Overcome Evil with Good
OVERCOME EVIL WITH GOOD
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Peacemaking does not always go as easily as we would like it to. Although some people will readily make peace, others will be stubborn and defensive and resist our efforts to be reconciled. Sometimes they will become even more antagonistic and find new ways to frustrate or mistreat us. Our natural reaction is to strike back at such people, or at least to stop doing anything good to them. As we have seen throughout this book, however, Jesus calls us to take a remarkably different course of action: “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.… Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27–28, 35–36).
From a worldly perspective, this approach seems naive and appears to concede defeat, but the apostle Paul knew better. He had learned that God’s ways are not the world’s ways. He also understood the profound power we have through Christ. When he was subjected to intense and repeated personal attacks, he described his response with these words: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3–5).
Paul realized that a true peacemaker is guided, motivated, and empowered by his or her identity in Christ. This identity is based on faith in the most amazing promise we could ever hear: God has forgiven all our sins and made peace with us through the death and resurrection of his Son. And he has given us the freedom and power to turn from sin (and conflict), to be conformed to the likeness of Christ, and to be his ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16–20). It is the realization of who we are in Christ that inspires us to do the unnatural work of dying to self, confessing sin, addressing others’ wrongs graciously, laying down rights, and forgiving deep hurts—even with people who persist in opposing or mistreating us.
Paul also understood that God has given us divine weapons to use in our quest for peace. These weapons include Scripture, prayer, truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Eph. 6:10–18; Gal. 5:22–23). To many people, these resources and qualities seem feeble and useless when dealing with “real” problems. Yet these are the very weapons Jesus used to defeat Satan and to conquer the world (e.g., Matt. 4:1–11; 11:28–30; John 14:15–17). Since Jesus chose to use these weapons instead of resorting to worldly weapons, we should do the same.
Romans 12:14–21 describes how we should behave as we wield these spiritual weapons, especially when dealing with people who oppose or mistreat us:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 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.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
This passage shows that Paul understood the classic military principle that the best defense is an effective offense. He did not encourage a passive response to evil. Instead, he taught that we should go on the offensive—not to beat down or destroy our opponents, but to win them over, to help them see the truth, and to bring them into a right relationship with God. As this passage indicates, there are five basic principles that contribute to a victorious offensive. We have already referred to most of these principles in previous chapters, but now we will look at them again to see how we can use them with people who have persistently resisted our efforts to make peace.1
Control Your Tongue
The more intense a dispute becomes, the more important it is to control your tongue (Rom. 12:14). When you are involved in prolonged conflict, you may be sorely tempted to indulge in gossip, slander, and reckless words, especially if your opponent is saying critical things about you. But if you react with harsh words or gossip, you will only make matters worse. Even if your opponent speaks maliciously against you or to you, do not respond in kind. Instead, make every effort to breathe grace by saying only what is both true and helpful, speaking well of your opponent whenever possible, and using kind and gracious language. As Peter wrote, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9; cf. 1 Cor. 4:12–13).
In addition to preventing further offenses, controlling your tongue can help you to maintain a loving attitude and an accurate perspective of your situation (see chapters 4 and 8). As a result, you are likely to think and behave more wisely and constructively than you would if you indulged in all kinds of critical talk. Instead of undermining further progress, you will be prepared to take advantage of new opportunities for dialogue and negotiation.
Seek Godly Advisors
As Paul says, it is difficult to battle evil alone (Rom. 12:15–16). This is why it is important to develop relationships with people who will encourage you and give you biblically sound advice. These friends should also be willing to correct and admonish you when they see that you are in the wrong (Prov. 27:5–6).
Godly advisors are especially helpful when you are involved in a difficult conflict and are not seeing the results you desire. If a lack of noticeable progress causes you to doubt the biblical principles you are following, you may be tempted to abandon God’s ways and resort to the world’s tactics. One of the best ways to avoid straying from the Lord is to surround yourself with wise and spiritually mature people who will encourage you to stay on a biblical course, even when the going is tough.
Keep Doing What Is Right
Romans 12:17 emphasizes the importance of continuing to do what is right even when it seems that your opponent will never cooperate. When Paul says, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody,” he does not mean that we should be slaves to the opinions of others. The Greek word that is translated “be careful” (pronoeo) means to give thought to the future, to plan in advance, or to take careful precaution (cf. 2 Cor. 8:20–21). Therefore, what Paul is saying is that you should plan and act so carefully and so properly that any reasonable person who is watching you will eventually acknowledge that what you did was right. Peter taught the same principle when he wrote:
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.… For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.… But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
1 Peter 2:12, 15; 3:15b–16
This principle is dramatically illustrated in 1 Samuel 24:1–22. When King Saul was pursuing David relentlessly through the desert, intending to murder him, Saul carelessly entered a cave where David and his men were hiding deep inside. David’s men urged him to kill the king, but David refused, saying, “I will not lift my hand against my master, because he is the LORD’s anointed” (v. 10b). After Saul left the cave and walked away, David emerged and called after him. When Saul realized that David could have killed him, he was deeply convicted of his sin and said:
You are more righteous than I.… You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly. You have just now told me of the good you did to me; the LORD delivered me into your hands, but you did not kill me. When a man finds his enemy, does he let him get away unharmed? May the LORD reward you well for the way you treated me today. I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands.
