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(Romans 12:17-21) Refusing the Urge to Feud

(Romans 12:17-21) Refusing the Urge to Feud

Ref: Romans 12:17–21

You’ve heard the witty old saying, “don’t get mad… get even.” Well in this message Stephen shows us how that way of thinking ruins friendships, families, and testimonies all the time. Is it ruining yours?


“Refusing the Urge to Feud”

Romans 12:17-21

Without a doubt, the most notorious family feud in American history was the bitter dispute between two families; the Hatfields and the McCoys.

In fact, to this day, the Hatfields and the McCoys, is enough of an expression to bring to most minds the idea of bad blood . . . squabbling and quarreling or carrying a grudge that just won’t die.

The feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys was real.  They were two prominent, wealthy families and their farms were in Tug Valley, on either side of a stream named Tug Fork, which ran between their properties.  In fact, that creek represented the border of Kentucky and West Virginia.  The McCoys, lived on the Kentucky side and the Hatfields lived on the West Virginia side.

Trouble began in 1878 when Randolph McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing one of his pigs.  That offense was very serious back then and it ended up in court, but the McCoys were unable to prove the crime.  Feelings festered and then in 1882, one of the McCoy boys ran for public office, but on election day he was insulted by Ellison Hatfield.  Three of McCoy’s sons retaliated by killing Hatfields son.  The family patriarch, William Hatfield, took revenge by killing these three young McCoys. 

It escalated from there.  The feud was no longer a family matter.  It spread along the border of Kentucky and West Virginia.  In fact, both governors called in the National Guard to stop the fighting between the Hatfield supporters and those who supported the McCoys.

Finally,. 8 members of the Hatfield family were kidnapped in West Virginia and brought over the state line to stand trial in Kentucky.  The states entered the legal battle, arguing for or against the right to try these men in Kentucky courts. 

Eventually, the case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Kentucky.  The trial went forward and 8 Hatfield family members were found guilty of the death of that Mr. McCoy’s daughter when they burned the McCoy’s farmhouse to the ground. 

As a result of the verdict, one of the Hatfields was hung publicly, which is interesting, given the fact that public hangings were, by then, illegal; the other seven Hatfields were sentenced to life in prison.

The legendary feud between the Hatfields and McCoys is more than fiction. 

It was true . . . it started out with an accusation and then hurt feelings and then a violation of property rights and finally, murder. 

The Hatfields and the McCoys demonstrate to this day, the ability of the human heart to add injury to insult . . . until the original issue is long forgotten.

And it all started with a stolen pig.

Mr. Hatfield could have said, “I’ll give Mr. McCoy one of my pigs in order to settle the matter;” or Mr. McCoy could have said, “I can live without that one hog.”  Neither one thought a battle over a pig would cost them the lives of some of their own children. 

All in all, 12 members of the Hatfield and McCoy families died, and a century of hatred became a part of Tug Valley.

How do you walk away from something before it gets out of hand.  How do you stop a feud from ever starting? 

Frankly, the answer to that question will also protect you from bitterness and fragmented relationships.  The answer happens to be God’s design to protect us all from our sinful nature, which finds it hard to resist retaliation. 

In all of us, there is a yearning to get even.

How do you refuse the urge to feud?

Beginning with verse 17 to the end of chapter 12, Paul will now begin to answer that question specifically from the vantage point of dealing with enemies . . . unkind people . . . people who insult you or ridicule you . . . maybe even hostile people. 

This is how the Hatfields should have treated the McCoys and vice-versa.

By the way, this medicine works both inside the church and outside the church.

We could call the last few verses of chapter 12, “how to demonstrate grace, in a graceless world.”

And the first thing Paul writes has to do with the very foundation of our resolve to be people of grace.

1)  The first of 6 principles is this:  determine a non-negotiable position in life

Would you notice verse 17.  never pay back evil for evil to anyone.

Would you notice that the first word in this verse, translated never, is a fascinating word with deep meaning that could be lost without extensive etymological research . . . which I have attempted . . . the best Greek translation I could find of this word never is the word, never!

This is non-negotiable.  There are no loop-holes here.

Grace never gets even. 

People of grace do not get even.

Wouldn’t it be great if God had provided a loophole here . . . instead of never, how about, “most of the time.”  Or, “if it doesn’t involve physical pain or emotional duress.” 

I mean, c’mon . . . “Never?”

Ladies and Gentlemen, if you ignore the resolution of Romans 12:7. . . if you make it anything other than non-negotiable, and forget the rest of the chapter. 

In fact, forget developing the grace factor in your own life.  It won’t happen!  To look for opportunities to get back at someone immediately stymies growth in grace.

To allow an insult or personal wrong to occupy your mind with revenge, is like putting a poisonous snake in your pocket and carrying it everywhere you go – to be bitten again and again; but to ignore it or respond in grace to it, is to leave it on the ground where it belongs while you move past it, and be free of it.

