Hot Coals: Loving Those You’d Rather Hate

Romans 12:17-21

May 21, 1995 | Ray Pritchard

This week I ran across the words of Booker T. Washington, founder of the world-famous Tuskegee Institute in my home state of Alabama. As a black man growing up in the segregated South, he knew more than his share about hatred, prejudice and unfair treatment. But as a Christian, he also knew that a man is not judged by what he goes through, but by how he responds to it. He expressed his credo in one powerful sentence: “I will not let any man make me lower myself by hating him.”

“I will not let any man make me lower myself by hating him.”

Is it any wonder that we remember Booker T. Washington as one of the greater Americans this country has ever produced? You can’t always stop people from hating you, but you don’t have to hate them back. You can’t always make people love you, but you can always love them back.

Jesus gave us the principle that we call the Golden Rule. It goes like this: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” Matthew 7:12 . Treat people as you would like to be treated. Speak to them as you would like to be spoken to. Grant them the honor that you wish they would grant to you. Give them the respect you desire for yourself. Offer them the kindness that you wish they would offer you.

In Romans 12:17-21 Paul expands upon the Golden Rule and applies to the hardest of all hard cases. How do you respond to those people who badly mistreat you? Or to say it another way, what do you do when you’ve been done wrong?

The answer comes in two parts. When we’ve been done wrong, we are to live in peace with our enemies if at all possible and we are not to seek revenge. In fact, we are to reach out to those who have hurt by doing practical deeds of kindness to our enemies. In so doing, we will actually overcome evil with good.

1. The Call to Peace (v. 17-18)

These verses contain a negative and two positive statements. The negative is, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil”–speaking of retaliation and seeking revenge. The first positive statement involves personal responsibility: “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody”–that is, don’t give people a reason to treat you unkindly.

This has many practical applications. It touches how we dress and act, the way we treat others in public, it involves things like common courtesy, honesty at work, having a cheerful heart, being a team player, not being a troublemaker, a grump, a whiner, a constant complainer, or a hypochondriac. The principle is: Live in such a way that no one can make an honest accusation against you. Live so that if they are going to accuse you, they have to tell a lie to do it.

Live so that if they are going to accuse you, they have to tell a lie to do it.

Then there is the second positive statement: “If it is possible, as much as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” I like this statement because it strikes me as utterly realistic. In a fallen world, it isn’t always possible to live at peace with everyone. Sometimes despite our best efforts, we’ll just rub people the wrong way. Sometimes you are thrown in a situation at school or at work with people who are Grade A, Board-Certified, 100% Jerks! And you can’t do anything about it. Such people don’t want peace, they want to make trouble.

Not long ago a friend spoke about a colleague at work who yells at everyone all the time for no particular reason. She just yells and yells and yells. He called her a “rageaholic.” That’s a great word to describe a very sick person. Unfortunately, she’s not the only one out there. You can find at least one person like that in every school, every business, and usually on every block.

Paul’s advice in such cases is simple: Live at peace with everyone. If that doesn’t work, make sure that you aren’t part of the problem. Note that little phrase: “As far as it depends on you.” The only person you can take care of is you. Do you remember the saying, “It takes two to tango.” I think we could rephrase that, “It only takes one to refuse to tangle.” If you refuse to tangle, at least you can’t be blamed for causing the problem. You can’t control other people or how they respond to you. But you can create an environment that either makes it more or less likely for them to blow up in your face. The principle is: Be a peacemaker to the point that, if someone makes trouble for you, no one can legitimately blame you.

2. The Warning Against Revenge (v. 19-21)

Paul begins by ruling out all attempts at revenge: “Do not take revenge, my friends.” There are no exceptions, no pleas for extenuating circumstances, no maybes, no ifs, ands or buts. Revenge and retaliation are forever ruled out for the believer in Christ. The next few verses give us three reasons for ruling out all attempts at revenge.

a. Because revenge is God’s Work. (v. 19)

“Leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’”

It was John Kennedy who said, “Don’t get mad, get even.” That represents the wisdom of the world. And if we are truthful, that’s the way most people, even many Christians, operate. With one slight correction: We get mad, then we get even.

By contrast, Paul says, “Let God handle the revenge. That’s his special ministry.” Have you ever thought vengeance as a “ministry” of God? Well, it is. Vengeance is one aspect of God’s justice. It’s his way of balancing the scales of life.

Vengeance is one aspect of God’s justice.

What happens when we try to take vengeance into our own hands? The answer is, we almost always mess it up. We’re either too harsh or too soft, we strike too fast or too late, or we attack the wrong person or we say the wrong thing, or we just end up making things worse and not better. Too many times we’re like Bruce Willis in one of those Die Hard movies. We just load up our guns, run into the room and start firing. Our motto is: Kill em’ all and let God sort ‘em out later. And if we accidentally hurt some innocent people, well it’s a tough world and sometimes people get hurt.

