Most people know that what they do matters. People take actions very seriously.
But what most people don't consider is that what we think matters too.
We care about our and others' actions because we have seen and felt the consequences of them. When someone says something nice it brightens our day. When someone sends us a harsh email it hurts our feelings. When someone spills his or her drink on us it causes us inconvenience. When we take a stroll on the beach it calms our anxieties.
But we don't tend to care, in the same way, about what we think. It is often perceived that if we think a thought, even if it is really bad, but don't act on it, then somehow that is OK. But that simply isn't the case. What we think, and even the ideas we expose ourselves to, matters. As one well-known scholar once wrote: "Ideas have consequences."
Take for instance the morbid difference between killing and committing murder. You can kill without intent to do so, but this is not the case with murder. Everyone commonly acknowledges that there is a big difference between accidentally hitting an animal on the road verses putting the gas pedal to the floor and steering toward it.
In ancient societies (and some modern) people acknowledged this difference of intention but usually, as it often concerned the law, justice required a response in action. An "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" was seen as a way by which retributive justice could be had by those who were harmed. Hurting the person who had harmed you was a way of controlled retaliation and a perceived method of avoiding further conflict escalation.
The problem with this kind of mentality is that it doesn't take into consideration what the act of retaliation does to the psyche of a person. It doesn't begin to accommodate for the possibility that thinking about evil does damage to the very person originally harmed. So, while it might have been perceived that justice was being had in retaliatory action, what was actually happening was that the person who had had injustice done against them was now mentally exposing himself or herself to more evil by harming another person. So not only was the victim originally inflicted with unjust harm but they were then also inflicted with the spiritual cancer of ultimately committing evil themselves.
The fact is that violence only begets violence (even if postponed) and the only way not to perpetuate the cycle is simply not to retaliate. What people fail to realize is that forgiveness isn't just about making things right for the person who hurt you. Forgiveness is the only way by which we prevent further damage being done to ourselves when we have been harmed. This does not mean that we should passively permit people to hurt us. People must face the consequences of their wrongful actions. But it does have implications as to our right response when harm beyond our control is done to us.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that not only are we not to commit ill action against one another but that we aren't even to think about it. This is because God loves us enough not to want us to continue to be harmed.
So the next time that someone says or does something that hurts you, don't passively permit it, actively do justice and forgive them. End the cycle and be blessed by your thoughtful action.
The Rev. Christopher Benek is the associate pastor of family ministries at Providence Presbyterian Church. Read his blog at www.christopherbenek.com.