Years later Saul’s prediction came true, and David ascended the throne of Israel. David’s determination to obey God and to keep doing what was right helped him avoid saying and doing things he would have later regretted. As a result, all of his enemies were eventually won over or defeated. Thousands of years later people are still taking note of David’s righteousness.
I have seen many others who resolved to keep doing what was right even in terribly painful situations. When John’s wife, Karen, divorced him and moved in with her high school sweetheart, John was devastated, especially when his church refused to do anything to try to save their marriage. But he drew on God’s grace and resisted the temptation to give in to self-pity or bitterness. He refused to criticize Karen, especially in front of their children. He bent over backwards to accommodate their ever-changing visitation schedule. Most of all, he continued to pray for Karen, and whenever they talked with each other, he asked God to help him speak to her with genuine love and gentleness.
After about a year, Karen and her boyfriend were fighting continually. As she compared his behavior to John’s unfailing kindness in the face of her betrayal, she began to realize what a terrible mistake she had made. With great trepidation she asked John if there was any chance they could get together again. To her amazement, he said yes and suggested that they start counseling with the pastor at his new church. Eight months later, their children had the joy of seeing their parents renewing their vows and reuniting their family.
Whether Karen came back to him or not, John’s decision to keep doing what was right honored God. His behavior was also a powerful witness to his children about the love and forgiveness of Christ. And he later learned that his example had helped some other divorced people respond to their ex-spouses graciously, even though none of them came back. As John showed, doing what is right—even in the face of unjust treatment—is always the safest path to walk.
Recognize Your Limits
When dealing with difficult people, it is also important to recognize your limits. Even when you continue to do what is right, some people may adamantly refuse to admit you are right or to live at peace with you. This is why Paul wrote, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). In other words, do all you can to be reconciled to others, but remember that you cannot force others to do what is right. If you have done everything within your power to resolve a conflict, you have fulfilled your responsibility to God and may stop actively trying to solve the problem. If circumstances change and you have new opportunities to seek peace with an opponent, you should certainly try to do so. In the meantime, however, it is not necessary or wise to waste time, energy, and resources fretting about someone who stubbornly refuses to be reconciled.
It is easier to accept your limits if you have a biblical view of success. The world defines success in terms of what a person possesses, controls, or accomplishes. God defines success in terms of faithful obedience to his will. The world asks, “What results have you achieved?” God asks, “Were you faithful to my ways?” As we saw in chapter 3, the Lord controls the ultimate outcome of all you do. Therefore, he knows that even your best efforts will not always accomplish the results you desire. This is why he does not hold you accountable for specific results. Instead, he asks for only one thing—obedience to his revealed will. “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccles. 12:13b). If you have done all that you can to be reconciled to someone, you have fulfilled your duty and are a success in God’s eyes. Let him take it from there.
An essential aspect of recognizing your limits is rejecting the temptation to take personal revenge on someone who is doing wrong (or even dream about it). Paul reminds us that God is responsible for doing justice and for punishing those who do not repent (Rom. 12:19). Proverbs 20:22 commands, “Do not say, ‘I’ll pay you back for this wrong!’ Wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you” (cf. 24:29). God has many instruments that he can use to bring evil people to justice and deliver you from them. Among other things, he can use the church (Matt. 18:17–20), the civil courts (Rom. 13:1–5), or even Satan (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20) to deal with unrepentant people.
Instead of taking justice into your own hands, respect and cooperate with God’s methods for dealing with people who persist in doing wrong. Sometimes this may involve church discipline, and in other cases it may be appropriate for you to pursue litigation (see appendix D). In some cases, however, all you are to do is wait for God to deal with people in his own way (see Psalms 37 and 73). Although his results may come more slowly than you desire, they will always be better than anything you could bring about on your own.
Use the Ultimate Weapon
The final principle for responding to a stubborn opponent is described in Romans 12:20–21: “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.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Here is the ultimate weapon: deliberate, focused love (cf. Luke 6:27–28; 1 Cor. 13:4–7). Instead of reacting spitefully to those who mistreat you, Jesus wants you to discern their deepest needs and do all you can to meet those needs. Sometimes this will require going to them to show them their faults. At other times there may be a need for mercy and compassion, patience, and words of encouragement. You may even have opportunities to provide material and financial assistance to those who least deserve it or expect it from you.
