We know of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland between Roman Catholic and Protestants. Evil is not defeated by evil.

We know of the violence between Palestinians and Israel. Evil is not defeated by evil.

Not only between people groups but also between families.

Think of the long lasting feud between the two neighbouring families, the Hatfields and McCoys in West Virginia. Between 1880 and 1891, the feud claimed more than a dozen members of the two families. Truce was only agreed to in 2003.

 You cannot overcome evil with evil.  It just escalates the evil.

Romans 12: 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Evil can  only be overcome by good.

Today is the final week of the 40acts challenge and the end of our series looking at chapter 12 of Romans.

As we began to see last week, there is a transformation that goes on when we repay evil with good. Retaliation creates a vicious circle, but when we react to evil with blessing and kindness it starves the flame of anger to fuel it. Rather than trying to ‘outdo’ evil, we take away its power to overcome us – we in turn overcome it.

As we also discovered, following this teaching can be costly and may feel ‘beyond’ us. The only way to cope with this struggle is to look to our saviour’s example, and reflect on what he did for us. Jesus’ life and death are the ultimate illustration for us that good conquers evil. He went through the utmost evil on the cross. He was whipped, jeered at, spat at, stripped. Compare Isaiah 50:6:

I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.

Abandoned by his friends; separated even from his Father in heaven.  He faced it all without fighting back, with perfect patience and kindness, praying for his persecutors – dying an undeserved death in place of us. But that was not the end. Evil and death were defeated because, as we’ll celebrate on Easter Day, he came back to life.

For some of us, the word ‘evil’ may seem extreme; something that we associate with terrible things that we see on the news, like the awful images from the war in Syria. But it’s much broader and more prevalent than that, and something that we have to battle to ‘conquer’. Paul explains this further in his letter to the Ephesians, 6:12:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

 

If we’re followers of Jesus, not only will we battle with our old sinful natures, but also the devil is at work, wanting to turn us away from God. However, we never need to fear because we know that the power we have in Jesus is so much greater than anything the devil can throw at us, as Paul reminds us in 2 Timothy 1:7:

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self - discipline.

We have the same power living in us that raised Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1:19–20)! If we fully grasp that, we don’t have to worry about the devil’s schemes. And the best demonstration we can give of the power of the gospel is when we act with goodness in the face of opposition.

Jesus said turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give more than is demanded.

Jesus’ victory over death encourages us in the knowledge that we can conquer all that we might face in this life, because, no matter what, we have that promise. A few chapters earlier, in Romans 8:37–39, Paul famously writes:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor thing s to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

In practice, it can be really, really tough to act with kindness and generosity, especially in circumstances where a truly atrocious evil has taken place. If you are facing any kind of situation where evil appears to have the upper hand, to be told to simply do good in return can sound trite and simplistic. We may want to even the score, get revenge, gossip to destroy the reputation of the person inflicting us pain.

In desperate situations, all we sometimes have is the knowledge of Jesus’ love for us to get us through. That’s why we have to cling to what is good (Romans 12:9). Paul is not preaching anything to us that he hasn’t himself experienced – he suffered many hardships and imprisonments in his ministry.

There may be times when our own sufferings make us feel far from God, but when we fill ourselves up with his truth, we can receive comfort.

Some of us may be familiar with the story of the missionary couple Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. The two of them travelled out to Ecuador with a team of other Christian missionaries in order to make contact with an unreached people group.

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It takes extreme courage not just to overlook and avoid reacting to evil but to actually counteract it with good.

The fact that Elisabeth continued to work with the tribe that killed her husband, speaks volumes of overcoming evil with good.

Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 16:24–25:

‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.’

To be able to pay back good for evil requires real sacrifice. It’s putting to death our natural desires, which is a daily struggle and something that we can only do with God’s help.  

There are two important elements in the Elliots’ story: attitude of mind and forgiveness. 

Our minds

In the first week of this series on Romans 12 we looked at renewing our minds – taking on the battle there first.  Paul also teaches on this in Ephesians 4:22–24:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Just because we know Jesus, it doesn’t mean we will automatically respond as we should. It needs our participation: a putting on of our new selves. Paul points to the attitude of our minds specifically.  Our thoughts are affected by what we dwell on. A good place to start might be reading through those verses in Isaiah about what Jesus faced for our sakes. By renewing our thinking, we then affect our actions.  

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is not just for the sake of the perpetrator but for our sake too. Unforgiveness eats us.

People forget that evil has a deadly power of recoil, and that those who resort to it always do so to their own hurt.[1]

 

And we know that in God’s eyes there is no limit on the amount of goodness we should show, and no point where a line is to be drawn. Peter asks Jesus about this in Matthew 18: 

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy - seven times.’

The idea here is that it’s not just a greater number of times than we would expect but that, as seven is the number that represents completeness in the Bible, when multiplied it represents an infinite number.

At some point in all of our lives, we’ll have faced a situation where we had to forgive. And where the hurt is deep-rooted, it is not a one-time conclusion but a continual process of deciding to forgive again and again, despite our feelings.  

Counteracting evil with good takes the burden from our shoulders and is the most poignant way we can grow in grace and become more like Jesus, because we know that there is nothing that we can do that isn’t covered by his death on the cross. His forgiveness is deep enough for all our sins.

What this could mean for us…

In the last couple of weeks, we have focused on verses that are the most challenging to put into practice but are the most effective at showing Jesus to others. This is the spirit of 40acts – not that it’s just ‘nice’ to do good things to those around us when we feel like it, but that in doing so we are actually overcoming evil. In living a generous life, we are conquering both our own self-centredness and the powers of evil that Paul speaks about. Each small act is an expression of a commitment to a generous life.  

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he encourages him to turn away from all the evil that surrounds him and to live differently:

But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith.  (1 Timothy 6:11 – 12)

Even in our small acts of goodness, we are pursuing God and fighting the good fight.

Every time we act with generosity, and especially when we do so as a response to evil, we display Jesus to those around us. Has anyone noticed your acts and been intrigued? Use it as an opportunity to talk about our generous God.

 

Prayer

Ever-present Lord, as we conclude our studies and reflections on 40acts and Lent draws to a close, prepare us to retrace the road to Jerusalem as Easter comes near. Help us, through what we have learnt from the example and words of the apostle Paul and others who have shown great courage in their witness, to live out our faith whatever the circumstances. Help us to cling and hold steadfastly to the knowledge of your love for us and to know just how costly that was to God the Father, who still shares in the sufferings of a broken world. We ask this in the power of the Holy Spirit, who is still at work to bring the whole of creation to its full salvation. Amen.



[1] Stuart Babbage The Mark of Cain 116