Non-Zero Sum, Part 1

My dad tells the story of a time when two of my sisters were fighting.  When the tears had subsided enough to learn what was going on, one of them explained what had happened: “She hit me back!”.

In the news (and public reaction to the news) today, it seems that one must always take a side.  When an evil act occurs (which it often does in this fallen world), any evaluation of wrong behavior or bad choices on both sides is somehow considered taboo.

To be clear, many do suffer in this world for reasons that they don’t deserve: Children are conscripted, exploited, and harmed by the sins of adults.  Bystanders are caught up in conflicts that are fostered and nurtured by the hate of others.  Some victims are only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or having a certain background, appearance, or accent.  Evil people do evil things that still shock decent people.  Our world is fallen: both cursed because of the sin of mankind in general, and marred by the bad choices that people – including each of us, I’m afraid – continue to make.  The effect of both of these facts still impact the innocent (and relatively innocent) among us.

We must not blame victims for the sins of others (nor should you carry any blame or shame for sin that was someone else’s responsibility).  However, there is a difference between an assault and a fight.  If we are honest – and not encumbered by the fear that we will be assaulted in the sphere of public opinion for doing so – it is often both parties who have done something wrong in the latter case.  This does not excuse the behavior of either, but evil is not a zero-sum game.  For instance, political attack ads often suggest that one candidate is unfit for the job, but that doesn’t always mean that the opposing candidate should be elected, either.  Angry people arguing with angry people should not expect a “pass” to be granted either.  Many debates are between two equally-wrong or equally un-loving points of view.

Just because someone else – who thinks different than me – is wrong, that doesn’t make me right.  When we believe that we are always right when our opponent isn’t, and feel justified in doing whatever it takes to “get them back”, what happens instead?

If we Return Evil for Evil, then Evil Wins

For one thing, evil escalates.

When we lie to our friends, and they do something mean in return, neither we nor they are free from culpability.  When one corporation, political party, or nation attacks the members of another group, and then receives similar (or worse) treatment in retaliation, the paying back of wrong for wrong doesn’t make either wrong right.

Instead, the Bible provides clear instruction on this:

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.
Romans 12:17 NASB

Even when two parties are both at fault, the sins of one cannot be assigned to the other.  We must not blame victims for the evil of others in a one-way attack, but when wrong behavior is found on both sides of a fight, loving guidance to address the wrong choices made by each person may be appropriate; however, this must still be tempered with grace and wisdom.

If We Return Evil for Evil, then Relationships are Ruined

Propagating a cycle of hurt and harm rarely succeeds in persuading the other party to back down, reform, or turn into a purveyor of kindness.

If we can be part of the cycle of peace, we have a chance to actually defuse a situation.  This may grate against our sense of personal “fairness” (which can be a cover for just wanting to get our way), but there may be a larger benefit to a relationship in being the better person, and leaving a slight or insult un-avenged.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Matthew 5:9 NASB

Peace often comes as a choice.  While our natural reaction is typically to react “in kind” (rather than kindly) when we are wronged, pausing to do something better typically requires a conscious effort.  This may mean staying our hand from the horn, or biting our tongue for a moment.  Peace with a hostile party doesn’t happen unless the other party decides to not escalate the situation or propagate the tension.  Sometimes (often?) we must be that “other party” who makes the better choice.

Side Thought:

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be wise.  For instance, if a friend continued to get mugged repeatably while taking the same path home each evening, suggesting an alternate route would be wise and appropriate.  Suggesting that he was responsible for tempting the robbers by walking from his place of employment to his car (unless he was counting through his cash each night in the open) would probably be out of line.

In the same way, we might forgive friends for not keeping our trust, but that doesn’t mean we should continue to confide in them.  Sometimes, we may need to even stop spending time with certain people – not to punish them, but to protect both them and ourselves from temptation against which we know we are weak.

In any case, may we each strive – with God’s help – to:

  • Call evil as evil (even if it seems to be the “lesser” evil).
  • Propagate peace by not repaying evil for evil, and in doing so, curtail the spread of evil.
  • Seek reconciliation in relationships…as much as we can (understanding that just as it takes two to fight, it also takes two to achieve bilateral peace; however, it takes just one to forgive).


In Part 2, let’s consider where evil comes from, and what we can do to overcome it.


Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.


16 thoughts on “Non-Zero Sum, Part 1”

    1. I appreciate your kind words. To be honest, this was a difficult article to write, given some of the things that are happening in today’s culture. While we must strive to not return evil for evil, it was also important to me that true victims (recipients of others’ evil actions) not be marginalized in the process. Jesus cared for the oppressed, and so should we!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I’ve taken the liberty of reposting your post, hope you don’t mind. Kind of in a hurry getting ready for church so had to make a command decision. Thank you again for this timely post! Please let me know what your first name is M. Dennis!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Dennis, your topic had been on my mind also of late, due to some exchanges I’ve had and scripture verses that spoke to my heart. As soon as I read your post I knew where God was going with His guidance and so, it meant a lot to me. It is difficult but still we are called to be different and that difference is vitally important, especially in todays climate. Short story, I am grateful that you put it together (very well I might add) and it definitely is something that we should constantly be mindful of. Have a blessed day Dennis, just so you know, I really enjoy your posts. Grace and blessings to you and yours!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually, there was a lot to say on this topic. It’s actually scheduled in 3 parts this week, so no worries! I appreciate the chance to sometime dig into topics a little more than a single post might otherwise cover.


  2. As I read this, a version of the Law of Non-contradiction kept coming up in my mind (though only a minor side-note to your very important point of how we are to respond to others in Godly love): Two contradictory truth claims cannot both be simultaneously true, though both may be false.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, we must be humble enough to consider carefully that last option – making sure that our own position is well-founded and correct. Sometimes we must remove the log from our own eyes, first.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a conversation which is sorely needed in our country today. We need to understand our own motives as well as those attacking our points of view. I could have a very interesting argument with my younger self. When I am spiritually motivated, instead of intellectually, I draw from a position of Love and understanding which does not repel. Being human I need to be reminded which motivation is driving me to respond when I am in opposition to another. Thank you for starting this discussion and offering a level playing field.

    Liked by 2 people

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