Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 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.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
This text has always intrigued me. I am not sure why, but probably because the exact meaning and application has been difficult for many people. I have had numerous people ask me what it means when it says “you will heap burning coals on his head.” Does it mean:
1. To kill them with kindness? In other words, in being kind to our enemies we are getting some satisfaction by the fact that they it will cause them to become even more angry with us and they will live in greater misery.
2. By being kind to our enemies, their judgment will be greater since they showed evil to those who did good to them? So, in some indirect way, we take part in their judgment by our kind actions toward them.
3. To confront evil by involving the government authorities (discussed in Romans chapter 13, the text immediately following the text above). By involving the government, we are really giving people who do evil what is for their own good, justice.
4. That if we treat people with kindness that they will see the love in God in through their enemies? So the burning coals are a symbol of conviction that will bring them to repentance.
5. To literally give hot coals to our enemies so that they may take it to their home and use it to keep their families warm? So, the hot coals are a blessing, not a curse or form of judgment.
As we can see, there are many different ways to look at the text. In Romans, the apostle Paul is quoting two verses out of the book of Proverbs (25:21-22). But in understanding what he is doing in Romans 12, I think it is important to not forget a couple of things. It is so easy to focus on interpreting the meaning of “heap burning coals on his head” and miss what Paul is communicating.
First, Paul is presenting two completely different and contrasting philosophies and world views. He says in verse 19, “never avenge yourselves”. Then he says in verse 20, “to the contrary”. He calls those who desire “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice” as their spiritual worship to God (Romans 12:1) to live in such a way that God’s good acceptable and perfect will may be manifest out of their lives (Romans 12:2). Thus, there is a huge difference between those who live according to our world’s standards and those who desire to live as a living offering dedicated to worshiping God with their lives. One of those ways is to “never avenge yourselves”, leaving all judgment to the Lord, who says that He will “repay”. The believer in God trusts that and lives by faith that the one who wronged them will one day (sooner or later, and maybe sooner and later) will answer before a righteous God and be judged according to their deeds.
Does that mean that a follower of Jesus is to never pursue due process through legal courts in order to see evil confronted? I do not think it is prohibited since Paul in the text immediately following (Romans 13:1-7) says that God has appointed government authorities to punish evildoers. So there is a time to expect the authorities to arrest, fine, punish and restrain evil for the sake of peace. These are for things like murder, theft, abuse, etc.
But I do think there is a line that Christians are not to cross. The goal of the courts is to punish evildoers for the crimes they have committed, not to allow the one offended to then to take advantage of evildoer by suing them for thousands, and sometimes millions, for “pain and suffering.” I find this a great crime in our world today. Often it is a bigger crime than the first offense. A crime that fills our courts full of unnecessary clutter whose goal is only to fill the pockets of greedy lawyers and their covetous clients. Are there exceptions to this? I am sure there are. But based upon what I have seen, the overwhelming majority of people who are suing for “pain and suffering” are simply out to get rich quick without actually working. This is laziness, pride, and selfishness. If I sued everyone who caused me pain and suffering I would be in court every week of my life. I mean if we are entitled to sue for pain and suffering, then every mom should sue Eve for the pain and suffering she has caused them by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I mean, how far should we go? I believe we as Christians should be different. “To the contrary” (Romans 12:20), we should be different because we are different. We live by a different world view and to the honor of someone bigger and more worthy than ourselves. Just because the law permits and even entitles us to sue for “pain and suffering” does not mean that we should pursue it. Sometimes these kinds of rights should be laid down in order to bless our enemy, for God’s glory and our good. We are to trust that God will bring the proper judgment at the right time. The overwhelming majority of those sue others for pain and suffering are trying to play God. They are trying to add judgment on top of what the courts have judged so that they can be compensated more. When this occurs the offended become the offender. Believers who do this shame the name of their Savior and miss a great opportunity to show mercy to their offender.
The contrast Paul is making in Romans 12 is one that calls the believer in Christ to not pursue revenge, but rather use the offense as an opportunity to demonstrate the gospel to their enemy, which is what they need the most. This is the second thing that we often miss in this passage. Evildoers should be punished for the crimes they commit. But, what they need more than this is salvation through Christ. When Paul says, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” he is calling us to meet the need in our enemies life. They are hungry. They are thirsty. So, meet that need. “Do not be overcome by evil” by seeking revenge, “but overcome evil with good.”
Let me paint you a picture of how this works. We, all of us, have greatly offended God with our rebellion, hate, perversion, greed, lust, pride, selfishness, etc. In other words, our sin before the holy God absolutely disgusts Him. He hates it. He is angry and sad because of it. Because He is holy and just, He has every right to come down to judge us and condemn us to hell. If He did, we could say nothing back to Him, for we are all guilty. Actually, we deserve His just retribution and punishment for our sin. But instead of sending His judgement right away, we read in His word that He is patient with us. Instead of lashing out on us, He showed us mercy. Since He is just, our sin must be judged. So, rather than letting us live in the turmoil of knowing a future judgment is coming, He sent His only Son into the world to take away the punishment for our sin. How did His Son do this? He voluntarily placed Himself on a cross and took God’s wrath for our sin, so that we would not have to bear it, though we rightly deserved it. He pardoned us of our wrong against Him. Even though we were His enemies, His Son died for us in our place (See Romans 5:8-10). God looked past our sin against Him and saw our biggest need. It was not food or water, it was a changed heart. He saw a heart that did not seek Him or love Him. So, through the cross of His Son, He overcame our evil with His good. The shame we once bore is removed, and we are given the honor of being a child of God.
Therefore, if you have trusted your life to God’s Son, Jesus, you have been forgiven a debt against Him you never could have paid. So, how can we in return even think we have the right as God’s children to seek revenge against another. Is their debt against us bigger than the debt God forgave against us? Surely not! “To the contrary” we show mercy as we have been shown mercy. We “overcome evil with good.” Not our good, rather God’s good that He has shown us and given us. Seeing it in this light changes everything.
So if you have trusted your life to the Savior Jesus you have a unique opportunity when someone offends you. You have the glorious opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus with your offender. Thank God for these opportunities. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Thank God for them. Because the biggest need in your offenders life is not be taken to court, even though that needs to happen sometimes. But, their biggest need is either to come to know Christ (if they are not a believer) or to be reminded of the gospel of Christ they believe (if they are a believer). And God has given you and me, through being offended, one of the best opportunities to share His gospel with them. There is only one kind of person who would seek to live this way. One that desires their life to be a life of worship to the one and only true God, and Jesus Christ who He has sent.
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.