LIFE LESSON #1: LEAVE ROOM FOR GOD'S WRATH
You can learn a lot on the playground when it comes to the dangers and consequences of seeking revenge.
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
I still remember the event like it was yesterday. Actually as I write this, it was closer to 16,000 yesterdays ago when it unfolded, but some things are forever etched into your mind. It happened during lunch recess of my third grade year at Clear Lake Elementary school. My good friend Ricky and I were on the swing set. Both of us were pumping our legs to see who could get the highest in the perpetual competition that always exists between young boys. It was during one of the momentary pauses at the end of each arc, that point in time just before you fall back towards earth with your stomach chasing you, that I saw the cause of the future event unfolding in the distance. It’s hard to imagine a young girl in a white frilly dress, curly blond hair pulled back with a pink bow, white stockings, and wearing hard point corrective shoes to be considered the school bully, but Margaret had worked very hard the first three years of school to earn that title.
I saw Margaret, followed close behind by her two minions dressed just like her, walking away from a crumpled mass of a fellow student lying on the ground. From what I could see from his face he was in great pain, but in contrast Margaret and her minions were laughing as they skipped towards another boy classmate who was bouncing a basketball a short distance away. The boy seemed captivated by Margaret’s smile and innocence as he stood facing her and listening to whatever story she was telling, while her two minions giggled in anticipation. Then it happened. It was so fast that I had to replay it in my mind to understand it. Margaret’s leg pulled back and then swung forward with great force and speed into the boy’s unprepared groin, leaving him in the same crumpled mass of pain as her prior victim. Once again, Margaret and her lackeys laughed as they skipped across the playground.
What an idiot! You just stood there and let her kick you? I thought as I watched the boy trying to recover from the pain of the well placed attack. As my friend and I continued swinging, we watched as Margaret inflicted the same well-placed attack on two other boys on the playground, with the same painful results. As we left the swings and raced toward the monkey bars to see who could get to the top first, I voiced to my friend how stupid they were for letting her do that to them, which he wholeheartedly agreed.
Only a few minutes later a sweet innocent voice could be heard below us. “Ricky, I have a surprise for you.” We both turned to see Margaret and her two thugs smiling innocently up at Ricky and I. “Really, what is it?” He replied and started scrambling down the bars toward her with me following close behind.
Now I know what you’re thinking as you read this, how stupid were we for leaving the higher ground and protective safety of the monkey bars to face this evil nemesis below. I mean, how clueless would that be after we had just witnessed the repeated destruction and pain left in the wake of anyone who faced her! Yet here we were, lambs to the slaughter, captured by her smiling face, innocent appearance, and beckoning voice. She would never do that to us, we thought as we stumbled toward destruction.
Even as I write this, I’m still embarrassed about it. However, before you shake your head at my lack of sound judgment and wisdom as a 8 year old, ask yourself how many times as an adult you have left the protective safety and higher ground that God promises, choosing to instead stumble toward a destructive sin even though you know better? You can probably still hear God’s voice whispering a warning from your heart to “stay up here with me” when temptations or challenges come, yet we will often ignore the warning and forget the pain that we know awaits us.
For some, we leave the safety of remaining humble, instead we stumble toward our anger, spewing forth hurtful words and actions that can never be taken back. The end result is a crumpled mass of a spouse, child or friend writhing on the ground before us.
For some, we leave the safety of our pure heart and mind and run toward the impurity, pornography, or an immoral relationship even though we know it will leave us guilt ridden, insecure and creating a self inflicted distance between us and our heavenly Father, and those close to us that we love. God will never forgive me now, we convince ourselves and instead remain curled up in a painful ball before him.
For some, we leave the safety of honesty and stumble toward the quick satisfaction of telling a lie, knowing repeatedly from experience that all lies are ultimately revealed to our ultimate embarrassment, shame and ruin of our character. Even if we somehow manage to slip it past those here on earth, we always carry it around with us knowing that it will be revealed in heaven as we stand before our Father.
For some, we leave the safety of our health behind as we repeatedly reach for that drink, drug, or food of choice that we feel will make us happy in the moment, trading away our long-term happiness and security for the guilt, shame, embarrassment, and the physical pain or results that are the by-product of those choices.
