Overcome Evil With Good (Romans 12:9-21)

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If a new Christian asked me what a good passage would be in which to dwell, I might say Romans 12:9-21. I think Paul does a wonderful job of capturing the ideal heart of a disciple.

John tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that Jesus is the Word of love (John 1:1, 14). That Word became flesh and dwelled among us (John 1:14), revealing that Love (God) in embodied ways, even to the point of death (Philippians 2:8). Here’s what Paul writes about how that Love manifests in us:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Romans 12:9-21

The world, in its hubris, thought it could control this Love, this God who wouldn’t cooperate. It rationalized and justified its own insecurities and fears and it played its most powerful card: violence and death. It crucified Love and rejoiced in its victory. Then, in the most profound and unexpected turn of events, Love conquered death. By taking up life again, Love showed that even death has no power over Love.

In Romans 12, Paul captures what living into that Love might look like. He writes that genuine love has an aversion to evil in favor of what’s good, and that desire for goodness manifests in mutual affection. Such genuine love is service to the Lord, which rejoices in hope and leans into God. How could it not? God is love, and love conquers death. What more could we ask for; what greater power is there?

When the Lord is our hope, we can be patient in suffering. When the Lord is our hope, we can persevere in prayer. When our love is genuine, it makes room for the needs of others and extends hospitality without qualification. It blesses everyone and curses no one. It empathizes in both rejoicing and weeping. It desires harmony and is characterized by humility. It chooses the lowly and the disenfranchised over the lofty places of “honor.”

Love like that can’t possibly entertain vengeance, because vengeance requires pride. I have to care more about my own feelings and desires than I do about other people if I want to set myself toward vengeance. There’s no room for that in genuine love. There’s no room for bitterness or hatred in the kind of love revealed in the Messiah, modeled on the cross, and affirmed in the resurrection.

Paul writes that we shouldn’t be overcome by evil. Love conquered every power, even death. The only way we could be overcome by evil is to stop leaning into the power of Love, but when we lean into Love, when we lean into God as the ultimate power and authority in our lives, we reject what’s evil in favor of what’s good.

It’s ironic: this is the passage in which I suggest new Christians dwell the most, but it’s the kind of passage that many Christians are quickest to forget. That plank in our eyes is characterized by an acceptance of evil. Our lives as human beings lack mutuality. We pick and choose who we think is worthy of our contributions and hospitality. We bless our friends, but we curse our enemies. We rejoice in the suffering of others and go to war with strangers. We are impatient in suffering and selfish in prayer. We reject harmony because of our haughtiness, and our pride justifies our disdain of the lowly. We love our vengeance, to do evil for evil, and we call it justice.

Even Paul struggled with his own humanity. It’s not possible to be human and not have a plank in the eye or a thorn in the flesh. It’s why the cross and the resurrection are so important. The cross shows us what happens when violence and death are the greatest powers in our lives. We end up being overcome by evil, and justice becomes synonymous with vengeance and hatred. We become complicit in the death of the Christ by recreating Jesus’s death in others.

But then the resurrection happens, and Love conquers death. Jesus calls out an invitation: forget about violence and death; Love is true power to conquer all other powers. Humility overturns pride. Mutuality leads to harmony. Empathy sees dignity in the lowly. Evil falls by the wayside, because it’s overcome by good.

If you give yourself one gift this week, let it be this: dwell in this passage. Dwell on the hope of God’s conquering love. Dwell on the outpouring of Love’s Spirit. Dwell on the victory of the resurrection. Dwell on what it means to love what’s good: mutuality, hospitality, harmony, humility, empathy, associating with the lowly, rejecting vengeance, blessing everyone. Or, as Paul put it: having the mind of Christ. (Philippians 2:5)

Maybe then we can overcome evil with good.

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