Belong: Find Your Place at the Table
Overcome Evil With Good
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” This statement pertains both to your church family and to outsiders. Paul mentions “enemy” in verse 20. So we should see this instruction as once again helping us live and witness to Christ in the world.
Discerning Good and Evil
“In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” - Genesis 2:9
“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” - Genesis 3:4-5
- The first temptation of humans by the devil was this one—the temptation to become like God by knowing good and evil.
- This tree is in the garden because it has to be there. God has given humans a great moral freedom—to do good or evil. The tree is the expression of that freedom.
We are told to “be good” from the time we can comprehend. We don’t really know what that means when we first hear it. But we inevitably develop our moral sense until we understand.
Graham reached up and took Janet’s spray bottle off the desk. He then proceeded to clean the 55-inch LED television in our den by soaking it down with water. I was at the staff retreat when Janet texted me a picture of the TV—with black and white bars instead of a picture—permanently ruined. The great question—did Graham know that he was doing evil? He certainly knew afterward because I walked in on him spraying the furniture and he quickly dropped the bottle and ran.
- Graham’s world is pretty simply morally right now. He is facing potty training, so it will get more complicated quickly. He will learn than a daily practice of his is not acceptable anymore. He will watch as we praise him for using the potty, and then flush his gift to us down the toilet. This may confuse him.
Part of the reason we love Star Wars is that is pretty easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. In the old westerns the good guys wore the white hats and the bad guys wore the black hats. This simplification of the struggle is attractive to us.
We discover that it is not always so easy to tell the good from the bad—the truth is more complicated than we first thought.
- We find that there is evil in us. We knew that all along, really. But it dawns on us how capable we are of embracing evil instead of good.
- And we discover that there is good in our enemies. We always dehumanize our enemies. We turn them into faceless forms and black shapes of pure evil. But if and when we meet them, we are usually startled how much they resemble—well, us.
This difficulty of discerning what is good and what is evil does not mean that good and evil do not exist, as some cynics claim. Hard choices and complexities do not erase the reality of the struggle that goes on within us and in our world.
But the difficulty of distinguishing good and evil does tell us something about our limitations. We are not morally or mentally capable of achieving 100 percent certainty about some things.
- We were arrogant to think we could achieve such certainty. Our parents ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and so have we all. We suppose it makes us like God, knowing good and evil. But it actually makes us sinners, incapable of freeing ourselves from the influence of evil. We becomes slaves, dead to good and God and alive only to sin and suffering.
- Our return to God begins with an admission of our moral bankruptcy, our sin. When we confess our sin, God forgives us and brings us into fellowship with him.
Only in fellowship with God do we truly know good and evil. Outside of that fellowship we fall into our old ways and the well-worn paths of unbelievers. We walk in the counsel of the ungodly. We stand in the way of sinners. We sit in the seat of scoffers.
Good and Evil are Active in This World
There is true evil in this world. The Apostle Paul mentions it again. If you look at the last verse in this chapter you will see a famous quote: “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). He is echoing Jesus on this point. In fact, we have heard may echoes of Jesus’ teachings.
There is true evil in you. You are not pure love or pure goodness. The Apostle said earlier, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19).Then he adds: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” (Romans 7:21)
There is true evil in every church. Because it is in the world and in us, it is also in the church of Jesus Christ.
- That is the main reason that Paul is addressing it here as he talks to brothers and sisters in the church. Paul himself has seen and experienced—and maybe perpetrated—evil in the church.
- “He that knows to do good, and does not do it—to him it is sin” (James 4:17).
This is intended to alarm us, this talk about evil from the Apostle Paul. He intends to shake us up and wake us up to the potential for evil in our own hearts and in our own church.
- God said to Cain: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” - (Genesis 4:7)
- If any one of us—or all of us—chooses to ignore what is right, sin is crouching at your door. It desires to have you. Sin undid Cain, and it will do the same to us.
Evil can overcome you. That is why it is necessary for Paul to warn, “Do not be overcome by evil.”
Active Good or Evil is Easy to Discern
It's easier to discern active good our evil than passive or internal good or evil. That is why people are judged by their works in the last judgment.
Actively do good. You will have great certainty that the active good you seek to do is truly good, not evil.
Identify evil in the active, not passive. “Is that person truly evil?” a child may ask. Who knows the answer to such a question? It asks for a ranking of evil, for more or less. And we cannot see the heart.
But active evil we can discern more certainly. “Is that an evil thing?” the child asks, and we can say, “Yes, that is an evil thing.”
To deny that such moral judgments can and should be made is to deny the moral nature of man and this universe and God. We make poor choices, we argue, but we are not bad people. We want to admit the evil of our choices without implying that there is evil within us. We will admit to intellectual shortcomings—we miscalculate—or informational shortcomings—we did not know what would happen. We are always reluctant to admit moral shortcomings—that we actually have a penchant for evil within us.
The essential goodness and badness of humans is the question.
Overcome Evil — with Good!
How do we do this?
"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." - Matthew 5:43-45
"Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." - I Peter 3:9
Replace revenge with evangelism. The impulse to curse our enemy is replaced by the desire for them to know Jesus.
It announces that we follow Jesus. If you do good only to those who do good to you, what have you done differently than any sinner? If you greet only those who greet you, are you different? If you only love those who love you, how is that different from any sinner’s behavior?
The disciples are gathered around the table. Jesus has instituted the Lord’s Supper. Now he is telling them what is about to happen. Jesus reveals to the Twelve that one of them will betray him. They begin to ask, “Is it I?” knowing their own capacity for evil. Then they argue a similar question about who is the greatest (Luke 22:24).
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you like wheat.”
You can put your own name right there: “David, Bob, Mary, Susan.” Satan wants to sift us like wheat, to test us.
“But,” Jesus says, “I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.” Doing evil is betraying our Lord and a failure of our faith. Put your name in there, too. “I have prayed for you, David, Jane, Mary, Steven.” Answer the prayer of Jesus: “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” That is what belonging is all about.