I have learned that my sinful choices in life as an adult can be as stupid as or worse than climbing off the monkey bars to face Margaret, thinking somehow I would be spared from the wrath and pain of the choice to leave the protected high ground.
So there Ricky and I stood, side by side waiting for the wonderful secret that she had waiting for Ricky. With that same innocent smile on her face, she planted her shoe in the same location as she had placed it with the rest of the boys on the playground, with the same end results of Ricky curled up on the ground and moaning in pain.
Now common sense would normally tell you to climb back up those monkey bars to a place of safety, but with all stupid decisions that we make, we often instead choose to stay there and think we can handle it on our own, that we can resist the temptation or threat before us. My response should have been the same as Joseph’s when dealing with Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39:12 instead of worrying about what my reputation would be from “running from a girl”. “She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.” Instead, I stayed put. Being the super hero I viewed myself to be, I stepped in front of my moaning friend and squared my shoulders to Margaret. I placed my hand on my hips with my best Superman pose (minus the muscles, cape and man of steel body). Staring into her eyes I told her in my most intimidating voice; “Stop doing that or I’m telling!”
I know, not the most impressive statement, but back then that was the most effective phrase to use on the playground and avoid the consequences and trip to the principles office for hitting someone. As we glared at it each other, there was a brief moment that I was sure my heroic Superman stance and words had convinced her of the danger of messing with me. But that flicker of fear in her eyes was suddenly replaced by that innocent smile, followed quickly by her hard tipped corrective shoe landing on target. Holy Kryptonite!
Just like Superman had kryptonite as a weakness and knew to avoid it at all costs, as Christians, we also all have our character weakness, or kryptonite-like sin that leaves us helpless and defenseless the moment we are exposed to it. Superman never went around it, Joseph ran from it, but far too often we stupidly decide to stand and see if “this time” we can resist our kryptonite sin, knowing full well that we have no chance against it.
No sooner had the shoe landed than Margaret and her thugs started laughing as they waited for me to crumple into a ball of pain. But somehow I remained standing, my hands were well planted on my knees as I tried to fight through the pain and nausea of the attack (guys, I’m sure you can understand what I’m talking about and perhaps are reliving a similar event in your life). I was mad. Fortunately my feet were locked in place as I raised my face and glared at Margaret. She apparently saw the burning rage in my expression, for the laughter stopped and fear took over as I reached for her. She initially responded with a surprised squeal and the three of them turned and ran for the entrance of the school building, eventually replacing their momentary fear of my wrath with laughter as they ran.
Their laughter, along with my helplessness to do anything about it, caused my anger to grow and the dark side was calling me, but my body was in no condition to follow. As I leaned over again and placed my hands back on my knees, trying my best not to empty the spaghetti, garlic toast and peas we had just eaten for lunch, I saw the instrument of revenge lying there below me. It was a rock the size of a ping pong ball, big for my hand, but smooth and perfect. Although I did not know God back then, looking back on it now, I can relate to Samson’s prayer to God in Judges 16:28,
“Then Samson prayed to the Lord, “O Sovereign Lord, remember me. O God, please strengthen me just once more, and let me with the one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.”
Although my desire for revenge had nothing to do with my 'two eyes', there was a similar metaphor and strong desire for revenge still there. In spite of the warnings against doing so, I reached down and picked up the rock and spied my target skipping away towards the school with her two minions close behind. I knew it would take a heroic throw to even get the rock close to her vicinity, but I had to at least try. Perhaps it would scare her if it landed close? I thought, as my arm pulled back to launch the rock toward their direction. What I failed to realize was how much adrenaline anger puts into your bloodstream as the rock arched through the sky.
My initial reaction as I watched the rock finish the high point of its arc and begin falling back toward earth was that it would be a good throw and land relatively close. But as it continued its fall, the pride and desire of it landing close was replaced with a horrible fear that it was going to land very close.
I remember thinking that I should yell a warning, but whether it was a matter of not enough time, or that my voice was already a few octaves higher than normal, I just watched the rock drop toward its target. To say it was the perfect throw, would somehow glorify something whose origins and heart was far from perfect or good intentions. Perhaps the better description to use was that it was a once in a lifetime throw for several reasons. One, I’ve never thrown a rock at someone in anger again; two, as the rock ended its trajectory, it bounced perfectly off the top of Margaret’s head.
