by Robert Jacobs
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12:21
Infants love music. For those of you who have already made your way through the adventure of parenting, this is not news to you. But for me, this discovery was on par with Alexander Fleming’s invention of penicillin or Galileo’s detection of the sun as the center of our solar system.
Whenever my five-week-old daughter can’t seem to calm down, I pop in a CD that my Mother gave me at one of our baby showers (She clearly already understood the connection between babies and song). The album, a project first published in 1991, sets memory verses to music, both calming my inconsolable child and encouraging her with the truth of scripture. As I rocked her and listen to the songs last Saturday, one of the verses—Romans 12:21—caught my attention. This verse was not new to me, but for some reason, I saw it in a new light.
Paul’s charge to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” comes as a cap on a section of his letter that addresses what Christ-centered love should look like when placed into action. The teaching seems simple enough. But as anyone familiar with the rhetoric of Paul will know, nothing is as simple as it first appears. To dig a little bit deeper into his meaning, I first asked myself, “If Paul goes out of his way to teach us to overcome evil with good, then what other forces are we trying to use to overcome evil?” After all, if the church was naturally overcoming evil with good, then he probably wouldn’t have used precious space in his letter to provide such an exhortation.
I came up with two answers to this question based on both scripture and my study of the human condition. The first answer comes only a few verses before the one in question. In verse 17, Paul cautions his reader to not “repay…evil for evil.” Unfortunately, we seem to prefer this self-destructive reaction to evil predicated upon us, to sin against those who sin against us or, in the famous words of Shakespeare’s King Leer, to lash out because we are “more sinned against than sinning.” The problem with this reaction is that it creates a cycle of evil, with each party repaying ill for ill until they are completely alienated from one another or dead.
The second way we attempt to overcome evil is a bit more complicated. Often times evil is not predicated upon us, but we are instead “dragged away by [our] own evil desire and enticed” (James 1:14). When we see this evil rear its ugly head in our lives, we attempt to combat it through behavior modification. In other words, we seek to overcome evil by ending our participation in evil actions. While this sounds like a perfectly logical and noble choice, it does not reflect the admonition of Paul in Romans 12:21. Although I am not advocating that we should engage in sinful behavior, I do think that we must realize that if right actions were the solution to evil, then 1) Paul would have said so and 2) Christ’s sacrifice would have been meaningless because we could simply overcome evil through our own efforts.
So, if we cannot overcome evil through “good” behavior, what does Paul mean when he says that we must “overcome evil with good?”
In his gospel, Mark recounts a moment when “a man ran up to” Jesus and asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” To which Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good. No one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:17-18). In this short exchange—which actually goes on for several more verses—we find the answer to our question. The good that can overcome evil is God himself, and by logical extension Jesus, who uses this interaction to assert His divinity.
You see, if we try to overcome sin with sin, all we get is more sin. (How many times have we foolishly reasoned that we have already messed up a little, so we might as well go all the way.) If we try to overcome evil with right actions or behavior modification, we may beat back the darkness for the time, but we cannot truly overcome it. The only way to truly defeat evil is by turning our gaze toward the true Good, toward God and His Son. When we do, we submit ourselves to the transforming power of the gospel through which the affections of our hearts are reordered. The evil that once took first place amongst our loves suddenly becomes less important, eventually becoming completely overshadowed by our love for God.
How do you combat evil? Do you turn to more evil as a reaction to it? Do you vainly attempt to supplant it through good behavior? In both situations, you will find yourself frustrated and more fully immersed in evil then you were at the start. Turn your heart toward God. Contemplate the costly sacrifice of Christ that was so lovingly made for you while you were still His enemy. Let the priorities and loves of your life be transformed through the blood of the lamb.