What do you think most helps people succeed in life? Is it your gifts or your grit? It turns out. Success has way more to do with grit, with your ability to persevere the face of tough things. You can have all the natural gifts. But if you don’t have the grit to strengthen and develop them, then those gifts aren’t going to really matter.
And we’re not just talking about how you perform at work or how many healthy habits you keep. No, grit leads to success in something more crucial, in how you relate to others, not only your spouse or children, but the most difficult people you will face. Too often, people don’t know what grit looks like in those places. They get gritty about the wrong things. Then they wonder why things aren’t working, why things go so far south. What is it that you need to succeed in dealing with others, especially the others who irritate or hurt you the most? Here in these words, God shows the way.
How do you deal with difficult people, from folks who just irritate you to folks who actually are out to get you? If you do what comes naturally, you’ll do this. You’ll get back at them. You’ll counter punch. You punch me. I’m going to punch you back, and maybe harder. Yet, here, in these words, God presents a profoundly different perspective. God says. When others offend you or even try to hurt you, the grit that truly transforms can’t be about aggression. The kind of grit that transforms can only come from grace.
God says here not only that you don’t repay evil for evil, but you overcome evil with good. And this word, overcome, comes from the military. God is saying that you actually defeat evil by returning evil with good.
Now, before we dig down into how this sort of gritty grace works, let’s take a moment to focus on why aggression, why hitting back doesn’t work. After all, before Christianity, no other philosophy or religion took this position that doing good defeats evil. Everybody agreed on the counter punch method. So what makes that such a bad option?
First, let’s look at it practically. When someone does evil to you, and you simply return the evil, you’ve become part of the problem, not the solution. Evil has conquered you. Only when you counter evil with something that isn’t evil, do you win. And returning the evil, can happen in two ways, and both destroy you and others. First, you can simply hit back, give as good as you got. Or second, you may not hit back, but still you hope that in some way a hit back occurs. You may not do them evil, but you sure hope evil happens. And in both cases that way of dealing with evil twists you up. How?
First, it distorts not just that relationship in your life, but every other relationship like it. Let’s say, you have a man who is mistreated by a woman. She does him wrong. And he carries anger and bitterness towards her over it. Well, that anger and bitterness, won’t only distort that relationship, it will distort any other relationship he has with women in the future. He will carry that chip on his shoulder maybe his whole life. And it works vice versa too. Or it could be an issue you have with someone of a different class or ethnic group. Heck, it could be people in general. Someone hurts you, and in your anger and bitterness, you stop trusting anyone at all. You view the whole world with a defensive posture. And that’s not good.
And second, it distorts you deep inside. The gospel tells us that the two issues that lie at the heart of the human problem are self-centeredness and self-righteousness. Self-centered tells you that you’re more important than anyone else. And self-righteousness says, you’re better than anyone else. And beyond these messages being totally wrong, they lead to all sorts of disastrous consequences. Where do you think war ultimately comes from? And when you wish evil on others, you feed those two messages. To stoke your indignation, not only do you make yourself better than you are, you make them worse. And the more you do it, the more self-centered and self-righteous you become. And when that happens, you can give yourself permission to do all sorts of evil. And it so blinds you, you convince yourself that you’re doing good.
And beyond what it does to you, and to your relationships, hitting back further distorts the person who hurt you in the first place. Your hitting back only validates for them that they did the right thing. After all, you did it right back to them. Evil wins in you, in them, everywhere. And it leads to a world where everyone is always delivering pay-back perpetually generation after generation. What does that look like? If you want to know, look at one of those lands that has enshrined the payback, like say, Afghanistan.
Now before, we dig down into how good overcomes evil, let me make it clear. I am focusing on how this plays out in individual relationships, not in relationships between nations. That’s a sermon for a different day. But this principle of overcoming evil with good you will find again and again throughout the whole Bible.
But how do you practically do this? How do you overcome evil with good? You engage in five practices.
