“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing!”
True or False?
I’ve referenced this quote hundreds of times. And a poll concluded that the quote is the most popular one of modern times. Americans wholeheartedly embrace it.
But what if I told you the quote is neither Scriptural, nor inspired. Truthfully, it promotes a very humanistic view of the world.
Yes, this famous quote is anti-biblical for a number of reasons.
So am I suggesting good men should do nothing?
OF COURSE NOT!
But I am saying that we too often accept as “gospel truth” what our traditions teach us, our parents pass down, or our culture inculcates.
In this case, there is pressure from the statement itself because no one wants to be a bad man, so to be a “good man” we must do something. Then, our traditions, our peers, or our echo-chambers, are all there to tell us what we must do.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s dissect what’s wrong with the quote from a biblical standpoint.
1️⃣ First, evil at times does triumph (temporarily), even at God’s command or order, for His greater purposes. (Hold on… read on.)
2️⃣ Second, at times good men are told, by God, to stand down, to do nothing, and to let evil triumph (momentarily). In fact, we are told that at times, fighting evil is akin to fighting against God. (Keep reading…)
3️⃣ Third, the quote implies that “nothing” equals not doing something. So it is a call to “action.” One must do something. But “not acting” is not the same as “not doing.”
Now let me reiterate, THIS IS NOT A CALL TO DO NOTHING. But it is a challenge to go to God’s Word to see what God has to say about evil, what He might be doing, and what our role is in responding to it. So let’s look at the three points above in greater detail.
1️⃣ First, when we suggest “evil triumphs” we have a very short sighted understanding of triumph. We fail to understand that our ways and thoughts are not God’s ways and thoughts. We ignore the truth that for God, a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day (2 Peter 3:8). There is no ultimate triumphing of evil. There is only what God sovereignly allows, or causes, momentarily. I will share a story from the Old Testament in just a bit, but let’s look at the second point from above.
2️⃣ At times, good men are told, by God, to stand down and to do nothing, as in take no action. As a result, evil will triumph (momentarily). What??? You mean God allows, or causes , what we call evil and then He asks us to not act? Yep. He absolutely does as Scripture reveals. While we will never fully understand God’s thoughts or ways (He Himself tells us this) we can study what He does and begin to conclude How He acts, at times.
The Old Testament is replete with stories that give us a peek into who God is and how He acts. I’ll cite just one. The southern kingdom of Israel, called Judah, had regularly strayed from God, throughout its existence. As a result, God ultimately punished it by bringing a foreign power to conquer it and take its citizens into captivity. The following passages tells us what was going to happen, why it would happen, and what Judah’s response should be:
“Now Zedekiah king of Judah had imprisoned him there, saying, “Why do you prophesy as you do? You say, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am about to give this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will capture it. Zedekiah king of Judah will not escape the Babylonians but will certainly be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and will speak with him face to face and see him with his own eyes. He will take Zedekiah to Babylon, where he will remain until I deal with him, declares the Lord. If you fight against the Babylonians, you will not succeed.’” Jeremiah 32:3-5
Continuing with this additional passage, the evil that was coming was described, and yet Judah was to not resist:
“I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me? Therefore this is what the Lord says: I am about to give this city into the hands of the Babylonians and to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, who will capture it. The Babylonians who are attacking this city will come in and set it on fire; they will burn it down, along with the houses where the people aroused my anger by burning incense on the roofs to Baal and by pouring out drink offerings to other gods. “The people of Israel and Judah have done nothing but evil in my sight from their youth; indeed, the people of Israel have done nothing but arouse my anger with what their hands have made, declares the Lord.” Jeremiah 32:27-30
So God tells His people that an evil power was going to triumph over them (which they brought on themselves). And they were told that if they fought against that power, they would not succeed. How does that reconcile with the famous quote above?
3️⃣ Our role is to listen to our Captain to determine what, if anything, we are to do. From Judah, we learn that there are times when TO ACT IS TO SIN. As Americans, this is a tough principle to accept. We are action oriented. So when God tells us to “be still” or to not act (do nothing), it goes against the grain of who we are as a people.
“Not acting” though is not the same as “not doing.” There is a time to act, and a time not to act. But there is one “do” that we should never cease from doing. It is the most powerful “doing” you can ever undertake, and it will guide and empower you when you are finally called to rise up and act. The do that is more important than any action is this: “Pray without ceasing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:17
Our first, and overriding, response to evil should always be prayer. This is the greatest weapon any believer can have when faced with evil. Yet how often do we either forget, or we don’t really consider this as “doing?” When was the last time you or I sweat drops of blood, or just shed tears of anguish, for the evil we were confronting? Jesus did.
Evil is spiritual. Prayer is spiritual. The battle is always spiritual. So we must start, and finish, there: Prayer!
At the end of the day, all evil is only vanquished spiritually. This is not to say that we cannot, or should not take practical, physical steps to address evil. But when doing so, it should only be as we are directly commanded or called to do such. And we should never believe the other false parallel quote that states, “if it’s to be, it’s up to me.”
When evil is defeated, it’s always a God thing. We see this in another famous story in the Old Testament, involving a man named Gideon. God pared Gideon’s army down from 32,000 men to only 300. God then took that band of men, equipped them with lamps and trumpets, and told them to just blow their instruments and shout. No swords, slingshots, or physical weapons. Just men who trusted and obeyed God. And God told them why He used such an unconventional manner to defeat the evil in their midst:
“The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’” Judges 7:2
Sadly, men are prideful beings. We love to take credit for good. But if there is any good that occurs, or if evil is defeated, it is only God. First, middle and last. We might be a tool to achieve that defeat, or we might not.
But to boil down evil and why it occurs and “triumphs” to a simple humanistic explanation of “good men doing nothing” ignores all of the Bible and tempts you and me to act first, and pray or consider God last, if at all. This quote would have you believe that to do less, or different, makes you a “bad man” and insures the defeat of good, which means God (since God is good).
God cannot be defeated. Nor is His future dependent on your strength or action. What He desires is for you and me to be so close to Him, that when He commands us to be still, we hear Him. And when He commands us to shout, we shout!
But in the meantime, those who call Jesus their Savior should start with “Pray without ceasing.”