In his letter to the Roman church, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
This is one of several verses in Romans 12 that challenges Christians to be sincere in their love and persistent in resisting their natural and often sinful or selfish inclinations. Likewise, Paul also exhorted his readers to:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse (Romans 12:14).
Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).
Do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly (Romans 12:16).
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone (Romans 12:17).
Never take your own revenge, but leave room for the wrath of God (Romans 12:19).
In many ways, this wisdom counters the natural human response to repay evil with more evil, take matters into our own hands, or elevate ourselves and our ideas of justice and retribution over God’s.
When someone wrongs us, our natural response is to want to push back and fight back. When someone hits us, we want to hit back even harder.
To be fair, no one who’s been wronged is eager to sit back and do nothing. No one who’s been hurt looks to withstand a barrage of punishment and abuse because they feel it’s wrong to speak up, stand up, or defend themselves.
No one who loves God and believes in the power of His goodness should ever be complacent or content to see evil triumph in the world. That’s not what Paul is arguing here.
Response: What It Means to Overcome Evil with Good
Paul doesn’t say that believers are called to be passive victims, constantly on the defensive or on the losing side of the battle between good and evil. A response to evil is warranted. In fact, it is essential for Christians who are called to actively challenge evil, sin, chaos, and darkness in the world.
As Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Christians are the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in this regard, and the presence of evil in the world is an affront to God and His plan for humanity, which is good, just, and full of life.
However, instead of responding to evil with the same kind of evil, which is what we see all around us, Paul challenges Christians to respond with good. More importantly, he insists that evil can only be overcome with good.
As the saying goes, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Likewise, overcoming past injustice with present injustice only propagates a cycle of, you guessed it, more injustice.
The best way, as Christians who’ve been redeemed, transformed, and made new (2 Corinthians 5:17) and who no longer follow “the pattern of the world” (Romans 12:2) is to overcome evil with good. It is not a passive approach to evil or a hands-off response to wrongdoing we are called to.
As Charles Spurgeon so eloquently argued in his 1876 sermon on the topic of overcoming evil with good, “You must either be overcome of evil, or you must yourself overcome evil; one of the two. You cannot let evil alone and evil will not let you alone. You must fight, and in the battle you must either conquer or be conquered.”
This is also not to say that Christians are called to wage war in the traditional, physical sense. Paul made this distinction very clear:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not wage battle according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying arguments and all arrogance raised against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:3-5).
We live in a broken, sinful world with broken, sinful people (Romans 3:23), and as Christians, we know will encounter persecution in life. We cannot change people’s behavior. However, Jesus promised his disciples, both present and future, that “in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, emphasis mine). Furthermore, Paul previously argued that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37, emphasis mine).
Overcoming Evil Through Jesus Christ
Christians have far more power and authority to overcome evil with good than they often realize. Jesus Christ, of course, is the perfect example.
When Jesus was on the cross, evil seemed to have won and had its way. However, through His death and resurrection, Jesus effectively conquered sin and death, overcoming what Satan intended for evil with God’s ultimate plan for good, breaking the power of sin and death.
As it is written, “But has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).
In Christ, we are offered salvation and given the opportunity to inherit the joys of eternal life and citizenship in heaven through His grace and forgiveness. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:56, emphasis mine).
Knowing this, Christians are not called to wither or be overcome by evil, no matter how powerful or pervasive it is. Rather, the message of the gospel and promise to Christ’s followers is that, in Christ, we are no longer victims but victorious, active agents of light in the world.
Because of Christ, we are no longer on the defensive. We now have the power and the authority to go on the offensive and push evil back. In this way, the truth of the gospel and authority of Jesus Christ chases away all darkness, another biblical metaphor for evil. As it is written, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Jesus Christ, of course, had said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). In Christ, we become children of light, called to shine this light into the world (Ephesians 5:8). By choosing, in the strength and authority of Jesus Christ, not to overcome evil with evil, but overcoming evil with good, we too break the cycle of sin and offer an alternative to vengeance, retribution, and evil.
Our Response Today
We present truth, goodness, and God’s justice over our own brokenness and twisted ideas. After all, nothing convicts and challenges a person more than someone who returns their wrongdoing with truth, mercy, love, and kindness instead of vengeance and more evil.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Thankfully, the love of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, is more powerful than all darkness in this world; and the goodness of God is the true weapon that overcomes any evil we may encounter.
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Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s author, artist, professor, and speaker who is passionate about helping young writers unleash their creativity and discover the wonders of their Creator through storytelling and art. In his blog, Perspectives off the Page, he discusses all things story and the creative process.