First, Paul tells us, you bless those who persecute you. Another way to put this might be, you pray for them. Why? Because it is very hard to hate someone for whom you are praying. Even if you pray that God might straighten them out, you’re still praying for their good, that they’ll wake up from their wrong path.
Second, forgive them. And let’s be clear about what forgiveness means. It doesn’t mean that you minimize the wrong, you just let go of the desire to deliver retribution for it. As Paul puts it, you don’t go for vengeance. And when you forgive, you need to understand. Forgiveness is always granted before it is felt. You don’t feel your way into forgiving. The forgiving comes first, and then over time the feeling follows. Forgiving simply means, that you stop carrying the grudge, nursing the grievance. After all, it isn’t really harming them. It’s harming you. Holding a grudge is like drinking poison, and expecting the other person to get sick.
Third, you don’t avoid them. As Paul puts it, if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. That means if they don’t want to see you, fine. But you don’t avoid the relationship. Why? Because let’s be honest, if you are avoiding them, it because you want to pay them back. You’re saying. You hurt me, so I am taking away any relationship I have with you. You are repaying evil with evil.
Fourth, you will their good. As Paul puts it, if your enemy is hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Now this may not happen literally, but basically you seek the best for them.
And finally, you oppose them humbly. Right after Paul says these words about feeding your enemy, he follows it up with this. He says. “For by doing this, you will heap burning coals on their head.” What does that mean? It probably comes from what folks in a walled city did when they were defending it. When the enemies came up, they poured hot coals or tar down on them to push them back. In other words, when someone does evil, you don’t lay down and take it. You stand against it. You stand against it by not paying them back with the evil they did to you. And in doing that, you win. This is how Gandhi won independence for India. This is how Dr. King and his fellow leaders brought about racial justice. And in both cases, they didn’t do it with an attitude of superiority or self-righteousness. Just read Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail to see how you can stand for good in a way that is both powerful and profoundly humble.
And when you do these things, you do overcome evil with good. But for this to happen, you need to do all of them. If you read Dr. King’s letter from that jail, it becomes clear. Before he wrote it, he had prayed for his enemies. He had forgiven them. He had not avoided them. And he had sought their good. Only when you do those things, are you ready to oppose. But let’s make it clear, you do need to oppose. Overcoming evil with good does not mean laying down and letting people walk over you. It means opposing them, but in a way that can truly transform them, by opposing them in love and humility.
But how do you do these things? How do you get the power to pray and forgive? How do you get the power to not avoid those who want to hurt you but to seek their good, even as you lovingly stand against them? The power comes when you gain the perspective you need, and that perspective comes in two ways.
Why does God say, “Vengeance is mine?” Why does God get to do payback, but we don’t. Because God knows, and we don’t. When someone hurts you, you think you know why they did it. But you don’t. You don’t know all the things in their life that led to that moment. Heck, you don’t know all the things in that day that led to it. Only God knows that. And when we judge, we always use a double standard. When I’m driving along, and I see someone driving and texting, I get all judgy. Don’t they know how dangerous that is. But when I do it, oh, it’s because I really need to respond to this person immediately. As one writer put it. We judge others by their actions. But we judge ourselves by our intentions.
But more than that, what did God do with the power to judge? He took the judgment upon himself. The judge of the universe became the one that was judged. And he did it for us. As God in Jesus suffered on that cross, what did he do? He prayed for his enemies. He said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Even at the end, to his own executioners, he willed their good, even as he opposed them calling them out for the evil they did. And in that agony, God had the ultimate victory over evil, and he did it by overcoming it with good. If Jesus could pray for his enemies, even there, how can we hold grudges against the people who have wronged us?
If God had done that, had held the grudge, then all of us would be without hope. But God didn’t. God took the judgment that belonged to us so that by his punishment we might go free. What gives you the power to overcome evil with good? That does. Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all. What gives you the power? That. What God has already done for you. That gives you the power.