Taming the Temptation to Retaliate

Michael Zigarelli

From: Faith at Work (Moody Press, 2000). Used by permission. All rights reserved.

A friend of mine in the insurance business told me this story about a wacky claim they were handling. An elderly woman in a Cadillac was having trouble finding a parking space at the mall. After circling for about ten minutes, she finally lucked out. A minivan was pulling out near the mall entrance. Her timing was perfect. She put on her blinker and waited for them to leave.

You probably know what’s coming. You’ve seen the scene. As soon as the van vacated, two kids in a sports car raced in, cutting off the woman in the process. The woman rolled down her window, keeping her temper in check, and politely told the boys that she had been waiting for the spot. So the driver said he was sorry and moved his car – yeah, right! Quite the opposite. The driver, freshly graduated from permit to license, offered up his 17-year-old middle digit and said: “In case you forgot, Granny, that’s what it’s like to be young and fast!”

Having enjoyed a laugh, he and the other choir boy proceeded to the mall entrance. Just as they got to the door, though, they heard a crash. Breaking glass, crunching metal, burning rubber. It sounded ugly. To their horror, they turned and found the front of Granny’s car buried deep into their trunk (my friend tells me that his company thinks she was acting out something she saw in a movie). Then she backed up, put it in drive and gunned it, ramming their car again!

One more for good measure? Why not? she thought. After all, the Corvette hadn’t fully penetrated the brick wall in front of it. Reverse, drive, gas. It was The Revenge of the Granny, Parts 1, 2 and 3.

The young, fast teens ran to their car in a panic, unleashing a string of obscenities longer than their pending repair bill. But the woman remained unfazed. She calmly exited her car, approached the boys and handed them a business card.

“Here’s the number of my attorney,” she said with a smug grin. “That’s what it’s like to be old and rich!”

Admit it. Deep down, if not further up as well, you’re cheering. You can’t hide the smile, so don’t bother trying. Just let out what you want to say: “Yessssss! Way to kick butt, Granny! You go, girl!”

How can I be so sure that you liked that ending? Because I’ve been experimenting with this story. Told it to dozens of people. I’ve gotten more mileage out of this story than Granny did from her ’84 Caddie. And almost invariably, the person listening to the story gets a satisfied look on his or her face when they learn how this woman responded. It’s a look that says: “Good for her! Give those jerks what they deserve!”

Payback is fun. Settling the score satisfies. Revenge is rewarding. That’s evident throughout our culture.

Just look at what we find entertaining, for instance. One of the best parts of a hockey game is a fight. One player instigates, the other drops the gloves. Don’t touch that remote. In baseball, the show-stoppers are the bench-clearing brawls that ensue after a batter is hit by a pitch. The World Wresting Federation, an entertainment company built on payback and pectorals, has become so popular that it’s now gone public, offering stock on the NASDAQ. Hulk Hogan and The Rock are household names. Minnesota even went so far as to elect a professional wrestler, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, to its highest office!

And then there’s daytime TV. We regularly pause from channel-surfing to watch the shouting match du jour on the Ricki Lake show. If that’s not on, there’s always a soap opera – perhaps the epitome of glorified retribution.

It’s obvious from the Neilsen ratings that most of us like that sort of thing. We have a penchant for payback. It’s in our nature. That’s further evidenced by a study conducted by American Demographics magazine: 43 percent of respondents to a large survey indicated that if someone hurt a loved one, they would try to hurt them back. Another 41 percent said they weren’t sure how they’d react. That leaves only 16 percent responding that they’re confident that they would not retaliate.[1]

How about you? When the opportunity to retaliate comes your way, do you respond like everyone else? You might not ram any cars, but do you take actions that look just the same to God? Do you repay and eye for an eye, or turn the other cheek?

If you’re more of an “eye-for-an-eye” guy (or gal), consider taking a moment to sit on the mountainside. Find a flat surface and get comfortable. Judge Jesus has something to say about Granny’s road rage – and our own.


The Sage on Road Rage

Retaliation is part of our fallen condition and it’s continually reinforced by our environment. As a result, it’s a potent temptation – and the same temptation that many were struggling with in Jesus’ day.

