August 30th 2020
Pastor Galen Zook
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:24-25
In Romans 12, Paul instructs us to “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9).
Some of us have no problem with the “hating what is evil” part — especially when that evil is found in other people! Some people just love to point out other people’s flaws. And if social media is any indication of how people really feel, it seems that there are vast numbers of people who just go around being really angry at everything and everyone in the world that they think is wrong.
In truth, the “evil” that Paul is talking about here most likely has to do with the evil that’s inside each and every one of us — or at the very least, the evil desires that we all wrestle with.
Paul starts off Romans chapter 12 with an appeal to the brothers and sisters in Rome to present their “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1) and to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). He then goes on to instruct them to not think too highly of themselves, but to consider each other members of the same body — although every believer has different gifts, each person is significant and important to the Body of Christ.
So, when Paul says we should “hate what is evil” he does not seem to be encouraging us to direct our hatred towards other people — but rather that we should do everything within our power to refrain from allowing evil to get a foothold in our lives.
The word translated “hate” here can also be translated “dislike” or “abhor” — in other words, to literally have a horror of. When we’ve offered our lives to God as living sacrifices, and when we have been “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds,” then evil should become repugnant to us.
But Paul does not dwell on the topic of evil for too long. Immediately following his exhortation to hate what is evil, he encourages us to “hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9).
This is often much harder to do, and so Paul provides a list of what that looks like: Love one another, show honor to others, be zealous in serving the Lord, be patient and persistent in prayer, be generous and hospitable toward others, do not seek revenge, and if it is possible, try to live at peace with everyone.
That is quite a list! If we were to try to do all of those things, we’d be so busy we probably wouldn’t have time to look down on or despise others who aren’t doing the types of things we think they ought to be doing.
And maybe that’s Paul’s point.
You see, so often people think the Bible is just one big list of things that we’re not supposed to do, and that becoming a Christian means giving up or avoiding everything that might possibly be considered “fun.” And in truth it does seem like there are some Christians who walk around clutching the Bible and trying to make sure that no one around them is having fun.
But perhaps Paul is reminding us that following Jesus is not just about getting rid of all the bad and evil desires in our lives. It’s also about doing good in this world.
Think about it. Almost every religion of the world has something equivalent to what is often called “The Golden Rule.” But often this rule is stated in the negative:
- The Jewish rabbi Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
- Confucius said, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”
- Hinduism says: “Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”
- Buddhism: Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
In contrast, Jesus said “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12).
Following Jesus should lead not just to the avoidance of things that are harmful, but should propel us onward and upward, to work for positive change, and to follow Jesus in becoming forces for good in this world.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said it this way:
“Do all the good you can, By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can, In all the places you can,
At all the times you can, To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
Of course in saying that, I realize there can also be a danger in a different direction — of thinking of the Bible as sort of cookbook or recipe, where we just need to go down the list and make sure that we’re including all the right ingredients, doing everything in the right order to make sure that we’re doing everything just right.
Paul’s list here in Romans is not really a list of things that can be checked off — where you just complete certain tasks and then move onto the next step.
Instead, it’s more like a spice rack. Using spices in cooking is not really an exact science. One person might like salt and pepper on everything, while someone else might prefer oregano and basil, or curry and turmeric. Many of us here in Maryland like Old Bay, whereas most people throughout the world have never heard of it. In fact, my wife and I love Old Bay seasoning so much that we often put it on our scrambled eggs in the morning!
That’s sort of the spirit of Paul’s list here. He isn’t telling us to work through this list in order, checking off the ingredients and moving onto the next thing.
Instead, he’s encouraging us to be in tune with what’s happening in the world and with the people around us, and to season accordingly. To rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep. If and when we face persecution, we should bless those who persecute us. When someone does evil to us, we should not repay that person with evil. We should live in harmony with each other, and we shouldn’t claim to be wiser than we are.
Just like some spices might sit on our shelves for long periods of time in between usage, we may not have opportunity to do some of these things very often. But the important thing is that we’re allowing God to lead us and guide us, and to form us and shape us more and more into Christ’s likeness. We need to hold fast to what is good, not lag in our zeal, and not lose our passion in serving the Lord. And, just like adding spices to a dish, the activities that we’re involved with in this world should have an added benefit. We shouldn’t just go around doing good things to make ourselves feel good. We should respond to real needs and situations. As Paul says, our love should “be genuine.”
Doing good will not always come easily. That’s why we need to “hold fast” to what is good. There’s a current, an undertow that threatens to pull us under.
Sometimes the current is not so obvious. The other week I had the chance to go kayaking on the Potomac River. It was a gorgeous, bright and sunny day. There was barely any wind, and when you looked at the water it didn’t even appear to be moving. And yet there was a very gentle but strong current. Paddling downstream took hardly any effort at all, but when we turned our kayaks around to paddle back upstream we could definitely feel the current.
Following Jesus is like paddling upstream. It takes conscious effort to not get swept along with the current. We have to be zealous, we must be on our guard against the hatred, the bitterness, the animosity that is swirling all around us. We must guard against being swept away by the systems of injustice and oppression that are often hidden beneath the surface.
And so we must hold fast to what is good, not lagging in zeal, but being ardent in spirit and serving the Lord. Persevering, now allowing ourselves to be overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good.
As a model, we look to Jesus, who knew what was like to get beaten around by the storms of this life. He was on the receiving end of the worst evil this world has known. He experienced hatred and animosity from his own people. He was persecuted for doing the right thing. He experienced violence, betrayal, some of his closest friends and relatives turned their back on him. And yet, he blessed those who persecuted him. He held fast to what was good, and in the end he overcame evil with good.
The reality is that we will mess up sometimes. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to slip and fall. But when we do, Jesus will be right there to pick us up again, to set us back on track, to bandage up our wounds and to provide the healing that we need.
So let us hold fast. Let’s not allow ourselves to get swept up in the negativity that is swirling around us. Let us treat others the way we would want to be treated, not repaying evil with evil. And with God’s help, may we overcome evil with good.