It’s hard to explain all the thoughts that go through your head when you think you have killed someone. Regret, fear, sadness, and the fear of punishment, but 'serves you right' was not one of them. As the rock bounced off of her head, Margaret dropped face first into the muddy ground, arms spread wide, and ending with both heels of her hard tipped corrective shoes momentarily kicking up in the air, before finally settling back down onto the ground with a thud. As her shoes peaked out from under her frilly, fluffy white dress, it reminded me of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, sad and terrified after finding out that she had dropped her house on the Wicked Witch of the East. Just like Dorothy staring in horror at the ruby slippers still on the witch’s feet, there was no rejoicing on my part at the sight of those motionless corrective shoes, no matter how wicked Margaret had been.
It seemed like forever as I watched Margaret’s two minions try to figure out why their leader had decided to plunge face first into the mud. Then I saw movement and I was filled with relief. One, then both of the corrective shoes moved, then the legs, then the mound of frilly white dress suddenly rolled over and sat up. She lived.
As her minions pulled her to her feet, tears began to flow down her face. Although I’m not sure if her rage was more from the lump on her head or the mud all over her frilly white dress and face, but it did not take long for her to put the missing pieces of the past few moments together. She suddenly turned toward me and pointed. I never heard what came out of that innocent looking mouth, as the recess alarm bells sounded and the flow of students began to head toward the building. I could see Margaret looking around for a teacher to “tell on me”, (yep, she had the better response), but all the activity of the kids returning to class made it difficult to get the attention of any nearby teachers. I took advantage of the moment of confusion and limped off to class, making sure to enter from a different door to stay out of sight.
Over the next 20 minutes, as I sat in class, I learned that revenge is bitter sweet and that it is only a matter of time before it boomerangs back around onto you. As I sat there, feeling guilty and in perpetual fear of being punished, I was thinking through all the worst things that could happen to me. Then suddenly there she was, being escorted into the classroom by the Principal of the school. They stopped in front of the whole class, dirty dress, face and corrective shoes and all; she raised her hand and pointed at me. “He did it!” she whimpered and every student turned to stare at me with the same accusatory eyes.
Fearful as I was, in truth it was a relief to finally be over the guilt and fear of being caught and instead, to get it over with and face the punishment that I knew I deserved. As Christians, when our sin is finally discovered or confessed (a far better response), there is often more relief, than fear. We can finally stop hiding and being fearful, and instead get on with the consequences so we can start living our lives again. More often than not, once we confess and are remorseful, the punishment is never as bad as we have convinced ourselves it would be (Satan telling us what will happen if we admit or confess to it).
Surprisingly, the only punishment I received from the Principal was a strong scolding, much to the chagrin of Margaret who felt I deserved death and dismemberment. Even more surprising, instead of receiving justice for the crime I committed, she received the same strong scolding for hers. I think my saving grace was that the Principal was a male and as I retold the events that lead up to the rock falling from the sky and the large number of boys that Margaret had left in crumpled masses along the way, he extended compassion. Like Jesus who has gone through the same temptations and challenges in life, he can relate to our weakness (not to the sin, but to the temptation). The Principal did make it very clear that it was his job to deal out punishment for hurtful situations in the school and that next time instead of taking matters in my own hands, I should tell him and he will deal with it. Sound familiar? “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
There is always something we can take away from every event that life throws at us. In this situation, I learned that the best way to avoid trouble (sin) is to either run from it or remain in a safe place high above it. I learned that my enemy knows my weakness (my kryptonite) and where to place his hard tipped shoe every time I think I can stand up to him. I also learned that consequences for my sin will always be there, but that if I’m truly open and remorseful, it is never as bad as I’m lead to believe it will be. And finally, that being quick to deal justice out of my anger for my own stupid mistakes, never turns out well. Whether it is the playground at school or in life, the best course of action is to never leave the safety of the high ground to exact revenge, and instead simply tell God about them and let Him deal out the punishment as He sees fit.
All the best to you and my sincere apologies to Margaret, wherever you might be.