Jesus knew that. He knew what was in their hearts. He knew their trials. He knew their history – a saga of hostile takeovers, cultural desecration and ethnic cleansing. Not all the persecuted wallowed quietly in their despair, though. Many Israelite “zealots” actively sought to avenge the oppression of their people. They waited and they planned. And when an opportunity presented itself, they would run their Caddies over as many Roman soldiers as possible.

To hear a zealot tell it, revenge would be bloody and sweet. God would work through the sword to deliver His people as He had in the past. God had done it that way with the Judges. He had done it that way through King Saul and King David. Truly, those with the courage to fight for Israel’s freedom would partake in this distinguished tradition, earning the title “sons of God.”

And then with one sentence in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turned that thinking on its head. Out of His mouth did not come “blessed are the sword shakers” or “blessed are the land takers” or “blessed are the car breakers.” He taught “blessed are the peacemakers.” It is they who will be called “sons of God.”

Can you hear the collective gasp of the revolutionaries? Barabus probably headed for the parking lot early. He gave Granny a high-five along the way. Back inside the stadium, Jesus was busy elaborating on His principle:

You have heard it said, “˜Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”¦Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven”¦” (Matthew 5:38-39, 44-45).

The seventh Beatitude is a lesson for those who are tempted to avenge an offense – both then and now. Those who are worthy of being called “sons of God” are not those who retaliate, but those who live peaceably with one another. A counterstrike is not God’s answer. Love and forgiveness is.

It’s an uncomfortable lesson for those of us who are more gifted in conflict escalation than conflict resolution. But regardless, Jesus says put down your sword. Respect God’s yield sign. Turn the wheel and go search for another parking spot.


Payback While Earning a Paycheck

And if you think that’s a tough lesson to follow at the mall, try it at work. In no place is it easier or more tempting to retaliate. Think about it. If you wanted to get even with somebody at work – and do it covertly – would that be difficult for you? Probably not. It might take a little creativity and some planning, but anybody can pull it off. That’s because we work in environments where almost everybody is vulnerable to everybody else. On the job, revenge isn’t just sweet, it’s available.

Consequently, it’s widespread. A few years ago, I stumbled across a now-defunct web site that served as a bulletin board for people to regale others with their tales of getting even in the workplace. The public commentary was voluminous. A few of the posted escapades amounted to mere pranks. Most, though, were both costly and a bit depraved. In addition to the time-honored techniques of pulling fire alarms and vandalizing cars, the more imaginative vigilante justice these days includes:

  • Waving powerful magnets near computers, thereby erasing all of the memory
  • Changing someone’s computer screen to black characters and black icons on a black background (how long did it take the victim to diagnose that problem?)
  • Throwing back miniscule tips at customers as they exited a restaurant
  • Dialing a 1-900 number from a co-worker’s phone after work hours and then leaving the phone off the hook all night ($8.95 a minute; must be at least 18 to call)
  • Giving sensitive information on pricing to a competitor
  • Submitting subscription cards with a co-worker’s name and address to hundreds of magazines
  • Sending a package of “returned” lingerie to a male co-worker’s house with a good-bye note from a fictional mistress – and sending the package by taxi at a time when only his wife was home to receive it!

There were dozens more on the site, but you get the idea. If you want to get back at somebody on the job, there are countless options at your disposal. Expensive options. Destructive options. Even quick verbal options – something like repaying insult for insult. The only question is whether you’ll exercise any of them.

For many of us, it’s hard not to. At the emotional moment of decision, we have two powerful forces pushing us toward reprisal. First, there’s our desire to strike back, courtesy of our sinful nature and our cultural conditioning. Something inside of us just makes us want to do it. Then, as we’ve just seen, there’s the abundant opportunity to strike back, courtesy of our mutual vulnerability in the workplace.

Desire times opportunity. It’s a lethal formula whose product is the temptation to retaliate.

