The Eighteenth Century Russian Bishop, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, often gave the following word to those who sought guidance and counsel:
“Forgiveness is better than revenge”
Saint Tikhon was known for his very humble and austere way of life and appearance. He was strict with himself but indulgent with others, which is a sign of true humility. While the saint did not consider anyone his enemy, there were, nevertheless, those who attacked him for his way of life. One day a man verbally assaulted St. Tikhon, accusing him of being haughty, of showing off because of the simple way he lived. St. Tikhon did not respond in revenge against the man, but rather began giving his accuser three kopecks every day for the rest of his life. The saint had done nothing wrong, yet was accused. However he did not respond in revenge, but rather in forgiveness, bringing healing to the situation.
At the end of Great Lent and the beginning of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church, another great example of forgiveness being better than revenge is presented in the life of the Patriarch and Forefather Joseph, the son of Jacob.
When Joseph was a teenager, his brothers became jealous of him, specifically in the love their father had for him, and the sense that Joseph was special. Joseph did nothing to incur their anger, however his brothers came up with a plan to take revenge on Joseph. They sold him into slavery and then told their father that Joseph had been killed by wild beasts when he did not return with them.
Let us now look at how much damage is done by this act of revenge. First, a young man is taken from his family, taken to a strange land, with strange gods, and sold into an uncertain future. A father’s heart is broken at the loss of his beloved son. There is no doubt discord sown among the other brothers at the secret they must keep, especially from their younger brother Benjamin, who does not know his brother may still be alive.
Of course, even in the midst of great wickedness, God can bring good. This was the case with Joseph. Indeed, resurrection is brought out of death symbolically in the life of Joseph. He was left for dead by the act of revenge by his brothers, yet God was with Joseph and aided him in becoming a noble among the Egyptians, even being in Pharaoh’s court. Joseph continued to live an upright life, even in the midst of accusations and slander. He continued to seek forgiveness rather than revenge, and his life bore great fruit.
At the time of a great famine, Josephs brothers traveled to Egypt to seek help. They end up meeting with Joseph even though they do not recognize him. Joseph is now in the position of power and privilege over his brothers. He has a decision to make. Contrary to the completely unjust actions of his brothers, one could easily see where Joseph would be justified in taking revenge now. They had wronged him greatly. By the rules of the world, the rules of revenge that exists even today, so often celebrated in culture, entertainment, and even in politics, Joseph should dramatically reveal that he is the brother who they thought dead, whom they had sold into slavery, given some great one-liner to ‘put them in their place’ and send them home.
But Joseph does not choose to use his power and privilege this way. He forgives. He does send them on a few trips back and forth in order for him to see his younger brother, Benjamin, and his father, Jacob, but his goal is the healing of this wound. He forgives and does not seek revenge. Instead of ‘burning them’ with words he says this:
“Come near to me, I pray you. I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” (Genesis 45:4-5)
Consider the healing that occurs because Joseph chooses forgiveness over revenge. He is reunited with his family. His father gets to see his son, whom he thought had died. He is reunited with Benjamin, who thought he had died. His brothers are relieved of the burden they had carried for years for the revenge they unjustly took on their brother.
In our own lives we may not be faced with such dramatic circumstances as those faced by Joseph or St. Tikhon. But we do face the everyday decisions to seek revenge or forgiveness. When we are wronged we are tempted to seek revenge, to seek justice by our own standards. We get concerned that someone will not ‘get theirs’ if we simply forgive. But consider the example of Joseph and St. Tikhon, and consider what the results can be of either choosing revenge or forgiveness.
Often if we choose revenge, or holding onto anger and resentment, we do damage first to our own soul. The old saying goes “Holding onto anger (or resentment) is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.” The first person it hurts is us. Secondly, we bring harm in the relationship between us and the other person. But consider the example of Joseph especially and reflect on how much of a ripple effect revenge can have on others whom we may not even know are affected.
However, if we choose forgiveness we bring healing first to our own soul. Secondly, we at least are working towards healing the relationship with the one who has wronged us. Finally, we do not know how many others are affected by our act of forgiveness, how many relationships we don’t even know about have the chance to heal because we do not hang on to our own need for revenge.