike human wrath, which tends to be both explosive and unpredictable, God’s wrath is God’s fixed orientation toward evil, toward injustice, toward sin. Injustice and sin and oppression of every kind, the things that cause outrage to dwell up within us, WILL be dealt with. It will be punished. The Psalmist is asking that those who have perpetrated these unjust acts against him and against his people receive the same treatment from him.
President Mobutu reigned as the dictator and President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1965 to 1997. But after global political changes, Mobutu was forced out of power and the country collapsed and descended into conflict and chaos. British pastor Mark Meynell tells the story of his good friend Emma, who witnessed many atrocities committed against his friends and family members. He and his wife and three daughters fled east on foot. Weeks later they arrived in Uganda as refugees, with nothing. After a few months of a miserable existence, he walked past a local seminary and sensed that the Lord was calling him to ministry. The family had been living in one room, without water or electricity, and enough to pay for one meal every two days.
Meynell said that one evening they met in the seminary’s tiny library and started talking. As Emma opened his heart and shared the story of the violence and injustice he had witnessed, he started to openly weep, despite the fact that African men never cry in public. Then Emma said these sobering words, “You know Mark, I could never believe the gospel if it were not for the judgment of God. Because I will never get justice in this world. But I couldn’t cope if I was NEVER going to see justice done.” Meynell commented, “We in the West often recoil from God’s justice for a very simple reason: We’ve hardly had to suffer injustice. But most people around the globe recognize that God’s justice is praiseworthy and great. Of course his mercy and redemption are even greater, but we need his perfect justice as well.”
God will act justly. But it will be God who acts, not us. And that is so often where we get sidetracked. We want vengeance. But St. Paul in Romans says “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Paul goes on to say “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:20-21). We cannot allow either evil or our response to it to overcome us, to take over our minds and our hearts. The Psalmist pours his heart out to God, seeking vengeance and the destruction of his enemies. But he also knows that he cannot take things into his own hands. He leaves things in the hands of God.
Many times, God does use legitimate human authority to bring about his justice, although even legitimate human authority is fallen and sinful and often fails miserably in terms of God’s view of what justice is. But God does bring about his justice. We see and experience God’s justice most clearly on the cross, for it was there that Christ took upon himself our punishment. On the cross, God’s justice and God’s wrath were focused squarely on Christ. And all who place their faith in Christ, all who follow Christ, have had the injustices they have been a part of, the hatreds, the ways that we each have caused outrage in God and in others, punished. And those who refuse to place their faith in Christ, who refuse to follow Christ, will experience that justice and wrath for themselves. It was either dealt with on the cross, or you will carry it yourself into God’s presence.
And so there in front of Corrie ten Boom stands a man. A man who had been her captor, who had beat her, starved her; a man before whom she’d had to walk to the showers naked, a man who was responsible for the death of her sister, is standing in front of her, arm extended, seeking Corrie’s hand. He was a perpetrator in one of the greatest atrocities ever committed by the human race. She said, “And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie had died in that place – could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it – I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.
God is still on the throne. He reigns. That’s the message of this Psalm. No act of injustice, no act of evil, large or small, will go unpunished. God will repay. Oh it may not be in this life, although often it is, but before God it will either be dealt with on the cross, or God will deal directly with those whose hearts are evil. We can express our outrage to God, trusting that God sees, God knows, and God will deal with it.
[i] US mum shoots disobedient children’s iPhones, New Zealand Herald (4-11-16)