The most fundamental reason not to take revenge is that by our clumsiness we may block God’s work in another person’s life. We just want to get even, but God wants to bring that person to a place of repentance and reconciliation. God has a better view than we do and he has a higher goal. Vengeance is his specialty.

God of David and God of Goliath

Think about it. He’s the God who kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden, the God who caused the Red Sea to dry up for the Israelites and then drown the Egyptians. He’s the God who opened up the ground and swallowed the sons of Korah and the God who struck Miriam with leprosy. He’s also the God who delivered Goliath into David’s hands and the same God who caused David’s infant son to die because of his affair with Bathsheba.

He allowed Peter to walk on water and then Jesus rebuked him to his face and said, “Get behind me, Satan!” He worked miracles in the early church but killed Ananias and Sapphira when they lied about their giving. He sent the gift of tongues to the church in Corinth but sent sickness and death to the congregation because they were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper.

God sees things we don’t see, he watches the motives of the heart.

He’s God. He sees things we don’t see, he watches the motives of the heart. He knows our thoughts before we think them, our words before we speak them. He knows what we’re going to do before we do it and he knows the reason why.

Revenge is his special ministry to mankind. You can never do it as well as he can. But you can mess things up by trying to take vengeance on your enemies.

So leave it to the Lord. He’s far better at it than you will ever be. That brings us to the second reason not to seek revenge.

b. Because there is a better way to get even. (v. 20)

“On the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’” This is one of the most unusual verses in the New Testament. What does Paul mean when he talks about heaping hot coals on your enemy’s head?

First of all, you need to know that Paul is quoting from the Book of Proverbs. This verse in Romans 12 is really Proverbs 25:21-22. It really has three parts: There is the command, the result, and the reward.

The command is, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food. If he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” Needless to say, this flies in the face of common sense. You shoot enemies, you don’t feed them. After all, if you start feeding your enemies, they will just get stronger and stronger and then they will attack you. As a matter of fact, that’s true. They might do that. But it doesn’t matter. You are to feed them anyway. That is to say, You are to act contrary to your natural tendencies when your enemies are involved.

Who Is My Enemy?

By the way, it might help to define who the “enemy” is in this verse. The “enemy” is almost always a friend, a colleague or a family member who has hurt me in some way. My enemy by definition will almost always be someone close to me. I don’t have any enemies in Iran because I don’t know anybody over there. But it’s not hard to have enemies in Oak Park because I know lots of people here.

An enemy is any person God uses to reveal my weaknesses.

Let me give you this definition: An enemy is any person God uses to reveal my weaknesses. An enemy is like a chisel God uses to chip away at the rough spots in my life. That’s why if you are married, your husband or your wife will be your enemy about half the time. No one knows your weaknesses like your spouse. They know hidden blemishes, secret sins, bad habits, that the rest of the world never sees. But they know it because they live with you every day.

Can a husband be your enemy? Yes, and you can still love him even when you can’t stand him. Can a wife be your enemy? Yes, because she constantly, often accidentally, exposes your weaknesses. She sees the real you that the rest of us never see. You may put on a front at church, but your wife knows the real story. Yes, your wife can be your enemy. If she loves you, she’ll have to be your enemy from time to time. Otherwise, how are you ever going to get better.

That’s why you have to feed your enemy. You can’t let your wife or your husband starve to death. It wouldn’t look good in the newspaper. That’s why you have to give your boss or your teacher or that obnoxious person in the next office something to drink. These are people who are close to you, and because they are close to you, God is using them to expose the weak areas of your life.

Burning Coals

But there’s a happy result from treating your enemies this way. You heap burning coals on their head. Many Bible commentators think that Paul was referring to an Egyptian custom in which a person would actually put burning coals on his head a sign of repentance for his sin. If that is the case, then Paul is suggesting that we can win our enemies to our side by deeds of love and kindness. You’ve heard of “killing ‘em with kindness.” That’s what Paul is talking about here.

The best way to get rid of an enemy is to turn him into a friend.

Through deeds of love shown to those who have hurt us deeply, we may actually change their hearts. In that case, our enemy has now become our friend. Someone has said that the best way to get rid of an enemy is to turn him into a friend. The Apostle Paul would certainly agree.

What would qualify as “hot coals?” A kind word, a phone call, a brief note, a flower, a meal, a small gift, a letter of recommendation, running an errand, offering a ride, helping them complete a project, rewriting their report, stepping in to save a project that was failing, putting in a good word with their superiors, helping them clean the classroom, going bowling with them. The list is endless, because “hot coals” refers to any act of kindness you do for an enemy. Your only limit is your creativity.

