I was bullied as a child, and I have also parented a child who was bullied. When my son first started experiencing what lasted for well over a decade, I was all too familiar with his pain. More importantly, I am also a child of God, so Jesus’ death and resurrection meant that I did not have to sin in the trials, but I could actually honor and obey my holy Father. It meant I had access to the infinite wisdom of God. It meant my sovereign Father forced each trial to do me good. It meant I had the God-given capacity to love those who sinned against me and my son. It meant I could boldly approach an understanding Savior to find deep compassion, the source of all comfort, and unfailing help in my family’s time of need (Hebrews 4:15).
Shepherding my own heart and my family through those trials was painful and difficult, but it was also full of gospel opportunities, orchestrated and customized just for the Keeters by a loving, wise, and holy Father. Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects for me in working with my child, as well as for many of the parents I have counseled, was helping him apply the wisdom of Romans 12.
The twelfth chapter of Romans begins with a command for our minds to be continually transformed so that we will live for Christ instead of conforming ourselves to worldly thinking and behavior (vv. 1-2). Shortly after that, and right on the heels of a command to love and practice hospitality to our brothers and sisters in the Lord, Paul gives us another very important command:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:14–15).
This shift to “those who persecute you” is not disconnected from the previous thirteen verses. If we think and act like the unredeemed world (v. 2a), then we will curse those who wrong us and even seek to exact revenge. By contrast, if we are renewed in the Spirit (v. 2b), we will not only refrain from cursing and vengeance, but will actually seek to bless those who wrong us and will show genuine compassion toward them. You are to rejoice when things go well with them, rather than to return evil for evil by being envious. Similarly, when they experience hardship, you are to show genuine compassion for them, rather than returning evil for evil by gloating.
God takes seriously how you respond to wrongs against you. Paul goes on in Romans 12 to categorically prohibit returning evil for evil or exacting revenge. “Vengeance is mine,” declares the Lord. We simply do not have the right because we are not God. He alone is holy and perfect in the scope and timing of His justice.
This command then follows:
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).
God not only prohibits returning evil for evil, but He also prohibits indifference or ignoring the situation. Instead, you are commanded to “overcome evil with good.” To be overcome by evil is to give in to worldly thinking (v. 2a), seeking to exact revenge and return evil for evil. Being overcome by evil means you allow evil treasures to rule your heart more than the love of Christ.1William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, vol. 12–13, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953–2001), 423. But to overcome evil with good means you continue to be faithfully obedient even in the face of personal injury. It means you live in a Christ-honoring way toward everyone, including your enemies, showing humility (Romans 12:3, 16), helpfulness (12:6–8), and peacefulness to all (12:18). You and your child need to intentionally and purposefully bless those who have wronged (and even continue to wrong) you, to show them kindness, and to pray for God to do good in their lives.2Ibid.
I realize how hard this may seem when you’re in the middle of a crisis. That’s why we don’t look to ourselves to obey these good commands. We rely on the love of Christ within us to live for the glory and honor of Christ:
For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf (2 Corinthians 5:14–15).
The point is that a pervasive love for God’s wisdom and glory produces a faithful obedience that purposely seeks to return good for evil.
With your child, pray regularly for the bully—for God to bless him or her. Ask God to help you forsake anything within either of you that promotes sinful, vengeful attitudes and responses. Ask Jesus to help you and your child plan to show kindness to the bully when given an opportunity. Aren’t you grateful that God did this and more for you?
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
So how do we (and our child) move from a bitter spirit toward the compassionate kindness we see in Romans 12?
So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you (Colossians 3:12–13).
It shouldn’t take much reflection on the gospel to put circumstances into perspective when others wrong us. Why not? Because we have wronged God infinitely more. Granted, moving from bitterness toward what Paul exhorts in Colossians 3:12–13 will cost you and your child—not in cash dollars, but in the currency of humility, patience, and trust in the God who owns exclusive rights to ultimate justice. But you can be sure it will never cost you more than what it cost God to forgive you.
With your child, ask the Lord to help both of you to grow in kindness and compassion toward the bully. Express concern for the bully’s relationship with God, since by doing your child harm the bully is in rebellion against a holy God, a terrible position to be in for sure! Then work on replacing hurtful thoughts with thoughts consistent with what we read in Philippians 4:8; specifically, thoughts that are
- Right: thinking from God’s point of view;
- Admirable: reflecting on the good in the other person as opposed to fault-finding;
- Lovely: considering how you can serve or build up others (including the bully).3For an excellent treatment of how to apply Philippians 4:8, I highly recommend John Vandegriff, In the Arena of the Mind (Howell, NJ: Ask, Seek, and Knock, 1992).
Recently, the fruit of this hard-learned lesson was put on display in my (now adult) son. While he was away at college, I was approached one Sunday by one of the young men who bullied him severely in high school, whom I had not seen since in over four years. Not only was this person now attending my church, but God placed him into my life in such a way that I was regularly interacting with and ministering to him. I have to admit, my and my wife’s initial reaction was less than enthusiastic. However, when we told my son, his first response was, “That’s amazing! I’m so thankful that the Lord changed his heart and brought him to our church!” What an awesome reaction! Where did that come from? It came from a heart that, through a series of painful trials, was taught to love even his enemies with gospel love and to genuinely desire to bless even those who at one time cursed him. My wife and I were both humbled that Sunday by the grace of God as He brought us both someone who would eventually become a new friend and fellow church member from a place we never imagined. Glory be to God!
You can read a more thorough treatment of this topic here: Help! My Child is Being Bullied.