Ready for Battle?
Scripture: Romans 12:9–12:21
There is a battle raging. We have all been engaged in that battle this week. Not one of us has been spared. Not one of us is immune. It is a battle that consumes and invades and pervades every arena and sphere of life and every hour of the day and every day of the week. The question is not whether we have experienced the battle this week. The only question is: which side is winning?
The battle is between evil and good, between wrong and right, between being conformed to the world and its standards and being transformed by God’s Spirit from the inside out. Paul describes that battle in our passage this week (Romans 12:9-21). We might describe this passage as a call to arms. It is definitely a motivating call to victory in the battle. But the weapons and strategies called for in the struggle surely make this the strangest army that ever marched.
Paul first describes the identifying mark of the soldiers in Christ’s army. My Bible translates this: “Let love be genuine.” It is a legitimate effort to make this into a command, but the original text simply has noun and adjective with no verb. “Genuine love”; this is our supreme calling; this is the color of our uniform, the symbol on our flag, the most powerful of all our weapons. Love. Not just any kind of love, but real love. Sincere love. Love without hypocrisy. Love without masks. Love without pretending.
Having described our identifying mark, Paul now describes the nature and arena of the battle; the two opposing forces which wage war in the world and in our hearts, and he calls for our loyalty. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
Let me say a word about the grammatical structure of this paragraph and the translations. Almost all the English translations have rendered this paragraph as a list of imperative verbs or commands. They certainly are imperative in their force and authority. But in grammatical form in the original Greek text, they are descriptive participles. Paul is describing the battle, life in Christ’s army, the transformed life style and behavior of Christ’s followers. There is evil in the world and there is good. These are the two sides. In deciding to follow Christ, we have enrolled in his army. This has both a negative and a positive requirement; abhorring what is evil and holding fast to what is good. Abhorring is a strong word in English, and it needs to be because it is translating a strong word in Greek. It means to have a strong dislike for someone or something, implying repulsion and desire for avoidance—‘to hate, to despise.’ “Repulsed by evil.” That should be our attitude toward all that is evil; all that opposes the rule of God in our world.
But we should not only be repulsed by evil, we should be holding fast to what is good. This is also a strong word in the original. It means to join and be permanently bonded to. It is the Greek word that is used to describe God’s instructions for marriage. “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined (permanently bonded) to his wife.” When we join God’s army, we are pledging our loyalty to all that is good. The battle that is being waged in the world and in our hearts is a battle between good and evil. We must take a strong stand. We must know where our loyalty lies. Abhorring evil, holding fast to what is good.
This verse sets the tone, topic and agenda for the rest of the paragraph. Everything else that follows is really just elaboration; a description of the kinds of behaviors, strategies and attitudes which characterize genuine love and an identification of the evil we are to abhor and the good we are to hold fast to. The section will end with a ringing call to valor and victory in this conflict. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (v. 21) This is a command with imperative verb forms. The battle between evil and good is raging, but we can be victorious. We can overcome.
So, as members of God’s army in the battle of good against evil, what is the code of conduct required of us and what are the strategies that will lead us on to victory? The first set of instructions relates to relationships with our fellow soldiers in the fight. Once again it is a descriptive phrase; relationships should be characterized by brotherly love, familial affection, the love of family members for one another: Love one another with brotherly affection. (verse 10a) We are family. Remember the basic reality expressed in the previous paragraph. We are one. One body, one family, one team. That oneness should be reflected in the way we relate to one another. It was Jesus himself who said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples; that you love one another.”
We are also called to show honor to one another. The ESV translates this: Outdo one another in showing honor. (verse 10b) Be quick to give credit where credit is due. If there is competition in the church, in God’s army for good, it should be in trying to be first to give the honor to someone else, not to receive the credit for ourselves. We all like to be appreciated. It is a basic human need. But all too often this can become a competition for place and honor. In God’s army, this is turned upside down. Go out of your way to show honor and appreciation to others.
The next two verses (11-12) describe some basic attitudes and strategies that should characterize all of us as we engage in this struggle between good and evil in our lives. There is a rhythm to the structure in the original text that is missing in the different English translations. I have attempted a translation that is more literal and preserves the original word order to try to recreate that rhythm.
In zeal, not lazy; in spirit, eager (it is the Lord we are serving!); in hope, rejoicing; in trouble, bearing up bravely; in prayer, continuing steadfastly…
This is what it will take to be victorious in the battle of good against evil. Fervent zeal, eager spirits, joyful attitudes based on our strong eternal hope of final victory, courage and endurance in the hard times, and through it all a steadfast commitment to prayer. Above all, remember who our commander in chief is! It is the Lord himself; Jesus, our Master and our King. Let’s keep our eyes on him!
