Romans 12:17-21 – Give back to no one evil for evil; providing right things before all men. If possible — so far as in you — with all men being in peace; not avenging yourselves, beloved, but give place to the wrath, for it has been written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will recompense again, says the Lord.’ If, then, your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him drink; for this doing, coals of fire you shall heap upon his head; Be not overcome by the evil, but overcome, in the good, the evil.
Forgiveness is all about release and pardon. In order to “be at peace with all men,” an individual has to conscientiously let go of any ill will or hard feelings towards others. If we as believers are serious about our walk with God, we must work to find ways to overcome any bitterness that may exist in our relationships with others.
However, letting go is only half of the equation; within you there must be another aspect to overcoming evil that works to create this peace.
Paul’s view of this and his encouragement to the believers in Rome stems from the wisdom of the Proverbs and from the teachings of Yeshua. In order to overcome actions by others that can appear as evil or that may cause bitterness or harm, do good instead.
Proverbs 25:21-22 – If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.
Matthew 5:44-45 – “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
For a long time I struggled with the idea of “heaping burning coals” on someone’s head; it seems so contrary to the idea of actually doing good to them. It is as if I was being encouraged to do good as a way of somehow getting back at them, and that just seems to be the opposite of the intent of the teaching.
The idea is not that you will be putting coals on someone else; it really means that they will be so ashamed of their evil actions, they will feel as if that is the case. Have you ever been severely embarassed in public? Your face was likely flushed, and you could feel the warmth as the blood rushed to your head. This is what the “heaping coals” implies. When someone does something bad to you, and you instead turn around and do something good for them, they will feel ashamed and embarrassed, and are likely to feel truly sorry for their wrongs.
Albert Barnes writes:
Coals of fire are doubtless emblematical of “pain.” But the idea here is not that in so doing we shall call down divine vengeance on the man; but the apostle is speaking of the natural effect or result of showing him kindness. Burning coals heaped on a man’s head would be expressive of intense agony. So the apostle says that the “effect” of doing good to an enemy would be to produce pain. But the pain will result from shame, remorse of conscience, a conviction of the evil of his conduct, and an apprehension of divine displeasure that may lead to repentance. To do this, is not only perfectly right, but it is desirable. If a man can be brought to reflection and true repentance, it should be done.
That the ultimate vengeance belongs to God adds an additional layer to this admonition. This is a truly radical way of thinking about the believers role in the world: in the sense we are speaking about here, our doing good to others is God’s preferred measure of vengeance on wrongdoing. When we forgive others and instead do good, we are acting in a measure of divine judgment that can bring about true repentance. Ultimately, when your enemies are consumed in the fires of this type of judgment, all that remains are friends.
If people would act on the principles of the gospel, the world would soon be at peace. No man would suffer himself many times to be overwhelmed in this way with coals of fire. It is not human nature, bad as it is; and if Christians would meet all unkindness with kindness, all malice with benevolence, and all wrong with right, peace would soon pervade the community, and even opposition to the gospel might soon die away.
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