I’m watching the sad downhill slide of a person my family has known for a long time. Infected by continuous bad choices and ragefully unforgiving towards everyone they believe have wronged them, they are now being medically referred to psychiatric care because they have become crippled from a living-life perspective.
The very sad situation reminds me of a line in a now mostly-forgotten movie, The Last of the Mohicans, where Hawkeye says of his enemy Magua: “His heart is so twisted by hate he has become like that which twisted him.”
In short, our friend has reached the troubling state of being overwhelmingly conquered by evil.
That doesn’t mean what you think it means
Because of the relentless spiritual war that is behind all our societal agonies and the inevitable us-vs-them mentality it produces in the minds of Christians, we so often interpret Paul’s statement at the end of Romans 12, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vs. 21), as a battle cry for us to beat back the surface-level evil in our culture like pornography, abortion, etc.
But that’s not what it means.
Instead, it’s more personal and pricklier, being directed at you and me so we address our mistreatment by others and hardships that fall on us the way God intends.
As always with biblical interpretation, the context of the passage governs its meaning. Look at the verses that immediately precede vs. 21: “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. ‘But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head’” (vv. 17-20).
We overcome evil with good when we decide not to let negative people or hardship-producing situations poison our souls with their sourness and instead respond in a godly way. With that understanding in mind, you tell me which is easier to do: march in an abortion protest or resist striking back at someone who has hurt you, going on to then treat them kindly?
Yep, no contest, right?
But here’s the thing: if you don’t submit yourself — tough as it can be sometimes — to the principle laid down in these few verses, sooner or later you’ll be overcome by evil and like Magua, be twisted into the very thing you hate.
Not evil but also not a punching bag
Commenting on overcoming evil with good, The Bible Knowledge Commentary references a hard-to-beat example of this tenet in action.
In 1 Samuel 24, we’re told that David had a golden opportunity to take the life of Saul, who had been trying to murder him for a long time. Even though he was goaded on by his men to kill Saul, David relented and didn’t allow evil to overcome him.
But the story doesn’t end there.
David uses his good as an opportunity to confront Saul about his evil actions and attempts reconciliation: “May the Lord judge between you and me, and may the Lord avenge me on you; but my hand shall not be against you. As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Out of the wicked comes forth wickedness’; but my hand shall not be against you … The Lord therefore be judge and decide between you and me; and may He see and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand” (1 Sam. 24:12-15).
This is an important point. Overcoming evil with good does not equate to being a punching bag for your enemies.
Turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), blessing when slandered (1 Cor. 4:12), and other biblical admonitions that involve adversarial encounters don’t mean we’re to “stand there and take it,” but rather we’re expected to respond in a godly way so that 1. we don’t let any root of bitterness or anger settle into our soul and, 2. we stand a chance at winning our opponent over at some point.
A great illustration of this is found in Acts 16 where Paul is roughly treated by the jailer of a prison into which he’d been thrown. Instead of getting angry at him (and God) for what took place, he ends up singing hymns that everyone including the jailer could hear and then, after being divinely released from his bonds, ends up converting the man who had abused him.
Martin Luther King always said that his method of dealing with those who opposed him was one of aggressively pursuing the problems not the people involved.
That’s good advice to follow especially if our goal is to “overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37) vs. instead being overwhelmingly conquered by evil.
Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.