Romans 12:17-21 (ESV)
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 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.
All of this makes sense except the bit about heaping burning coals on someone’s head. What does that mean?
We don’t know. Paul is obviously using a slang expression from that era, but its meaning and origin has been lost to the ages. There are two possible interpretations of what “heaping burning coals” might mean: building up punishment in the afterlife or building up guilt in this one.
Or both. If the belief in ultimate justice was widespread in the first century, then acting charitably towards your enemies would put stress on them. They must either bury the hatchet or be subject to judgment. That would explain how this technique would overcome evil with good.
That’s the easy part. The hard part is doing it. Chapter 12 has been full of commands that are hard to follow, and here it finishes with a real corker. This command is harder than, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Instead of just blessing our enemies, we have to feed them.
That’s a faith challenge. Either we’re willing to do what the Lord commands and let the chips fall where they may, or we’re not. And there’s no promise that this will be pain free either. Our adversaries may come around in time to avoid any unpleasantness, or they may not.
This strategy works only if by “works” you mean God is glorified.
Pain avoidance just isn’t His thing.
This is very advanced. While it is good to stay mindful of the command, the ability to actually act this heroically doesn’t come naturally. It’s supernatural. It comes by praying.
“Ask, and it will be given to you.” — Matthew 7:7a
This chapter has been so content rich that if we asked God to help us with every one of these aspects of growth, we’d be on our knees all day.
Actually, a whole day in prayer isn’t a bad idea. Failing that, look back over all of Chapter 12 and ask God to reveal to you a plan of attack. What were you most convicted about? Do you see a pattern in what Paul says in Chapter 12 that speaks to you?
How is God calling you to be transformed by the renewal of your mind?
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