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Kill Them With Kindness

Wisdom in not seeking vengeance against one who harms you

Proverbs 25:21-22

21 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;

22 For so you will heap coals of fire on his head,
And the Lord will reward you.


Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables is considered a masterpiece of literature and a window into human nature. As sympathetic convict Jean Valjean endures one tribulation after another at the hands of the petty, vindictive police inspector Javert, both men present twin arcs of redemption and retribution. Near the end of the novel, Hugo describes the scope of the journey on which he has been taking the reader. The novel is:

…a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God.–Victor Hugo, “Les Miserables”

Valjean is a petty criminal originally imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving family. He escapes, and through the mercy of a priest he has wronged, he resolves to seek a life of righteousness.

Javert, who later recognizes the now-reformed Valjean, begins a pursuit of him that only ends when the two confront each other amidst the violence and chaos of the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. 

Seized by the vengeful mob, Javert, is condemned to death, but is surreptitiously freed by Valjean—an incredible act of kindness by the man whom Javert has been tormenting for decades.

In theaters on- and off-Broadway since 1985, Les Miserables is the second longest-running musical in the world. This final confrontation between the two men, and Javert’s struggle is brilliantly portrayed in recitative style in one if the final scenes. Javert sings:

Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take
Was a flick of his knife.
Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life!

Now inwardly torn, Javert feels he can no longer give Valjean up to the authorities, but also cannot ignore his duty to the law. The kindness he has been shown tears him apart. He feels his identity and purpose obliterated:

Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That, granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?

In the end, Javert chooses death as he now considered life not worth living. Killed by an act of kindness.

What does it really mean to “kill with kindness?” Is there really such a thing? The phrase itself has murky origins, but like many western idioms, it can be found in the volumes of Shakespeare, specifically in Taming of the Shrew. 

In Proverbs chapter 25, Solomon records a wise saying that seems to have the same message as to “kill with kindness,” proving once again that many treasures of modern literature and culture can find their source in the scrolls of biblical wisdom. Here is Solomon’s wise instruction:

21 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;–Proverbs 25:21

It is human nature to want to hurt those who have hurt you. You are in pain that has been inflicted on you by a specific person. Your trauma may be physical, mental, emotional—or all three—and it is understandable to seek to repay them in kind. Pain is the currency in which this sinful world deals, but it is kindness, love, and godly forbearance that render it without value.

The tribal societies of the ancient world, including the Old Testament, were characterized by being extreme in its methods of revenge. The modern tale of the “Hatfields and McCoys” is the stuff of backwoods legend (or Disney cartoons), but in ancient times the need for “cities of refuge” such as are found in Joshua 20, or the principle of lex talionis, or “an eye for an eye" (Exodus 21:23-24) were real, as God sought to lessen the bloodshed and restrain punishments. 

In such an age, this proverb represents a remarkable statement of compassion toward one’s enemies. Solomon instructs you to treat your enemy in a humane manner, but he chooses his words carefully. “When your enemy is hungry,” he says, “give him bread.” In the next verset, he advises to provide water for him when he thirsts.

There are two things to notice here: one is that you have an enemy. This is not your neighbor, or a random homeless person on the street—but someone who delights in your pain or seeks to humiliate you in some fashion. The second thing is that you are to respond to his basic needs when he is in a crisis.

What do you usually feel like doing when someone who despises you, or treats you unkindly gets in a jam? “Serves him right,” You say, or at least you feel a warm sense of satisfaction that some form of divine judgement has occurred on your behalf.

Or has it? God, who causes the rain to fall on the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45), is also sovereign over drought that affects them both. Since you do not know the mind of God (I Corinthians 2:11) how can you tell if your enemy’s misfortune is punishment for some specific act of harm against you? You do not, of course, and so God’s wisdom instructs you that no matter what, if you can help someone, then you must.

