Overcome Evil with Good
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21
As we live our lives, day after day, year after year, it is inevitable that we encounter someone who does us harm in some way, or attempts to do us harm. They may harm us directly, or possibly indirectly by harming someone we love. The harm may not be physical harm but emotional harm from insults or demeaning words. It may be that they have stolen something from us or a loved one. Or maybe they have just attempted or threatened to harm us through some threatening actions or words. Whether the threat or harm is large or small, direct or indirect, physical or emotional, when it occurs, someone has become an enemy to us. What matters is how we respond to these enemies.
The Scripture verse quoted above from Romans 12:21 is about how we should respond to our enemies. It’s about how we should respond to the evil that comes to us from our enemies. This is what I want to discuss.
Oh, and by the way, it could be our friends and loved ones who position themselves as our enemies. Yes, it happens, that even people who we were once close to, will turn and become the ones who harm or threaten to harm us. It’s sad but true.
So, the question is, “What should our response be to the evil coming from our enemies that threatens to harm us ?” Of course we know what our carnal nature would want and what the world’s answer would be to this: “fight back” or “defend yourself” or better yet “avenge yourself.” Think about how many popular movies are built on the theme of some horrendous harm being done to the “hero” of the movie ( e.g., a man’s wife is murdered, or a woman’s son is murdered) who then sets out to take revenge upon the enemy who committed the great evil. These kinds of revenge movies attempt to reinforce this type of carnal response from us when we face our enemies who want to harm us.
Revenge is an interesting thing. It feeds our flesh by bringing to us the pleasure, or apparent satisfaction, of vengeance upon our enemies. But the scriptures are clear that we should not avenge ourselves but rather allow the Lord to repay. Let’s look at the above quoted scripture from Romans, in the fuller context:
“Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. Beloved do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:17-21
When we take vengeance into our own hands there are multiple problems (beyond the fact that we are disobeying the Lord’s command). First, when we feed our flesh by taking revenge it causes our flesh to become more alive and this will cause our carnal nature to grow and want even more. It could also expand into other dangerous areas that will result in further indulgences of the flesh, and more sin. Second, the evil will most likely escalate into more evil. Our vengeance will most likely not be the correct response to the evil (compared to the Lord’s vengeance that would be perfect) so it will then propagate further response from our enemy, causing us to need to retaliate with more revenge, and so on, and it keeps going. This is the root cause of ongoing arguments, and family feuds, and grudges that people hold for years, and even results in some cases in murders and wars.
Essentially, if we respond by repaying evil for evil to our enemies the result will be that we will be overcome by the evil. Evil will be propagated both in our circumstances with our enemy as well as in our nature. Remember that if we feed our flesh than our spirit will suffer. We can’t feed both our flesh and our spirit; it’s one or the other. Our flesh must be dead for our spirit to function properly and mature.
So, the next question: exactly how do we do this, responding with good to our enemies? I think it is pretty clear from the scripture in Romans 12: if they are hungry than feed them. If they are thirsty than give them a drink. In other words, if you see that your enemy is in need and you can meet that need, than do so.
An excellent example of someone responding with good to an enemy that is attempting to harm them is the life of David (See the book of 1 Samuel).
The background is that God had given the people of Israel what they asked for, a king. His name was Saul. Unfortunately, Saul was a failure as a king and God had stated that He was going to remove him from his position as king and replace him with another better leader, David. The Lord anointed David and caused him to prosper among the people of Israel, especially in his skills of leading the army in battle with their enemies. Saul, who was then tormented by an evil spirit, became jealous of David and recognized that he would replace him as the next king and therefore attempted to kill him. David had to flee from Israel and his family, and go into hiding. (This is the short version; there’s much more to the story)
The case in point is when Saul pursues David into the wilderness. David and his men were staying in the recesses of a cave. Saul happens to go into this cave, not knowing that David and his men are there, to “attend to his needs” or, in our modern terms, he had to relieve himself (#2). David’s men learn of this and they tell David:
“Then the men of David said to him, ‘This is the day of which the Lord said to you, “Behold, I will deliver your enemy into your hand that you may do to him as it seems good to you.”’ And David arose and secretly cut off a corner of Saul’s robe.” 1 Sam. 24:4
So David had an opportunity to destroy his enemy who is intending to kill him. It even appears that God has delivered the enemy into his hands. David’s men were urging him to kill Saul, but David’s response is to only cut a piece of Saul’s robe, showing that he had the opportunity to kill Saul, but chose not to do so and showed mercy to Saul.
It should be noted that David was also motivated to respond in mercy also by the fact that Saul was the Lord’s anointed king.
“And he said to his men, ‘The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord.’ So David restrained his servants with these words, and did not allow them to rise against Saul.” 1 Sam. 24:6-7
The important lesson here is the result of David’s merciful response to his enemy Saul. When Saul left the cave David cried out to him and showed him the cut piece of his robe. David essentially said, “I could have killed you but I did not.” Here is Saul’s response:
“So it was, when David finished speaking these words to Saul, that Saul said, ‘Is this your voice, my son David?’ And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. Then he said to David: ‘You are more righteous than I; for you have rewarded me with good, whereas I have rewarded you with evil. And you have shown this day how you have dealt well with me; for when the Lord delivered me into your hand, you did not kill me. For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him get away safely? Therefore may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. And now I know indeed that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.’” 1 Sam. 24:16-20
Then Saul went home and stopped pursuing David.
