It’s not fashionable to suggest that at least some of the problems of our world are down to the evil that comes from within us, but the Bible insists that there is a mucky well of evil inside each of us.
Yesterday morning we listened to the challenge of Romans 12:21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
There is a great tendency in the human heart to use the evil that is done to us to legitimise the evil that we do, but when I snap back at the rudeness of another, I am overcome by evil. When I angrily gossip the hurtful sin of another, I am overcome by evil. When I allow my woundedness to express itself in anger or resentment, I am overcome by evil. When I allow the wrong done to me by others to legitimise my character flaws, I am overcome by evil. When I allow the sin of others to cause me to distrust and hurt others by pushing them away, I am overcome by evil. To these behaviours, and to others, God says “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
In the later verses of Romans 12, there are, outlined for those who would be Jesus’ followers, a number of areas in which we will be particularly tempted to be overcome by evil rather than overcoming evil with good. Here are a few notes on them:
- We are urged to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” V14 We might be faced by a temptation to despise and to hate. For many of us it will be internal and not expressed in physical violence but we will be tempted to cherish resentment and hurt.
- We are told “Repay no one evil for evil” v17 There is a great temptation to get your own back, and to seek revenge. For many of us the tools of revenge are quite sophisticated. We are tempted to use gossip, spite, or attempts to hurt emotionally.
- Paul continues; “but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.” v17 When we confront evil, we should never be tempted to use evil to overcome. Instead we have to do what is right if we desire to honour Jesus. When we are wounded, we need to be especially careful because we can be tempted to justify actions that we would clearly recognise as morally dubious at other times.
- “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” v18 One of the temptations we may face, is the temptation to schism. When we loose the sense of the importance to God of unity, we are entering spiritually perilous territory.
- “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'” v19 When, on the receiving end of another’s sin, we are tempted to be overcome by evil, there is a parallel temptation to rely on our own capacity to seek justice and in so doing to implicitly distrust that God will ultimately see that justice is done. We need to trust that there is a day coming when all that is wrong will be made right.
So how do you overcome evil with good? Romans 12 quotes the Old Testament book of Proverbs and says: “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” v20 cf. Prov 25:21 I’ve always found this a bit of a paradoxical verse. Pouring burning coals on another’s head is not a very loving act, however kind the means employed to do so! I think the point is that evil is overcome when it is responded to with unexpected love. Instead of indulging in vengeful and hateful acts God’s people are to overcome evil by showing practical acts of love and kindness to their enemies.
Are there areas where we have been overcome by evil, and where we need to seek God’s forgiveness and help to be people who overcome evil with good?
(All scripture quotations from the ESV)