Look at the grace of our Lord . . . who endured the cross.

The truth is, we’d all like to be more like Jesus Christ; in fact, it might be the number one thing on your prayer list – “Lord, I’d like to be more like You!  Except for the nails . . . and the spear

. . . and the betrayal . . . the insults . . . the loss.”

What we mean when we say “we’d like to be more like Jesus” is that we’d like to have his perfections, not his sufferings.

And yet, Philippians chapter 2 takes us right into the heart of the insults and the betrayals and the humility and the sufferings and says, “There, have this attitude in you which you see evidenced in Christ Jesus.”

Never pay back evil for evil.

It’s as simple and straightforward as that; it’s never right to get even.

Oh, but “haven’t you,” as one author wrote to Christians 2 centuries ago, “never tasted the luxury of indulging in hard thoughts against those who have injured you?  Have you never known the fascination of brooding over their unkindnesses, prying into their malice, imagining all sorts of wrong and uncomfortable things about them?  It has made you wretched, of course, but it is a wretchedness that you cannot easily give up.”
Hannah Whitehall Smith in The Christian’s Secret of a happy Life Christianity Today, Vol. 31, no. 4

Don’t make the mistake of believing that just because you are a Christian, grace comes naturally!

That it should be easy to respond to everyone with graciousness!

Listen . . . there are times when you will fail to act like a Christian . . . and, you may believe this, but it’s true – there are times when you do not even feel like a Christian!

Read Romans chapter 7 again.

And don’t lose heart, your feeler happens to be fallen, too!

You live by your emotions and you will easily be led astray.  Our emotions are in as much of a need for transformation as our minds.  And we really come face to face with our fallen feeler, when we’re at the receiving end of evil.

A few months somebody in our church sent me an email with this story.  I hope you haven’t already seen it to. 

It starts out with the question, “Am I really a Polar Bear?”

One day, a young polar bear cub approached his mother as she swam up to the snow covered shore, with a fish in her mouth for him.  “Mom,” he asked, “am I a polar bear?”

“Of course you are,” she replied with a smile.

“OK,” said the cub as he padded off.  A little later, he found his Dad out by an iceberg. 

“Dad, am I a polar bear?”

“Sure you are, son!” said his Dad, though wondering a bit why his son would ask such a silly thing.

The next day, the cub was at it again, asking the same question again and again. 

“Are you and mom polar bears?  Are you?  You are?  Well, then, does that make me a polar bear?  I mean, does it make ma a pure, 100% polar bear?”

Finally, his parents couldn’t stand it any longer.  “Son, they growled, you’re driving us crazy with this question.  You are a polar bear.  Why do you keep asking?

The cub looked up at them and confessed, “Because – I’m freezing!”

I must not be a polar bear because none of this suits me!

Maybe you have gone to your Heavenly Father, in real life, with something like this.  “Am I really your child?”

How can I be your child while at the same time feeling so unsuited to this life . . . this call of grace.  How can I have feelings of cold resentment . . . these desires to get even . . . this anger welling up inside my heart. 

There are times when you would admit, “I feel more like a Hatfield than I do a Christian.”

Listen to Paul as he implies in verse 17 . . . “Because you are a Christian, don’t pay attention to how you feel . . . pay attention to how you act.” 

You might feel entirely unsuited to this thing called grace… 

You might feel like paying back evil for evil . . . no matter.  Paul says, act graciously, even when you don’t feel gracious at all. 

This is a non-negotiable. . . never pay back evil for evil to anyone, period!”

And that’s just the beginning.

The second act of grace in a graceless world is to

#2.  Develop a life-style of purity

Paul writes further in verse 7, Respect what is right in the sight of all men.

The word translated “respect” is a compound verb – pro: “first” and noew: to think.  You could literally render it, “Think first; think beforehand!”

And what are you thinking about?  You are thinking about what is right – kalas – what is honourable and pure and good.

Paul used this word often;

Paul told Timothy to instruct wealthy people to “do good, to be rich in good works.” (I Timothy 6:18)

He told Titus to instruct the young men to “in all things show [themselves] to be an example of good deeds.” (Titus 2:7)

Once when he referred to the money he was handling he said, “We are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord, but also in the eyes of men.” (2 Corinthians 8:20-21)

Here in Romans 12, Paul is challenging the believer to think beforehand what is the right way to live, while at the same time, living in a culture that no longer knows what is right.

In our culture, there is no applause for moral goodness.  In fact, we’re now condemning moral purity and applauding moral depravity. 

Where last year in our city, middle school and high-school students were encouraged to spend a day in silence, in honor of those who’ve chosen a homosexual lifestyle.

We live in a state where gambling via the lottery is now acceptable and considered a virtue which save our educational woes.

