“BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:20–21, NASB95)
Continuing from the previous post we are considering our response to ill treatment, recognizing that God is the One who is sovereign over all of our lives and who knows to what ends he is working even ill treatment in us and in the lives of those who might inflict it.
Think about this, when our enemy is at his weakest we have the opportunity to speak into his life. When he is hungry or thirsty and vulnerable or even receptive to being helped we have the opportunity that we might not otherwise have to provide that help. We have the opportunity to give to them something that they would not have given to us, but even more likely might have taken from us. We can show them mercy, when maybe in our hearts we might have been wishing harm or thinking they are getting exactly what they deserve.
We can be so thankful that our God does not give us what we deserve, because as the righteous Judge we are all guilty and deserving of death and eternal separation from Him. But because of His great love He saved us, not on the basis of our righteous deeds, but on the basis of His mercy. “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,” (Titus 3:4–6, NASB95)
Jesus, as we read in Matthew 5:43-48, gave us instruction on how we are to live differently than the world where people get what they deserve. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is 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 if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43–48, NASB95)
God has called us to live by a different standard, one of mercy and grace. And Scripture tells us that when we live by that standard that it will impact others for His glory. Romans 12:20 goes on to say, “FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.” In our humanness we might want to do exactly that and in effect scorch a new message into their brains. But this is not what the passage intends.
In the ESV Study Bible we read of this phrase that it, “Refers to an ancient Egyptian custom in which a person who wanted to show public contrition carried a pan of burning coals on his head. The coals represented the burning pain of his shame and guilt. When believers lovingly help their enemies, it should bring shame to such people for their hate and animosity (cf. Prov. 25:21–22).” John MacArthur in his study Bible goes on to add “Most interpreters think Paul is teaching that the Christian is to do good to people so that they will feel ashamed and repent, and that sense is possible. But in the OT “burning coals” always represent punishment (2 Sam. 22:13; Ps. 11:6; 18:8, 12–13; 140:10), so another interpretation is that Paul is repeating the thought of Rom. 12:19: Christians are to do good to wrongdoers, recognizing that God will punish them on the last day if they refuse to repent.”
While we may not know exactly what the writer of Proverbs meant by this phrase, we do know that it had the impact of emphasizing that we are not to live as those who do evil to others, and in so doing as we respond with kind and compassionate acts we are drawing a line which evidences the difference Christ makes in our lives. God may lead this to soften their hearts such that they repent or it may further prove the judgment that awaits their rebellion. This is not within our control. What is within our control is how we live before all men, including those who treat us harshly.
Verse 21 summarizes this for us. Don’t let the evil things that people do toward us harden our hearts in such a way that we think and act just as them. But actively consider these encounters as an opportunity to trust God’s strong hands and His faithful work. Who knows whose heart might melt when we show God’s love—God does.