Remember, temptation isn’t sin. Hebrews 4:15 says that even our sinless Savior experienced temptation: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.” But giving in to that temptation is sin. So to avoid acting on our temptation to retaliate, we need to attack temptation on both the desire and the opportunity fronts. Let’s examine “opportunity” first, since that’s the easier one.

Without opportunity, we cannot act in vengeance. The workplace misdemeanors listed above would not have occurred absent an open door to perform them. A person leaves her cubical unguarded. Exiting customers hang around for a few minutes after leaving 50 cents on the table. Files containing a colleague’s work remain in public directories. It’s almost too easy.

The solution here is to run. At the moment of temptation, run from the situation immediately. The longer you linger as opportunity knocks, the more likely you are to open the door. So run as far and as fast as you can away from that door. The clearest biblical example is a familiar one from its first book. A young man, sold into slavery by his brothers, was being propositioned by an Egyptian official’s wife. The opportunity was practically screaming at him to submit. It was a temptation. But Joseph ran from Potipher’s wife and in doing so, avoided acting on that temptation.

In the same way, when you’re presented with the opportunity to get even with a co-worker (or anyone for that matter), run. Do whatever it takes. If the opportunity is zero, temptation will be zero (you math jocks can verify that using the formula).

From desire, though, we can’t run because no matter where we run, there we are! Still desirous. Still craving payback. Still seeking to return and await an opportunity. Running from temptation is an important first step, but it may not be enough since we could end up running right back. Granny could have driven away from her golden opportunity, but after a few simmering laps, she might have returned to squash the Vette anyway.

How do you prevent this? How do you extinguish a flaming desire to get even? What could Granny do while driving those laps?

The same thing that you and I could do after we’ve initially run from a tempting situation. We can work to forgive the offender. To give up the right to be mad at him. To completely clear his slate. To drop it altogether. “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,” Jesus said to the astonished crowd (Matt. 6:14). This is the path to being a “peacemaker” – the path to being a son of God.

And as you probably know, it’s also one of the toughest path you’ll ever have to walk. Jesus knew that about us too. Maybe that’s why He instructed us to “pray for those who persecute you.” Have you ever tried that? It’s painful at first, but if you can persevere through it, it becomes a surprisingly liberating experience. It drains our desire to strike back since it’s virtually impossible to remain mad at someone for whom you are praying. That opens a different door – the door to pardon – and double-locks the door to payback.

Trust me on this one. Try this approach the next time you feel the pull of temptation. I know, you don’t even want to think about your persecutor, much less pray for this person, but try it anyway. Just once. The only thing you have to lose is your anger, your hatred, and your desire to get revenge.

We can summarize all of this with another equation, one derived by none other than the Creator of mathematics Himself. Run + pray + work to forgive. It’s a powerful formula that will keep both your desire and opportunities under control. And when you’ve mastered that math problem, you’ll find that the sum is zero percent temptation, 100 percent “son of God.”


Rewinding The Revenge of the Granny

“In case you forgot, Granny, that’s what it’s like to be young and fast!” Having enjoyed a laugh, he and the other choir boy proceeded to the mall entrance.

Granny wasn’t happy about it, that’s for sure. Thoughts of turning that Vette into an accordion danced through her head. She had the money to do it with impunity. But then she thought better of it. “Blessed are the peacemakers” she recalled from her Bible study. Blessed are those who can overlook an offense, who can forgive, who can choose the path of reconciliation over retaliation. She continued down the row, silently praying that the boys would come to know Jesus and that their lives would be transformed.

Okay, that ending isn’t nearly as exciting, right? No crunching metal? No piercing one-liners? It would never play in Hollywood. It would never air on daytime television. And if I had told the story that way to my friends, I suspect that most of them would have wondered why I was wasting their time. It’s a disappointing ending.

“¦except to God.

[1] Bernice Kanner, “Turning the other cheek,” American Demographics, (February 1998) Vol. 20 No. 2., p. 39.

Excerpted from: Faith at Work: Overcoming the Obstacles to Being Like Christ in the Workplace (Moody Press, 2000). Used by permission, All rights reserved.

Michael Zigarelli is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College the editor of Christianity9to5.org.