We live in a country where sexual acts before marriage and outside of marriage can be considered “safe.”

What’s right?  What’s wrong? 

You happen to live in a country now that no longer believes the moral goodness of God’s commandments.

In one study, only 40% of people interviewed, over a broad cross-section of the country involving thousands of people, only 40% of the people even believed 5 of the commandments.

James Montgomery Boice, Romans: Volume 4 (Baker Books, 1995), p. 1613

Long before the 10 commandments were begin rejected from our courtrooms, they had been rejected by our culture.

You’d better get out of bed in the morning as a believer and spend some time thinking ahead of time . . . what’s right.

By the way, when Paul says, “do what’s right in the sight of all men,” he doesn’t mean do what all men say is right.  He means “do what is right in the sight of all men.”

No matter who’s looking . . . do what’s right!

You need to understand that the Grace factor involves “not only being spiritual, it means being ethical.”

Roy. L. Laurin, Romans: Where Life Begins (Kregel, 1988), p. 431

Don’t fool yourself.  A truly spiritual Christian is an ethical Christian. 

If you’re a Christian, and you want to grow in Christ, accept no personal justification for cheating on an exam, or pulling a term paper off the internet.  Make no allowances for fudging on a business expense form, or on your taxes.

Do what’s right – in the sight of all men.  That’s another way of Paul reminding us . . . “do what’s right . . . people are watching.”

Don’t get even.

Do what’s right.

Number 3: Display a desire for peace  Paul writes in verse 18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”

I love the realism of the Apostle Paul.

“Be at peace with all men.”

But then Paul gives two real-life conditions:

  1. If it’s possible.  Why write that? Because it isn’t always possible.  I happen to know that every time I preach, I may make brand new enemies.  In fact, I may have less peace with you now than I did 15 minutes ago. 

Jesus Christ said that His truth would not bring peace all the time, but a sword.  It would not create unity among everyone, in fact, it would bring division to many.

In nearly every city the Apostle Paul went to, he created a riot.

It might not be possible!

  1. The second condition Paul adds are the words, “so far as it depends on you.”

Why write that?  Because it doesn’t always depend on you! 

It might be an ornery neighbor, or a stubborn relative, or an unreasonable co-worker.

A peaceful relationship is a two way street.  Paul is simply telling us to make sure that our side of the street is open.

That we’re not the ones holding out with a grudge or bitterness or refusal to forgive.

John MacArthur, Romans: Volume Two, (Moody Press, 1994), p. 202

Paul is saying, “If it’s possible, and if the ball is in your court, don’t hold back . . . offer peace!”

This is hard isn’t it . . . because it’s easy to hang on to hurt.  To put the snake in your pocket . . .one author put it this way, “to put it in a pot on the stove so you can check on it every once in a while . . . so you can periodically stir it back up.”

You only end up being the loser.

I read about one married couple who were having a quarrel and ended up giving each other the silent treatment.  A week into their mute argument, the man realized he needed his wife’s help. In order to catch a flight to Atlanta for a business meeting, he had to get up at 5:00 am.  Not wanting to be the first to restore peace and break the silence, he wrote his wife a note and handed it to her.  It said, “Please wake me up at 5:00 am.”  The next morning the man woke up only to discover his wife was already out of bed, it was 7:30 in the morning, and his flight had long since departed.  He was about to find his wife and demand an explanation when he noticed a piece of paper by his pillow which read, “It’s 5:00 a.m. . . . wake up.”

Don’t get even.

Do what’s right.

Don’t wait to offer peace.

Here’s the fourth thing: Don’t forget future prophecy

Paul writes in verse 19.  Never take your own revenge beloved, (sound familiar . . . now look), but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.

The judgment of God is coming on all unbelievers.

The Apostle Paul has already taught us that the wrath of God is being stored up – literally stockpiling, sin upon sin. 

God could judge man immediately . . . but, as Paul has already written in Romans 2:4, God is forbearing.  That word forbearance means “to hold back”  “to delay”.

One of the gifts of grace toward unbelieving mankind is that God doesn’t strike him dead at the first word of blasphemy.

But mankind has made the mistaken calculation that because judgment hasn’t come, judgment never will.

Peter wrote, “Mockers come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Peter 3:3,4)

Even today, the unbeliever says, “Surely God would never judge the world; surely God would never send anybody to hell; I can’t imagine God doing all those things you say the Bible says He’s gonna do one day.”

In his arrogance, mankind believes they are wiser than God, that they know better than God.  That’s why Paul says the unbelieving world “looks down on the forbearance of God.”

What’s that have to do with Romans 12:19?  Everything, according to Paul!  He evidently thought the connection was significant between treating enemies with grace with the fact that God’s grace will one day end.

Paul writes in verse 19, “don’t take revenge . . . leave room for God to deliver judgment. 