The giving of bread and water not only signifies helping with the basic needs of even an enemy, it is not a call for you to give elaborate gifts to an enemy in an attempt to placate them or as a bribe to win their favor. True, there may be a benefit to “wining and dining” an adversary in order to form a truce or an alliance, but this is not God’s principle. Such an action may have worldly success, but it is merely a tactic, whereas God is seeking you to live by His example. 

Now that you have been instructed in what to do, now, Solomon will reveal the why:

22 For so you will heap coals of fire on his head,
And the Lord will reward you.–Proverbs 25:22

And there’s the twist! Just when you thought God was telling you to make lame grocery runs for your neighborhood bully or a rival co-worker, He explains what is happening. 

First, He says, when you show compassion to your enemy, it will “heap coals of fire on his head.” There has been much debate among scholars as to the origin of so unique a phrase, and its true meaning. If you know the unbearable heat of a red-hot coal from a crackling campfire or a roaring fireplace, you can imagine the pain of enduring a rain of them on your unprotected head. 

Some scholars believe the phrase may come from a story in Egyptian literature concerning the punishment of a thief. No matter its origin, the result makes one thing clear: when confronted with kindness from someone whom you have previously assaulted or mocked, you will likely feel “burning pangs of shame,” as commentator Bruce Walke suggests, along with church fathers such as Augustine and Jerome. 

So, more than being a cathartic substitute for vengeance, acting with godly grace towards an enemy can likely result in their bafflement, as well as a heart that stirs with unfamiliar feelings of gratitude for such an undeserved action.

Can you do this? This sounds great in theory, but in actual execution, showing kindness to an enemy can be difficult. For one thing, you are tempted to do so in an effort to show them your superiority. Providing a meal to a rival whose home has burned, can be done in a manner that says, “See, I am better than you.” Doing this vacates the wisdom of the proverb. 

No, kindness in an effort to “make a point” to your enemy is against the spirit of God’s instruction—and against the spirit of the law of love that Christ commands.

As a Christian you are aware of the extreme price with which you have been purchased—the blood of Jesus shed for you on the cross. Like God’s wisdom behind the proverb, Christ is not seeking for you to simply “do good,” but to tune your life to follow Him. 

For while you were still His enemy, Christ died for you (Romans 5:6-8), and that in Christ, God reconciles you to Him, and that through His sinless Son, you “might become the righteousness of God in Him” (II Corinthians 5:17-21).

Jesus, in so many ways, is the living embodiment of the “hokma” (חָכְמָה) or wisdom of God. He instructs His disciples, and you, in His Sermon on the Mount and in other teachings during His earthly ministry. More than “be kind to your enemies,” Jesus urges you to go further—to do for them as He has done for you:

35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil.–Luke 6:35

Jesus’s own words finish out the final verset of this proverb: And the Lord will reward you. What is this reward? It may just be the joy of reconciliation with one whom you had previously thought unredeemable, now with a heart melted by the Holy Spirit and filled with wonder at receiving unexpected mercy. 

Can you really love someone who have been hostile to you? This is the call of every Christian, not just those saintly few who seem to have no bone of resentfulness within them. You cannot love your enemy so long as you live by the principles of this world, for it must be done with a heart turned toward the next. 

Think of Jesus. He has every right to retaliate…but He does not. More than remaining passive, He blesses them too. As Jesus shows mercy, so are we to do the same.  When Jesus’s enemies sought to triumph over Him, He met their basic needs with two things: He loved them and He prayed for them. 

Do you have an enemy? Even if you do not have a nemesis then you will likely encounter someone in your life with whom you have friction or conflict. How can you help them in their basic needs? Can you “kill them” with the kindness of an encouraging word or note? If there is someone in your neighborhood, your church, or even your family with whom your relationship is strained, do you pray for them?  Can you bless them by taking the initiative to reach out in the peace of Christ? 

If you do these things you may incur more abuse…but you likely will not. You live in a world where those around you are isolated, lonely and filled with despair. Can you be Christ to them? If you do, you will shine the light of heaven into the darkness of their lives.


The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:

The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

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