In the next verse, Paul reverts back to our responsibilities toward our fellow soldiers, members of the same spiritual family. Keeping the same rhythm and word order we can render it this way: In the needs of the saints, sharing; to hospitality, committed… This is a practical expression of the sincere love stated at the beginning of the paragraph. These activities and values represent some of the “good” we should pursue as we seek to drive back evil. Sharing together when there are needs among the community of faith. I like that designation of believers as “saints”. This is not some special category of super Christians. This is a Biblical term used to describe all believers. It means someone who has been set apart for a holy life. Someone, in other words, who is committed to the same battle of good over evil in his or her life and sphere of influence. We are also commanded to pursue hospitality as a goal. This goes beyond simply having friends into our homes for a nice meal. There is nothing wrong with that. But the idea here is to use our homes to meet needs among believers and to express the love of Christ in very practical and tangible ways.
In pursuing this same topic of relationships and attitudes within the family of God, I want to skip over verse 14 for a minute. We will come back to it, but I want to jump down to verse 15, as it relates to practical expressions of Christ’s love. In the battle of good against evil, one trait we should exhibit is that of empathy and emotional sensitivity. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (verse 15) This is another reflection of our oneness as brothers and sisters in the Lord. The battle is hard. Life is hard. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder with one another in good times and in hard times. In the good times, we rejoice together. In the struggles we weep together. This is good. It is a way of multiplying our joys and dividing our sorrows. We are not alone in the struggle. We are supporting one another. This is why “life groups” and other small group gatherings are so important in the church. This is where these commands can be best carried out as we share life together. We need each other and it is good that we stand together in meeting one another’s physical as well as emotional needs.
There is an underlying attitude that should permeate our relationships with one another – that is an attitude of harmony that grows out of true humility. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. This is the good we are to cling to. This is an expression of sincere love. These are kingdom values. When Jesus laid out his kingdom manifesto in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, he began by laying out certain beatitudes that would become the hallmark of members of his kingdom. The very first one is “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The third one is, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Humility in attitude and action should be another identifying mark of the followers of Christ.
Well, so far we have had a good look at the “good” to which we are to cling; particularly as it pertains to relationships and attitudes within the community of faith. We’ve been talking about how to treat others who are “on our side” so to speak. These instructions have been challenging enough. But now we come to the really difficult part of the battle. How do we respond to “evil” when it smacks us in the face? What shall we do in reaction to evil when it is done to us? When evil confronts us, how shall we “fight back” in this battle? This is so important and so counter-intuitive that Paul devotes the rest of the paragraph to this one theme. We go back to verse 14 to pick up this topic: Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Let me ask you; what is your natural reaction to someone who seeks to harm you? Is it to say a word of blessing? Of course not. Natural reaction is to curse them. Yet we are told not to curse them, but to bless them.
Paul continues in this vein in verse 17: Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. When someone does evil to us, what is our natural reaction? It is to pay them back with evil for evil. Yet we are told instead to find a reaction that good, noble and honorable in the sight of all who are watching. This is upside down living.
And Paul isn’t done. Listen to the rest of the section:
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
This is surely the strangest strategy for an army that has ever been laid out. It is as though a commanding officer is addressing his troops before a great battle. And this is what he says: “We are entering a great and fierce battle against vicious troops. I want you to represent me courageously and honorably in this battle. And above all, no matter what happens in the battle I want you to live by this one cardinal rule. Never fight back!”
Does that sound reasonable to you? Does that make sense? Yet this is what we are being commanded to do. This is how we are told to respond to evil when it smacks us in the face. Don’t curse. Don’t return evil for evil. Don’t take your own vengeance. Instead of cursing, bless your enemy. Instead of returning evil, respond nobly and honorably to him. Instead of seeking his harm, feed him when he’s hungry and give him drink when he is thirsty. It is upside down and backwards. It makes no sense. What kind of army is this we’ve joined? What kind of strategy is this for waging war? Yet we are told that this is the path to victory. That is the concluding verse in the section: “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
This is the verse that finally brought it all into focus for me. There is a battle going on. It is a battle between good and evil. As a follower of Christ, I am enlisted in the army of those who desire good to triumph. And so I go forth to do good. And the first thing that happens is someone pokes a stick in my eye. They do something evil or harmful to me. Instinctively, I grab a stick and poke him back. Now I have done something evil or harmful to him. But wait a minute. I was on the way to do good. Instead I have now done something evil. His evil has overcome my good. Evil has triumphed. By doing evil to me, he has caused me to do evil. That is what happens whenever we return evil for evil, and curse those who persecute us. Instead of abhorring evil, we are now doing evil. As long as we continue with this strategy of returning evil for evil, we give evil the upper hand. We allow evil people to bring us down to their level. They are setting the agenda.