Then there is the reward: “And the Lord will reward you.” That’s in the Proverbs passage, not in Romans. But the principle is true nonetheless. God will be no man’s debtor. God rewards those who show kindness to their enemies. How will he do it? It’s hard to say. One obvious answer might be to cause your “hot coals” to turn your enemy into a friend. Or he might promote you or pour out new blessings or grant you answers to your prayers or new spiritual growth.

Not to worry. If you do your part, God will do his. You can count on that. With that truth firmly in mind, we come to the third reason why revenge is ruled out for the children of God.

c. Because revenge destroys you but good overcomes evil. (v. 21)

Our text ends with a pithy little motto that sums up all that Paul has been saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with God.”

1. The Negative Side (v. 21a)

This appears to be a useless piece of nice advice, a motto like “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” or “cheer up, things could be worse.” This advice from Paul appears to be a tag line to close out the subject. But for most of us, it’s not realistic. Or so we think.

When Paul says, “Do not be overcome with evil,” what he means is, “Don’t let revenge destroy your life.” So many times we look at life as a kind of competition. “He hit me so I had to hit him back.” “Sure, I said some awful things to him, but he said them to me first.” This happens in marriage all the time. We play a game of tit for tat. You hurt me so now I’m going to hurt you. You cheated on me, so now it’s okay if I cheat on you. You slapped me, so I can slap you back. You raised your voice, so now I”m going to raise mine just one decibel louder than yours. And on it goes. If we’re Christians, we may even use the Bible to support that. You know, the part about an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It’s called evening the score.

Why It Doesn’t Work

Getting even doesn’t work. What happens when you try to get even? You unleash this whole cycle of retribution and violence. It never ends because someone else always wants to get the last word.

There is a very practical reason behind Paul’s advice. You may win the battle, you may even get the last word or strike the last blow, but in the end, you’ve destroyed your own spiritual life. In the process of hurting another person, you’ve hurt yourself too. Anger has done its dirty work on the inside. You seethe with malice, rage, hurtful feelings, and horrible thoughts that keep you up late at nigiht. That’s one reason why many people are sick today. They aren’t sick because of some bug or strange virus. No, their soul is sick and as a result their body is sick. The list is long, but it includes high blood pressure, heart problems, back problems, tension headaches, nightmares, ulcers, stomach problems, weight problems, blurred vision, a stiff neck, and insomnia.

When you hurt someone else, you hurt yourself too.

I’m not suggesting that these things are real, or that you shouldn’t go to a doctor. Not at all. What I am suggesting is that in many cases the “hidden tormentors” have done their dirty work inside your soul and in the process of seeking to get even, you have lost your health.

Here’s something else you may not have considered. As long as you try to get even, you’re still living in the past. It may have happened years ago, but you’re still stewing about your divorce or how unfairly your boss treated you, or how your children disappointed you. You’re living in the past just as much as if you were dressed like the Amish and driving a horse and buggy to church.

As long as you try to get even, you’re still living in the past.

One other thing: When you try to get even, evil destroys you because the other person keeps on winning. He still controls your life as long as you want revenge. Think about that. The only way to get free of your past is to let it go once and for all. But if you want to get even, you’re still chained to the past. To make matters worse, he’s probably sleeping like a baby while you are up half the night thinking of terrible things you like to do to him. He’s won twice–once when he hurt you, and twice because you’re still thinking about getting even with him. No wonder he’s smiling. And no wonder you’re not.

2. The Positive Side (v. 21b)

Paul concludes by saying, “Overcome evil with good.” This is the bottom line. Although we live in a world where evil seems to win out, that’s only a temporary situation. James Russell Lowell wrote about “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.” But that’s not all of the verse. It goes on to speak about God standing in the shadows, keeping watch above his own.

I like the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “The arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” God has so arranged things that evil does well in the short run, but good always wins in the end. If life is like a hundred-yard dash, bet on evil. But it’s not. Life is a marathon, and because it is, good wins out in the end. That may not happen in one lifetime or in one generation, but over time, and across the generations, God moves to bring justice into the world. And if justice doesn’t come in this life, it always comes in heaven. Justice will be done. Evildoers will be punished and those who follow the way of Jesus will be rewarded. That’s the promise of God.

He Showed Us How

There are many great examples of good overcoming evil, but the greatest example in history occurred some 2000 years ago when God sent His Son into the world. The whole mission was fraught with difficulty from the beginning. He wasn’t born in a palace, but in a stable outside an inn in a tiny, forgotten little village in Judea. No one expected him, no leaders hailed his arrival. Only some shepherds and the Wise Men from the East. In fact, when the local ruler heard of his birth, he ordered all the baby boys of that village slaughtered just to make sure the got the right baby.

