The Christian lives in a fallen world, and in order for him to overcome evil, he must grow spiritually and live in regular dependence on God the Holy Spirit to sustain and direct his life. The Holy Spirit will never lead the Christian independently of Scripture. Learning God’s Word necessarily precedes living His will, as the Christian cannot live what he does not know. Change his mind and you’ll change his ways. After regeneration, the Christian’s mind is still filled with a lifetime of worldly thinking, which will cause him problems to the degree that it remains the basis for his decisions in life. If he thinks like the world then he’ll live like the world. Worldly viewpoint should give way to the light of God’s Word as the Christian begins to adjust his thinking and bring it into conformity with the mind of God. As Christians, we are always in the process of “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). We do this so we will “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). For the Christian, overcoming evil starts with a change in thinking that leads to a change in behavior. Without solid thinking rooted in Scripture, the Christian will not be able to stand against the evil pressures Satan will put on him.
The Christian living in society sometimes faces tremendous pressure to conform to the values and behaviors of those around him. Not only does the Christian face the external pressure of those who are weak and have given themselves over to Satan’s evil system, but he also faces the pressure of his own sin nature that has a natural affinity with the devil’s world. If Satan were a broadcaster sending out his radio signal, the sin nature would be that internal receiver that is automatically tuned to its message. There is a part of us that is corrupt and is naturally bent toward evil, whether moral or immoral, and we must be aware of this flaw within ourselves. We are given a new spiritual nature at the moment of salvation, which is naturally tuned to God’s message and is receptive to the Holy Spirit. The Christian’s new spiritual nature is continually in conflict with his old sinful nature, as these are in complete opposition to each other. The Apostle Paul tells us, “the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (Gal. 5:17; cf. Rom. 8:5-8).
The old nature (which has its origin in our physical birth) fights against the new nature which we receive when we are born again (Gal. 5:16–26). No amount of self-discipline, no set of man-made rules and regulations, can control this old nature. Only the Holy Spirit of God can enable us to “put to death” the old nature (Rom. 8:12–13) and produce the Spirit’s fruit (Gal. 5:22–23) in us through the new nature.
Those in the world who have given themselves over to Satan’s evil system often demand that others in their periphery conform to their values. Persecution often comes in stages and is defined as “the suffering or pressure, mental, moral, or physical, which authorities, individuals, or crowds inflict on others, especially for opinions or beliefs, with a view to their subjection by recantation, silencing, or, as a last resort, execution.” Evil men often employ pressure tactics of all sorts, including violence, in order to obtain their objective. In fact, it was during a time of great persecution by the Roman government that the apostle Paul wrote to Christians and told them they must “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). Satan was trying to destroy the early church and many in the Roman government were used by him to persecute Christians. Many Roman officials demanded that Christians recognize Caesar as a god to be worshipped, and if those Christians refused, then they would be persecuted and put to death. The Roman government did not separate state from religion, and if a Roman citizen refused to worship as the state mandated, that citizen would then be guilty of treason and could face capital punishment. Many Christians living in Rome faced persecution because they refused to worship Caesar as a god, and the result was often torture and death.
The persecution of Christians became heightened in the summer of A.D. 64 when the emperor Nero falsely blamed them for a fire that had burned much of the city of Rome. The false charge unleashed the anger of many hostile citizens, and the fury of Rome exploded against the early church and many Christians died a horrible death. Later, the emperor Domitian (ca. A.D. 81-96) carried out attacks against Christians and persecuted them as well. Herbert W. Workman writes:
Some, suffering the punishment of parricides, were shut up in a sack with snakes and thrown into the sea; others were tied to huge stones and cast into a river. For Christians the cross itself was not deemed sufficient agony; hanging on the tree, they were beaten with rods until their bowels gushed out, while vinegar and salt were rubbed into their wounds. …Christians were tied to catapults, and so wrenched from limb to limb. Some…were thrown to the beasts; others were tied to their horns. Women were stripped, enclosed in nets, and exposed to the attacks of furious bulls. Many were made to lie on sharp shells, and tortured with scrapers, claws, and pincers, before being delivered to the mercy of the flames. Not a few were broken on the wheel, or torn in pieces by wild horses. Of some the feet were slowly burned away, cold water being dowsed over them the while lest the victims should expire too rapidly. …Down the backs of others melted lead, hissing and bubbling, was poured; while a few ‘by the clemency of the emperor’ escaped with the searing out of their eyes, or the tearing off of their legs.
