Reflection: Romans 12:14 – 21 (Roman 12 is my 2014 Meditation Theme)
Paul’s advice for the Roman church’s attitude towards enemies and evil during the reigns of the emperors Claudius and Nero buttresses Jesus’ counter-culture teachings in Matthew 5 (eg. turn the other cheek, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and do not resist an evil person) to the Palestinian Jews living under the Roman yoke. It would not surprise me if Paul’s earlier encounter with Stephen’s faith and composure (Acts 7) in the face of intimidation, and Jesus walking His talk throughout His non-violent life, and finally laying it down for us, reinforced his views. Obviously, these lofty ideals make no sense if the cross is excluded.
What are Paul’s instructions over this issue? (1) His reference of getting emotionally worked up at the horror of evil (‘abhor’ Rom 12:9) describes Jesus’ righteous anger at situations that He found abhorrent (eg. at Lazarus’ tomb with death; men’s hardness of hearts; the temple’s moneychangers). It would be catastrophic if we ever become devoid of righteous anger, and are desensitized towards evil, for to love as God does, is to feel indignant with evil. In this context, the surprising outcome of (1) above is closely associated with mediation; the difference being the aggrieved acting as a mediator: (2) to speak words of blessing and truth (v.14) that disarms the aggressor and not criticize or insult him, much like what David said to King Saul after he spares his life in a cave (1 Sam 24); (3) possessing a humble spirit (v.16, 20) is the core of ‘turning the other cheek,’ where it is never a question of redeeming our pride or honour, nor about internalizing the insult or assault, but embracing a different spirit of love and justice towards the transgressor – exactly how God deals with our depravity by loving the sinner but hating his sin. God knows how effective love is rarely efficient as it is often misperceived in its outworking; and (4) to forgive is what God requires from us, while discharging that debt of forgiveness belongs to God alone (v.20). Walking alongside our enemy, as God does with us in our non-too-perfect journey together, always take time and effort. Summarizing, to ‘overcome’ (v.21) is as an aggressive, military word, and to accomplish that over evil takes self-control and grit. The alternative is to become part of the evil in a tit-for-tat reaction, becoming controlled and manipulated by its unending cycle as in so many conflicts around the world. The absence of exceptions in these verses is enlightening.
Returning to verse 1 point us back to God’s purpose for this challenging endeavour, viz. because of His mercies toward us. As God takes a very serious view of sin and evil, the cross is an epitome of costly justice and love in action as we were once His foes too (Rom 5:10), but now, as the redeemed, we extend to our enemies God’s grace in forgiveness, by caring and praying for them, and doing everything we can to help them (v.20), as our gratification can no longer be in ourselves, but in the cross of Christ (Gal 6:14). It is critical to realize that despite our attempts, we may not overcome evil or gain a friend at the end of an encounter, but when the Christian paradigm is eternally paired with the cross, it will safeguard our conscience in peacemaking (Matt 5:9). May God’s wisdom guide us, as always, in the face of evil.