The religious leaders saw Jesus as a threat to their interests.

That was a sign of things to come. Whispers and rumors abounded regarding his parents. When he grew up, his own family doubted his true identity. As he began his ministry, the common people heard him gladly. But not the religious leaders. They saw him as threat to their interests. They feared the multitudes of people who flocked to hear him preach. Trying to trip him up, they sent their best scholars to ask him hard questions, but every time he made their people look foolish. That only infuriated them more.

Eventually they decided that he must die! Fueled by hatred, jealousy and blind rage, they schemed and plotted and bided their time. Surely, this upstart rabbi would make a mistake sooner or later. When he did, they would pounce on him like a fox on a rabbit. But he knew what they were thinking, knew their evil plan, so he watched his steps, calculated every word, and he too bided his time.

Showdown in Jerusalem

The day came for the showdown in Jerusalem. The religious leaders penetrated his inner circle and bribed his treasurer with thirty pieces of silver. Late one night, they sprang their trap, sending out hundreds of armed soldiers as if he were a general leading an army. But he allowed himself to be arrested and taken away. Quickly he was tried and put in jail. Five times in six hours he stood before various judges. Some were cynical, some angry, some curious. None knew what to do with him. Witnesses appears to make absurd charges against him, claiming he was a right-wing extremist, a rebel, a troublemaker, an insurrectionist, a traitor to the nation. Lies, all of it. But the truth didn’t matter that night. The powers that be had decided, This man must die!

So in the course of time, he was convicted of crimes he didn’t commit. The Bible tells us that when he was questioned, he refused to defend himself. When he was attacked, he refused to answer in kind.

Later on, they beat him with their fists, then ripped off his beard, then spat on him. Finally, they lashed him with a fearsome cat o’ nine tails, shredding his back. In the end, he could barely stand up from the torture he had taken.

Final Words of a Truly Great Man

They crucified him along with two thieves. As he hung on the cross, his first words were a prayer for his tormentors: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Shortly after that, he died.

What a great man he was. Only God’s Son could have done what he did. Years later an eyewitness to his crucifixion wrote to his Christian friends exhorting them to be strong in the face of unjust suffering. This is what Peter remembered as he looked back some thirty years earlier to that awful day in Jerusalem.

“When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” I Peter 2:23

How did Jesus survive the most awful day in human history? How could stand there and let himself be accused of crimes he didn’t commit? Why didn’t he strike back? Why didn’t he fight for his rights? The answer is found in the little phrase–“He entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” He believed that God was a God of justice, therefore he didn’t have to say a word in his own defense. He knew that God would take care of him in the end.

And he did. On Friday he was crucified. On Sunday he rose from the dead.

Aren’t you glad Jesus didn’t talk back? Aren’t you glad he didn’t retaliate? Aren’t you glad he submitted to God’s plan and went to the cross? If he hadn’t, we would still be lost in our sins. Because he did, we can go to heaven.

Jesus has shown us the way. If you feel that you can’t live like he did, you’re right. You can’t be like Jesus in your own strength. But if you depend on him, he can give you the strength to keep quiet when you’d rather get even.

In his book A Passion for God, Ray Ortlund, Jr. quotes a hymn text by Frederick Faber written over 130 years ago. It fittingly catches the spirit of this text:

“Workman of God, O lose not heart,

But learn what God is like,

And in the darkest battlefield

Thou shalt know where to strike.

Thrice blest is he to whom is given

The instinct that can tell

That God is on the field when he

He is most invisible.

He hides himself so wondrously

As though there were no God.

He is least seen when all the powers

Of ill are most abroad.

Ah! God is other than we think;

His ways are far above,

Far beyond reason’s height, and reached

Only by childlike love.

Then learn to scorn the praise of men,

And learn to lose with God.

For Jesus won the world through shame,

And beckons thee his road.

For right is right, since God is God,

And right the day must win.

To doubt would be disloyalty,

To falter would be sin.”

Go from this place, and in the name of Jesus, live in peace with everyone. Go and in Jesus’ name, refuse to return evil for evil. Go from this sanctuary, and know that out where you live, work, study and play, there are people who won’t like you, who will attempt to hurt, who will mistreat you and then laugh about it. Go anyway, and carry with you the love of God. Go determined not to seek revenge against those who hurt you.

Above all else, go with a new determination to love your enemies no matter what it takes. Don’t let evil overcome you this week, but go out from this place and overcome evil with good. And know this much: When you go in that spirit, Jesus himself will go with you.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?