The response of Saul aligns with the response that is mentioned in the verse quoted from Romans:
“For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Romans 12:20
I imagine that this analogy of hot coals had a clearer meaning back in that day, but it must mean that it wakes a person up or shocks them into the reality of the situation. Regardless, when we show mercy to our enemies, it allows the Holy Spirit to deal with their hearts. It will cause our enemies to change. In some cases they will even cease to be our enemies! Even if their outward actions don’t change, it is guaranteed that their inner heart has been deeply touched, just like having coals of fire on their head.
Also, our response to these situations is a test of our faith. Can we trust God to avenge us? Can we place these circumstances in God’s hands and trust that He will do what is right and just? Who are we to carry out vengeance on anyone, even our enemies? If we are to walk in the spirit, we must relinquish our fleshly desire for vengeance and submit to God’s command to allow Him to inflict revenge.
Notice too that there is no escalation of evil with God’s approach of mercy.
“Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13
It is interesting in the book of 1 Samuel that the next account of David’s life is a similar experience with a man who had insulted him and had treated him unfairly, and had become his enemy. The quick background is that David had protected a man’s servants and herds while they were in the wilderness. The man’s name was Nabal. While Nabal was sheering his sheep and preparing for a feast day (with an overabundance of food), David sent men to request a portion of food to help his group while in the wilderness, as a sort of payback for protecting his men. Nabal refused and insulted David.
David’s initial response was to take up his weapons, gather his men, and attach Nabal.
“Now David had said, ‘Surely in vain I have protected all that this fellow had in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belongs to him. And he has repaid me evil for good. May God do so, and more also, to the enemies of David, if I leave one male of all who belong to him by morning light.’” 1 Sam. 25:21-22
You will notice here that rewarding good with evil, the opposite of what God requires (rewarding evil with good), will give the opposite result. It will turn an ally into an enemy; in this case, David could have been a great friend and ally to Nabal, but in response to Nabal’s insult and rejection, even a righteous man like David became his enemy.
But wait. Should David be responding to Nabal’s evil insult and unfair rejection by attaching him? Fortunately for David, the Lord caused Nabal’s wife, Abigail to hear of the situation and intercede. Abigail heard of the situation from one of Nabal’s servants, so she prepared a large allotment of food and drink and took it out to David and his men. She went out and met David while he was on his way to attach Nabal’s camp.
“Now when Abigail saw David, she dismounted quickly from the donkey, fell on her face before David, and bowed down to the ground. So she fell at his feet and said: ‘on me, my lord, on me let this iniquity be! And please let your maidservant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your maidservant. Please, let not my lord regard this scoundrel Nabal. For as his name is, so is he: Nabal is his name, and folly is in him! (Nabal means fool) But I, your maidservant, did not see the young men of my lord whom you sent. Now therefore, my lord, as the Lord lives and as your soul lives, since the Lord has held you back from coming to bloodshed and from avenging yourself with your own hand, now then, let your enemies and those who seek harm for my lord be as Nabal.” 1 Sam. 25:23-26
The Lord sent Abigail to correct David’s error in seeking to avenge himself, and David recognized it:
“Then David said to Abigail: ‘Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! And blessed is your advice and blessed are you, because you have kept me this day from coming to bloodshed and from avenging myself with my own hand.’” 1 Sam. 25:32-33
Notice here that both Abigail and David knew that taking revenge was wrong and evil. We like to think that the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” view was what was held in the Old Testament times, allowing for revenge, but this is not true. I believe that just like Moses made an allowance for divorce, due to the people’s hardened hearts, he also made this regulation for taking an “eye for an eye.”
“He (Jesus) said to them, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.’” Matthew 19:8
The real lesson in this account is learned from recognizing what resulted from David turning back at Abigail’s request and allowing God to deal with Nabal. Here’s the account of what happened to Nabal the very next day:
“So it was, in the morning, when the wine had gone from Nabal, and his wife had told him these things, that his heart died within him, and he became like stone. Then it happened, after about ten days, that the Lord struck Nabal, and he died.” 1 Sam. 25:37-38
Not only did the Lord eliminate Nabal, but David then sent servants to Abigail and took her as his wife. Nice! God’s ways are perfect. David, by allowing the Lord to handle the situation, not only saw the proper vengeance taken on an evil man without risking his own life or men or taking any other innocent lives, but also gained a wise, beautiful and godly wife.
In summary, when we reward evil with good, as bazaar as that sounds to our natural minds, we will allow the Holy Spirit to shock our enemies and it could result in their turning around to become our ally. Don’t be tempted to take vengeance into you own hands, even if it appears that the Lord has delivered your enemy into a place where you can greatly harm or destroy them. Rather, allow the Lord to avenge, especially if it is someone who is in a position of authority, since all authority is established by God. Likewise, when our good acts are rewarded with an evil response, don’t be tempted to respond back with vengeance. Allow God to deal with these evil people. His way is perfect and will result in the perfect outcome for all involved.
I end this discussion with the advice that Jesus left for us regarding our response to evil people:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matt. 5:38-48