Evil for Evil? 


See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:15-18)


Vengeance and justice are two very different things. While Christ doesn’t speak against justice, He does advocate repentance, forgiveness and mercy.  “Repaying” someone in kind for an evil they do to you is not blessed by Christ. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…” (Matthew 5:38-39) Inflicting suffering on another because they caused you to suffer is more vengeance than justice. Justice is not about getting even but rather about an appropriate punishment or correction for one who does wrong. To use an evil to make someone suffer because they caused you to suffer is not acceptable to Christ’s ideal of justice.  In the desert fathers we encounter this wisdom about repaying evil with evil:


Another brother asked him: ‘What is the meaning of “Never repay evil with evil”?’ (cf. Romans 12:17). Abba Poemen said to him: ‘This passion works in four ways: first, in the heart; second, in the sight; third, in the tongue; fourth, in not doing evil in response to evil. If you can purge your heart, it does not come to the sight. If it comes to the sight, take care not to speak of it. If you do speak of it, quickly prevent yourself from rendering evil for evil.’  (GIVE ME A WORD, p 233)


There are numerous occasions in the desert fathers when they don’t advocate clear black and white, either or, thinking in dealing with some moral issues. In the above quote, for example, Poemen sees levels of being able to fulfill Christ’s commandment. The most shallow level is simply not to repay evil with evil, but Poemen sees that we can work through levels of our self and work back into the heart to uproot that thinking even before it gets to our sight or our tongue. The spiritual life is our ever working to purify our heart, but this is hard work which requires us to work through all of our levels of dealing with others. We may begin our spiritual life with changing our visible behavior, but the goal is to change the heart so that we do not even desire or think about doing evil.


In the spiritual writings we also encounter an admission that our choices are not only between good and evil. Sometimes our choices are between two goods or two evils, which complicates how we should respond as Christians and requires great wisdom to resolve.

“It is indeed hard to be forced, as you are now, to choose between two actions both of which are, strictly speaking, wrong, each in its own way. If you give this money to your husband, you will break the commandment of obedience to parents—since your mother expressly forbade you to do so; if, on the other hand, you refuse it him, you will violate the great mystery of matrimony in which a man leaves his father and mother to cleave to his wife; and they too shall be one flesh (Eph 5: 31).


In cases of this kind, when one of two commandments must be broken in order that the other may be kept, the Fathers counseled the breaking of the lesser. No connection on earth is greater than that between man and wife. It is therefore right that you should stand by your husband no matter what happens; and none can forbid you sharing all with him. All, not only your money.  (Macarius of Optina, RUSSIAN LETTERS OF SPIRITUAL DIRECTION, pp 88-89)


We are constantly faced with choices and decisions in life and it is not always clear as to what is the greatest good. No rule can solve every dilemma, and so we must constantly seek wisdom from God to help us in the decisions we make. And then, we must be humble enough to admit when we are wrong and made the wrong choice.