So what is the alternative? Do good. Do what is honorable. Bless instead of curse. Return good for evil and kindness for harm. But someone will say, “But then evil will win. Wrongs will go unpunished. Injustice will reign.” No, Paul says, you are forgetting that God is on his throne. He is the ultimate judge. He will punish the wicked in due time. That is his job, not our job. Our task? Sincere love. Abhorring evil. Clinging to what is good. This is how good will triumph over evil. To emphasize his point, Paul quotes a passage from the Book of Proverbs chapter 25: 21-22: if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
What does it mean to heap burning coals on someone’s head? This is an ancient Hebrew idiom and unfortunately, the original meaning of the idiom has been lost in history. But I did read one suggestion this week that makes sense to me. It is the suggestion that burning coals on the head is a description of someone blushing in embarrassment. Just as burning coals glow red, so does the face of an embarrassed person. So when we heap burning coals on someone’s head, we are embarrassing them. This is what we do when we return good for their evil rather than retaliating. The person who has done evil is embarrassed. Evil loses. We triumph, and we do it by doing good rather than doing evil.
And even if they do not admit their embarrassment, and even our good behavior is mocked, we have another promise we can keep in our hearts. It is found back in that passage in Proverbs; a concluding phrase that Paul doesn’t even include here. It reads, “and the Lord will reward you.” As soldiers in the Lord’s army, that should be promise enough.
Before I conclude, I want to make an additional application or set of applications from this passage. So far we have looked at two areas. The first is how we treat our fellow soldiers, our brothers and sisters in the family of God. The second is how we respond to our enemies: people who do harmful things to us. In the passage, it appears that Paul’s primary application of this second teaching is to people outside the kingdom of God, our enemies. But here is my question; what happens when our friends become our enemies? What happens when the harm we experience comes from our brothers and sisters in Christ – the very people we are looking to for support and comfort? What happens when the “enemy” who is inflicting harm is a spouse, or a parent, or a son or daughter, or a brother or sister – even though they may, themselves, be followers of Christ? Now the battle grows especially difficult and intense. But I think the answer is also to be found in this text. The basic reaction called for is still the same; Do not return evil for evil but give thought to what is honorable…Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good…Bless and curse not.
Our marriages, our homes and families are a great testing ground for the principles that Paul is laying out here. Retaliation, tit for tat, insult for insult response patterns will devastate a marriage and mar the serenity and harmony of any family. And every family is vulnerable. We are all too human, too quick to take offense and fire back with our own sarcastic and hurtful comments. When we do, evil wins. Good loses. We have been overcome by evil. That is not the pattern God has laid out for us. Whether in our spiritual family or in our human families, as followers of Christ the calling is clear. Whatever its source, do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The battle is raging. It has raged all this past week. It will continue to rage in the week to come, and every week thereafter. Good versus evil. As those who have been justified by faith, we have been enlisted in God’s army on the side of all that is good; all that conforms to his good, acceptable and perfect will. Genuine love is our identifying characteristic as we abhor evil and hold fast to what is good.
On several occasions today, I have made the comment that this kind of living is not natural. And it is not. It is, in fact, supernatural. We cannot live this way by our own will-power and strength. We can live this way only as we rely upon the indwelling Spirit of God to lead us and give us strength.
And as we rely upon God’s Spirit and we enter another week on the battlefield, I would also urge us all to keep our spiritual eyes firmly fixed on our supreme and perfect model. Because there is another way to read this entire passage. Read it as a description of the life of Jesus himself, our Commander in Chief. His love, his abhorrence of sin, his pursuit of all that was right and holy, his zeal of spirit, his persistence in prayer, his humility, his befriending of the needy and outcasts of society, and above all, his response to his enemies. Truly, as Peter tells us in I Peter 2:21-23, he left us
“an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
And with his death, good triumphed over evil. Let us follow in his steps.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
1. What are some ways in which you have experienced the battle of good against evil in the past week?
2. As you read through the passage, isolate the commands that apply to relationships with other believers. Which ones do you find easy to obey? Which ones do you find difficult? How have you been tested in this area during the past month?
3. Verse 11-12 describes attitudes and strategies necessary for victory in the struggle. Which commands do you find easy to obey? Which ones do you find difficult? How have you been tested in this area during the past month?
4. The last section of the paragraph gives us instructions for how to respond to people who wish us (or actually do us) harm. Pastor Cam refers to this as “upside down” or “unnatural” living. Why? Do you think these commands are practical in the “real world”? Why or why not?
5. How does “repaying evil with evil” make us vulnerable and cause us to be “overcome by evil”? Can you give examples (from your own or other’s experience)? How does returning good for evil reverse this and allow us to “overcome evil with good.” Can you give examples?
6. For practical examples of this principle at work, consider Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:38-48. How do these examples help us understand Paul’s teaching in Romans 12?
7. Read the entire passage again, considering it as a description of the life of Christ. How did he live out these principles?
8. Share some ways you expect to experience the battle of good against evil in the coming week, and pray together that God will enable you to be victorious and “overcome evil with good.”