There are verses in the Bible that I find myself drawn to over and over again. They are so packed with meaning and with depth that it almost staggers the imagination. Some verses become this fountain of wisdom that pours forth new understanding and refreshes the weary soul. One such verse for me is Romans 12:21 – “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This verse comes at the end of a series of short statements that begin in verse 9 of the same chapter. In fact, Romans 12:9-21 is my personal “go to” passage when I am needing something to succinctly remind me what it means to live as a Christian, and what I ought to be striving for in my life and in my relationships. Each sentence in the entire passage is packed with meaning, and could serve individually for the basis for sermons and entire books. The culminating verse is the same: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
On the surface, the meaning of the passage seems relatively straight forward and common sense: It means something like “don’t be evil, and instead be good.” That seems to be a relatively simple statement that most all humanity could agree with. On some level it seems most people have a moral code, and believe that it is better to be on the good side rather than the evil side. Even if their moral code is not informed by the Bible, most people still think it important to strive to be good. As people we have an innate sense of right and wrong, and we also have an innate sense that it is better to be good, and that evil is a wrong that needs to be corrected.
But that is not all that Romans 12:21 has to say about the nature of good and evil, that one is preferable over the other. It is also dealing with “overcoming evil.” It is a sad fact of reality that this world is filled with injustice, suffering, and evil. And the question for any person living is how best to respond to the evils we see around us, overcome them, and (hopefully) set things right. It is not only the Christian who wishes to see a more just and moral world freed from evil and sin. As stated before, most people (if not all, even those who deny it) have an innate sense of right and wrong. When we are wronged by someone, cheated, lied to, hurt—we experience an evil that we desire to see set right, restored to something good.
When we experience evil, it seems that our immediate thought to setting things right is to return in kind. If someone insults me, then I feel justified insulting them back. If someone hits me, it seems only natural to hit them back. If someone does something that I perceive to be even worse, then the response needs to be just as bad if not worse (to teach them a lesson). It’s a sort of perversion of the command in the Mosaic Law “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24). Jesus addresses this perversion of justice in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5:38-42). What makes it a perversion is that the Mosaic Law was prescribing a limit to justified recompense for wrong. If someone takes an eye, the payment to make restitution needs to be an eye (or the equivalent of an eye) and no more. The original law was not meant to be a justification for revenge. So Jesus says, when you are slapped, don’t slap back, but “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39).
Much of Romans 12 deals with this element of human relationships, the desire for revenge or to get even. Paul says “bless those who persecute you, and do not curse,” and “repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:14,17). A Christian’s response to evil cannot be one of “getting even,” but we are called to a higher path. Jesus said we are to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … [being perfect], as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:44,48). God’s example is to love humanity despite humanity rejecting Him, and sinning against him. God chose to return our evil with love.
And this brings me to the final part of analyzing Romans 12:21, because the verse does not say: “Do not overcome evil with evil, but overcome evil with good.” It says “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” When we react to the evil done against us by trying to take “justice” into our own hands, we aren’t really overcoming evil at all. We might feel good about it in the short term, insulting someone who insulted us, but did we actually do anything about the evil in the world? In such an instance we only became evil ourselves. We duplicated the evil in the world. Not only the evil done to us, but we perpetuated evil and spread it around. In that sense, if we respond in kind to evil, we are not actually doing anything about evil. In such a scenario, we have become “overcome by evil” ourselves.
So, brethren, let us hear the words of the Apostle Paul. Let us not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. It is the only path for the Christian.