“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
It’s been said the longest distance for humanity to travel is the 18 inches from the head to the heart.
In the 12th chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Paul has been tying together the head and the heart – that is, what we think and what we do – as he encouraged the Church to no longer conform to the patterns of the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, so that they might actively live as people loved and redeemed by God’s grace, truth and love.
Up until now, St. Paul has addressed the relationships between believers as the body of Christ, those with a shared “sacred ID” through their baptism into Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
Now, in the last third of chapter 12, Paul turns his attention outward and addresses the question: How should Christians relate to the outside world, those who do not share the same “sacred ID” as fellow members of the body of Christ?
As a pericope, Romans 12:17-21 can be viewed as a brief treatise on the challenge and profound benefits of non-retaliation toward enemies.
In verses 17-19, Paul exhorts Christians to restrain themselves and to avoid responding in kind to those who mistreat them. Instead of “repaying evil for evil” (vs. 17), Christians are exhorted to live at peace with everyone around them. Knowing this is not an easy exhortation to put into practice, and not always possible, Paul adds an important caveat: “as far as it depends on you” (vs. 18).
A peaceful, harmonious disposition toward the outside world is not always received as hoped and can be met by aggressive, destructive forces towards Christians. In a plain reading of this passage, one does not get a sense St. Paul is suggesting the body of Christ is diminished or compromised in any way. Rather, the focus seems to be squarely on living careful lives of non-provocation toward others. God is honored as the Christian refrains from seeking revenge.
“Do not take revenge, my friends,” says St. Paul, “but leave room for God’s wrath” (vs. 19). God’s promise to His people to serve as the agent of revenge and repayment is a comfort for those who have been treated despicably by others. Surely, if the God of all creation promises to make things right on my behalf, I am free to let go of the desire to settle accounts through my own volition.
Verse 20 functions as a counter-balance to St. Paul’s exhortation in verses 17 through 19. While the previous verses suggest a restrained posture in the face of evil, verse 20 exhorts Christians to positively do good to those who mistreat them. If a Christian sees an enemy who is hungry or thirsty, St. Paul quotes the wisdom found in Proverbs 25:21-22 and suggests the best course of action is to feed them or give them something to drink. In doing so, the Christian not only puts the full impact of Christ’s love on display, but also “heaps burning coals” on the heads of the enemy.
Verse 21 ties everything together and brings chapter 12 to a powerful close. In this verse, St. Paul offers the ground of meaning for the train of thought in the proceeding verses. If members of the body of Christ succumb to retaliation, then evil conquers good and evil wins. However, if believers do positive good to those who mistreat them, then goodness has vanquished evil and love wins.
So, what does Paul mean when he refers to “good” and “evil?”
The Greek word kakos is defined as “bad” or “evil,” describing an inward state of being foul, rotten or poisoned. Figuratively, evil is an “inner malice flowing out of a morally rotten character.” The term draws to mind a piece of wood that has begun to rot from the inside out, or perhaps an apple with a flawless exterior and a rotten core. Evil is a destructive force set against that which is good.
What, then, is good? The Greek term here is agathos, depicting a character trait that is
intrinsically good “whether it is seen to be so or not.” According to HELPS Word Studies, agathos “describes what originates from God and (is) empowered by Him in (a believer’s) life, through faith.” This is an important and powerful image. God makes His people good through His own righteousness and empowers the life of the Christian by faith through His Holy Spirit.
As a people forgiven of our sins, and loved by God through His amazing grace, members
of the body of Christ are free to love others in their best interest, whether we think they
deserve it or not.
I believe there are two (2) primary challenges for Christians as we attempt to live into
the exhortations of St. Paul relating to our relationships with others in the face of evil.
The first challenge has to do with our prevailing cultural mindset regarding justice. To
the average modern mind, justice will not be served if the individual who has been wronged does not take matters into their own hands and actively pursue a revengeful act. We see this mindset at play in every corner of our culture from little league sports to the halls of the United States Congress. The prevailing theme seems to be, “two wrongs don’t make it right, but it sure makes it even.”
While this idea may make perfect sense to the natural mind, and in practice may even offer a temporary sense of satisfaction as a bully is bullied in return, it is antithetical to the thinking offered by St. Paul to the body of Christ on earth. The spiritual reality regarding a Christian’s relationship to good and evil is more along the lines of this notion: If God sees everything, no one is getting away with anything.
This line of thinking changes everything and reorients the behavioral patterns of the life of a Christian. As a follower of Jesus Christ, if I truly believe God sees everything and will administer His justice in good time, I am freed from the compulsion to take matters into my own hands and seek revenge against those who have wronged me. A change in my mindset connects my head with my heart as I let loose the desire to right all the perceived wrongs in my life. If God’s got it covered, I can let it go.
Again, we are comforted with the words of St. Paul as he quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy, “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” (Romans 12:19).
A second challenge to the idea of God’s retributive justice is the notion that the world is
neatly divided between “good people” and “bad people.” Surely, when the
prayers to protect the “good” from the “bad” are prayed, those praying in earnest for protection place themselves squarely in the category of the “good people.” The good people are in here; the bad people are out there.
This type of reductionistic thinking creates a problem for Christ-followers as it tends to place large swaths of human beings in the category of “beyond the pale” and thus renders people unworthy of God’s redeeming love. These are the “bad people” from whom the “good” ones need protection.
Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn suggests, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.”
While the natural mind may hold to the idea that “bad people” do not deserve good things, the spiritual reality is that God decides who is worthy of His love and compassion.
The antidote to this faulty natural thinking is to again recall St. Paul’s word to the Church in Rome, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The only pure person who has ever lived is Jesus Christ and it is he who defines and decides the fate of human beings.
In closing, I invite you to turn your mind and open your heart to the words of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?
Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:38-48).