Paul’s reference to “burning coals on his head” indicates the irresistible power of deliberate, focused love. Ancient armies often used burning coals to fend off attackers (Ps. 120:4). No soldier could resist this weapon for long; it would eventually overcome even the most determined attacker. Love has the same irresistible power. At the very least, actively loving an enemy will protect you from being spiritually defeated by anger, bitterness, and thirst for revenge. And, in some cases, your active and determined love for your opponent may be used by God to bring that person to repentance.2
This powerful love is vividly described in Ernest Gordon’s marvelous book, To End All Wars (formerly titled Through the Valley of the Kwai). Gordon was captured by the Japanese during World War II and forced, with other British prisoners, to endure years of horrible treatment while building the notorious “Railroad of Death” through Thailand. Faced with the starvation and disease of the prison camps and the brutality of his captors, who killed hundreds of his comrades, Gordon survived to become an inspiring example of the triumph of Christian love against human evil.
This love shone especially bright one day when Gordon and his fellow prisoners came upon a trainload of wounded Japanese soldiers who were being transported to Bangkok. Here is how Gordon describes God’s work of grace:
They were on their own and without medical care.… Their uniforms were encrusted with mud, blood, and excrement. Their wounds, sorely inflamed and full of pus, crawled with maggots. We could understand now why the Japanese were so cruel to their prisoners. If they didn’t care for their own, why should they care for us?
The wounded men looked at us forlornly as they sat with their heads resting against the carriages waiting fatalistically for death. They were the refuse of war; there was nowhere to go and no one to care for them.…
Without a word, most of the officers in my section unbuckled their packs, took out part of their ration and a rag or two, and, with water canteens in their hands went over to the Japanese train to help them. Our guards tried to prevent us … but we ignored them and knelt by the side of the enemy to give them food and water, to clean and bind up their wounds, to smile and say a kind word. Grateful cries of “Aragatto!” (“Thank you!”) followed us when we left.…
I regarded my comrades with wonder. Eighteen months ago they would have joined readily in the destruction of our captors had they fallen into their hands. Now these same men were dressing the enemy’s wounds. We had experienced a moment of grace, there in those blood-stained railway cars. God had broken through the barriers of our prejudice and had given us the will to obey his command, “Thou shalt love.”3
Most of us will never be subjected to this kind of abuse or have to reach across so great a chasm to love those who have wronged us. Therefore we need to keep stories like Ernest Gordon’s and Corrie ten Boom’s in mind when we are challenged with loving an enemy. The same principles apply no matter how great or small the conflict. As we love our enemies and seek to meet their needs, we can glorify God and protect our souls from the acid of bitterness and resentment, just as Gordon and his comrades did. And in some cases, God may use our loving acts to soften the hearts of our opponents.
I am blessed to have a wife who has loved me like this time after time. One night we had such a strong disagreement that we went to bed unreconciled. (Yes, we broke the command not to let the sun go down on our anger.) As we lay there facing away from each other, a bizarre contest developed. Without either one of us saying a word, we tacitly agreed that “he who moves first is weak.” I was not going to budge an inch until Corlette moved. She was just as determined not to move until I did. So we lay there like two frozen bodies.
I was soon more frozen than I wanted to be. I had been so distracted when I crawled into bed that I had not pulled the covers over me. It was wintertime, and we usually slept with our bedroom window open, so the room was soon very cold, as was I. But I was so caught up in my stubborn pride that I refused to move and pull up the covers.
After a few minutes, I began to tremble from the cold. Corlette felt it through the mattress and slowly turned her head (so I could not tell she was moving!) to see what was going on. She understood my predicament in a moment: Her silly, stubborn husband had backed himself into a corner and needed help to get out. Giving up her desire to win the ridiculous contest of wills, Corlette made the first move. She reached down, took hold of the blankets at my feet, and pulled them gently over my shoulders.
In a few moments I was trembling even more, but not from the cold. Her loving gesture was so entirely undeserved that it melted my heart. My anger and pride dissolved, and I finally saw how much I had sinned against her. With tears of regret, I turned to Corlette and experienced the joy and freedom that comes from making peace.
There is such wisdom and power in these simple words: “ ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing so you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Summary and Application
The principles described in Romans 12:14–21 are applicable at every stage of a conflict, and they are echoed throughout the Bible—“Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” “Overlook an offense.” “If someone is caught in a sin, restore him gently.” “Speak the truth in love.” “Look out for the interests of others.” “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Applying these principles can be difficult, but it is always worth the effort, because God delights to work in and through us as we serve him as peacemakers. As Paul promises: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).