To avoid such persecutions by Roman governmental officials, the Christian had only to denounce his faith and say “Caesar is lord.” Some might argue that it would have been better to give recognition to a Roman emperor rather than suffer greatly or watch family members be put to death. However, the demands of Christianity (now, as well as then) are such that a believer can never worship a substitute for the living Christ. When confronted with persecution, any compromise of faith is shameful in the face of those who have testified for Christ with their life. The early Christians understood that there was never a time when they could deny Jesus as their Lord and be justified in doing so. Just as three Hebrew children in the book of Daniel stood before a mighty king and were willing to face suffering rather than deny the only true God (Dan. 3), so thousands of early Christians where willing to face Roman persecution even if it resulted in their death.
Because persecution was part of the normal Christian experience in the early church, Paul knew there would be Christians who would be tempted to retaliate against their attackers and do evil to those who did evil to them. Unjustified attacks will stimulate the sin nature within the Christian. Because the sin nature is usually the first responder in evil situations, the Christian must be careful to exercise self-restraint and not act impulsively, but control his emotions. The Christian must be governed by God’s Word and never by his hot temper, as the Scripture tells him to “be angry, and yet do not sin” (Eph. 4:26).
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. (Rom. 12:17-19)
It’s easy to retaliate and kick the one who kicked you, or hit the one who hit you, or curse the one who cursed you. But this is not the Christian way. Jesus suffered unjustly many times throughout His life, and especially during His illegal trials which led to His crucifixion. And even though He was verbally reviled, “He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23).
As children of God, we must live on the highest level—returning good for evil. Anyone can return good for good and evil for evil. The only way to overcome evil is with good. If we return evil for evil, we only add fuel to the fire. And even if our enemy is not converted, we have still experienced the love of God in our own hearts and have grown in grace.
The persecuted Christians living in Rome could face their evil attackers with courage because they knew God was in control of their circumstances as well as their eternal destiny. Just as three Hebrew children were able to stand against the pressure of a Babylonian king and face the torment of fire rather than compromise their faith, the Christians living in Rome faced their attackers by trusting God and His Word. By faith, the Christian has confidence in the face of suffering because he knows “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Even if the Christian should face death, he knows he will leave this world and come immediately into the presence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), have a new home in heaven (John 14:1-6), receive his resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:51-57; Phil. 3:21), obtain his eternal inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4-5), and enjoy the reality of the eternal life he received at the moment of he trusted Christ as his Savior (John 3:16; 10:28; 1 John 5:10). Jesus Himself stated “do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
Living in God’s will is not always easy, and it does not guarantee a positive response from those who follow worldly values. The teaching of Scripture is that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Sadly, there are many Christians who suffer for sinful reasons and it is good that they suffer, if it teaches them humility and respect for legitimate authority. The Apostle Peter tells Christians to “make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name” (1 Pet. 4:15-16). We cannot stop suffering in this life, but “it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong” (1 Pet. 3:17). We cannot control what other people think or how they behave, but we can control our response to them, and we can make sure that what we do is pleasing to the Lord by being obedient-to-the-Word believers. In this way, we can overcome evil by doing God’s will for our lives; and this is good.
The Christian cannot control much of the suffering that comes into his life, but he does not have to be overcome by that suffering, as he can look to God and maintain faith in His Word. Jesus was not overcome by the cruelty and suffering he experienced, but showed love and forgiveness to His attackers (Luke 23:34), and “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Stephen, who spoke strong words of truth while filled with the Holy Spirit, prayed and asked God to forgive those who stoned him to death (Acts 7:60). Paul and Silas demonstrated loving concern for the jailer who kept them in chains, sharing the gospel with him when given the opportunity (Acts 16:22-31). Our lives may be vulnerable to the unjust pain and suffering caused by others, but we must look beyond the suffering and be willing to love even our attackers for the sake of Christ in the hope that they may come to know the gospel and be saved.
Steven R. Cook, M.Div.
 Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, New Testament, Vol. 2, 480.
 Geoffrey W. Bromily, “Persecution,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 3 (Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 771.
 Herbert B. Workman, Persecution in the Early Church (Cincinnati: Jennings & Graham, 1906), 299-300.
 Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: New Testament, Vol. 1, 556.