Romans 12:20. To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Don’t seek vengeance, seek to help your enemy.
This kind of kindness will be like burning coals on their head.
Paul is quoting from Proverbs.
Proverbs 25:21-23. If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
22 for you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you.
23 The north wind brings forth rain,
and a backbiting tongue, angry looks.
Some see these burning coals as the judgment of God. And yes, there are times in the OT when burning coals are used as a metaphor for judgment. But is this the idea here? That if we are nice to our enemies, and they still do not repent, then God will judge them even more severely? Yikes. I’m not sure this is what Jesus was thinking on the cross.
Others have interpreted this as a way of shaming or embarrassing your enemy. “Be good to them so that they feel bad.” But this seems to go against the vibe of the passage as well. Should we be nice just so others feel lousy? And even if that does bring repentance would that repentance be real?
But some commentators see an ancient Egyptian ritual at work here (btw- we can tell that this proverb is borrowed from Egypt because of 25:23. North winds bringing rain only happens in Egypt not Israel). In that culture when two people reconciled and forgave each other they would put burning coals into clay pots to be carried on their heads. It probably goes back to the kindness you would show a guest by giving them burning coals before they left your house at night so that when they got home they would have something to start their fire with.
Maybe what Paul is saying is similar to what Christ said – “turn the other cheek.” Start the reconciliation ritual by giving the burning coals, even if your enemy hasn’t apologized yet. Even if they aren’t sorry. Even if they don’t deserve it. Start the process and give them a chance to join.
Why would I do that? Because maybe it will work. Maybe they will receive the gift. The food. The drink. Maybe they’ll see that they are hungry and thirsty. Maybe they’ll see that they need you. They need community. They need reconciliation with God and man. Do it because this is what God did for you. He heaped burning coals into your jar. He was kind first. He reached out first. He forgave first. He loved first.
Jean Valjean spares Javert. When you have experienced mercy you will show mercy.
Could acting in such kindness make your enemy feel shame? Might it make them more aware of God’s judgment upon them? Possibly. Even probably. But this is not to be our motivation. Our attitude must be one of constant reconciliation even to the point where we will start the ceremony. We will be the first to apologize. We will be the first to reach out. We will be the first to restore. We will be the first to give burning coals.
Notice also that your first move needs to be tangible. Feed your hungry enemy. Give drink to your thirsty enemy. Meet an actual need. Having forgiving thoughts and warm feelings toward your enemy a) isn’t likely, and b) isn’t enough. Get your Good Samaritan on.
Now do you see what’s happened? You’ve moved your enemy into Romans 12:13.
Romans 12:13. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
As always, this is only possible when we are in Christ. When we are gospel focused and driven. When we are receiving grace and resting in grace. “To live is Christ” makes this crazy ethic sane. It can be done. It must be done. This is why Christ died. Not so we can retaliate or just ignore our enemies, but so that we can win them back.
Christian, you have the grace and power you need to pursue peace. I know it’s scary, but God’s Spirit will go before you. Make the move. Make the call. Send the email. You won’t regret it. Trust God. His wrath and his grace. He WILL use it for good. I promise.