Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This verse follows exhortations such as “Bless those who persecute you” (verse 14) and “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (verse 17). The theme of the passage is how to love with sincerity (verse 9), and the instructions require us to set aside our natural inclinations. God’s way always challenges our fleshly nature and calls us to live at a higher level by the Spirit’s power. The human way is to curse those who curse us and try to overcome evil with more evil. But, according to Romans 12:21, we can only overcome evil with good. God’s goodness is stronger than any evil.
Jesus was the perfect example of overcoming evil with good: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). In submitting Himself to the evil of His captors, He conquered sin, Satan, and death (Ephesians 4:8–10). Evil thought it won that day when it nailed Christ to the cross. But because Jesus was fully surrendered to the will and plan of His Father, the Son of God overcame their evil with good. Though the actions against Christ were in themselves evil, Jesus’ death and later resurrection overcame that evil by purchasing forgiveness and eternal life for everyone who would believe (John 1:12; 3:16–18; 20:31).
We overcome evil the same way, with good. The Lord says that vengeance belongs to Him and He will repay (Hebrews 10:30). We can entrust ourselves to God, just like Jesus did, and know that He will work even those evil acts committed against us for our good (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28). When we refuse to respond in kind to those who would persecute us, their evil actions stand alone, whereas retaliation brings us down to the level of the instigators. When two people are fighting, and one is clearly attacking the other, evil is highlighted for all to see. When we return a soft word, a kindness, or generosity to someone who has wronged us, we leave the perpetrator alone in his evil.
Proverbs 25:21–22 says, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” Paul quotes this passage in Romans 12:20, just before his command to “overcome evil with good.” To “heap burning coals on his head” probably refers to the natural response of the enemy to kindness. Nothing makes us feel more shamed and embarrassed by our actions than someone reacting to our hurtful behavior with gentle forgiveness. Kindness in the face of unkindness demonstrates the stark contrast between the two. The goal of a gentle reaction to the enemy is not to embarrass or get the last word but to help facilitate repentance in the evildoer.
If we remember a few key things, we are on our way to overcoming evil with good:
1. I am not the judge; God is. He will do what is right (Genesis 18:25).
2. As a Christian, my response to evil should not copy the world’s behavior but reflect Christ, who is in me (Romans 12:1–2).
3. Keeping my eyes on Jesus helps me know how to respond when I am treated poorly (Hebrews 12:2).
4. God is always watching and evaluating my choices, and He wants to reward me for obeying Him (Matthew 5:43–48).
Jesus reminded the Pharisees that Satan cannot drive out Satan (Matthew 12:25–28). Likewise, evil cannot drive out evil. An evil response only doubles the evil. When we respond to evil in humility and grace, we are proving that good triumphs over wickedness. We cannot stop people from doing evil, but they cannot force us to participate with them. It takes no power, might, or wisdom to retaliate against evildoers. But returning good for evil is one of the greatest demonstrations of strength.