The prophecy will be fulfilled . . . God will repay.  That word translated “repay” is startling.  It means to personally and accurately pay back.
William R. Newell, Romans (Moody Press, 1938), p. 476

By the way, with God, His vengeance is not a personal vendetta – it is a judicial verdict.  He will carefully and accurately judge the world.

There will be the judgment of the believers – at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5), not to see if the believer is going to heaven, but to reward the believer wherever he lived in the light of heaven.

There will be an entirely different judgment of the unbelievers at the Great White throne judgment (Revelation 20).  And the books of their deeds will be opened; not to see if they are going to be cast into hell, but to understand why.

And every mouth, at that awful judgment will be closed.

No excuses . . . no alibi’s . . . no defense . . . not even a prayer.

Paul says here . . . they will one day be judged and condemned to an eternal hell, and in light of that awful prophecy, don’t even try to make them pay for what they do to you . . . one day they will pay in a way you could never even imagine. 

If anything, this should provoke an attitude, not of revenge, but pity.

No wonder Paul moves to the 5th demonstration of grace:

Demonstrate specific acts of pity

20.  But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.

Well, that sounds more like it.  We’re gonna be able to enact a little revenge . . . heap burning coals of fire on his head.

But wait, this wouldn’t make sense . . . if you feed him and give him water to drink . . . how does that heap burning coals upon his head.

The first two actions are obviously understood – food and water for your enemies.  The third phrase is more difficult to understand because we don’t carry coals of fire on our heads.

But they did.

In fact, even a generation or two ago knew the value of hot coals.  You never let your fire go out in days gone by, unless you wanted to work extra hard at starting a new fire and then working it until you had a hot bed of coals you could easily regulate in a stove to cook with.

In Bible times, it was even more important without ready matches in the cupboard.

If an individual didn’t keep his hearth fire going all the time, he couldn’t cook or keep warm.  He would be in a desperate situation.  He’d have to go to a neighbor for some live coals from his fire.  His neighbor would put some in a container, and in typical fashion, the man would balance it on his head and carry those coals back to his home. 

Now neighbors didn’t necessarily live right next door.  If the kind neighbor wasn’t feeling to friendly, he might give him a few coals.  Paul refers here to heaping coals of fire on his head  . . . in other words, giving him a large pile that would ensure if the man had to travel any distance at all, he would be more likely to get home with the coals still burning.

So Paul is saying, if you feed your enemy and give him water to drink – you will be like an kind neighbor who gives his desperate friend heaping coals of fire so he can cook for himself and keep himself warm.

Adapted from Woodrow Kroll, Romans: Righteousness in Christ (AMG Publishers, 2002), p. 204

Don’t miss this.  Paul is saying, in effect, Have pity on your enemy who will one day stand before God and be condemned.  You are giving food to one who will one day be hungry; you are giving water to one who will thirst and never be able to drink again.  You are showing grace to someone who will one day see the day of grace end forever.

The final act of grace in a graceless world:

#5.  Depend daily upon God’s power  

Paul writes in verse 21.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

These imperatives could be translated, “Do not let the evil gain one victory after another over you, but in one battle after another gain a victory over the evil.”
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Augsburg, 1936), p. 782

It’s one battle at a time.

Overcoming is one victory at a time.

The word, “overcome” is the Greek word gives us our transliterated word Nike – it means to carry off in victory.

To us, that word has become synonymous with sports.

Paul says it is synonymous with grace.

This is how you win in life!   Initiating an injury to your enemy causes you to lose; getting revenge for what your enemy did to you causes you to tie; giving your enemy grace means you win.

You will need this grace to refuse the urge to feud - to live in Tug Valley . . . . where a grudge lasted a generation.  Where everybody lost.

If you can believe it, 125 years after that pig went missing in Kentucky, the descendants of the Hatfields and the McCoys called for an official peace treaty to be signed.  They were frankly tired of being a byword for feuding and fighting.

Although the treaty was largely symbolic, the governor of Kentucky and the governor of West  Virginia were there when the families met and the treaty was signed.

Listen to the words in this treaty signed by the Hatfields and McCoys on June 14, 2003, “We do hereby and formally declare an official end to all hostilities, implied, inferred, and real between the families, now and forevermore.  We ask by God’s grace and love . . . ”

I found it interesting to read, tucked inside that peace treaty, a reference to the grace of God.

Well said, too.  The grace of God was the answer.  And the feud ended on that note.

If you never want to pitch your tent in Tug Valley, you not only need to receive the grace of God, but dispense it, freely and repeatedly.


Don’t get even.

Do what’s right.

Don’t avoid peace.

Don’t forget the future

Demonstrate acts of pity

Daily rely upon God . . . one victory at a time

These 6 things will keep you from ever joining up with the old Hatfields and the McCoys.

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