Overcoming Evil and Keeping a Good Spirit
Robert Wurtz II
I wish to focus our attention on the final verse, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This verse, for the unbeliever, is counter-intuitive. It makes no sense. How can evil be overcome by doing good? Certainly, it is not the “natural” approach to dealing with evil. And we must take into account Romans 12:16 which reminds us that sometimes it is not possible to live peaceably with all men. We should strive to do so in as far as it depends on us. Nevertheless, our passage and context speak to us in a general way without regard to extraordinary circumstances.
The first question we need to consider is, what does it mean to be overcome of evil? The Greek word for overcome is nikao and it’s the same word used for the famous tennis shoe, Nike. It means to conquer. The literal rendering of the verse is, “Stop being conquered by the evil (person or thing).” The verb is in the passive imperative — meaning that we have an obligation to stop be conquered this way. When we are overcome of evil we are lured into an ungodly response to the evil. We have taken matters into our own hands. When this happens we have been defeated, even if it seems we have won the argument or fight.
The second question is, “What does it mean to overcome (conquer) evil with good?” The context tells us that when we do good to people who do evil to us that we “heap coals of fire” upon their heads. This is meant metaphorically. Fire is a picture of powerful emotions. It can be understood in a simple sense as anguish. People of a rational character feel awful when they mistreat a person who treats them with kindness. Even the irrational must deal with the cognitive dissonance they feel when they do wrong to those who are good to them.
The late Greek scholar A.T. Robertson comments on this verse by telling us to “drown the evil in the good.” This is a provoking thought. We should heap such good upon the person that they are smothered by the kindness. This ought to cause them extreme emotional distress and possibly change their minds about their behavior. Who knows? They may even apologize for their actions.
If we fail to follow God’s instruction in our passage, we will end up taking matters into our own hands. At that point, we have been overcome (conquered) by the evil. The consequence of this is that we become bitter and hostile to the person. We may become hostile in general — spoiling our Christian testimony. The state of enmity that we allowed to develop will begin influencing our heart and mind and will continue until we recognize what has happened and renounce our wrong response. If we don’t, a beach-head for the devil opens up and he comes marching in. The whole atmosphere of our heart and mind becomes darkened by hate, hostility, and evil and we risk being poisoned beyond hope.
But there is hope, so long as we are willing to go God’s route. God wants us to maintain 24/7 a good and loving spirit. We are not doing that if we are angry and hateful. In Jude, we are told that the evil angels left their first habitat and came into great judgment as a consequence. He then reminds the saints to “keep themselves in the love of God.” Why? Our habitat is “in the love of God” and not in an atmosphere and attitude of hate. When we move in hate and anger we, like the evil angels, have left our designed habitat (if you will). The solution? “Keep yourselves in the love of God.” It is imperative, not optional. As with Paul in Romans, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”