In Romans 12.20, Paul says something that is quite amazing: “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.”
Now what’s so dumbfounding is not the part about giving your enemy something to eat or drink…but the idea that, in so doing, you will dump a pile of red-hot charcoal bricks on his head! That idea may, in fact, appeal to something in our sinful natures. ‘This guy really hurt me, and I really want to get him back. So if I’ll just pile up kindness on him, then God will really let him have it!’
Do you think that is what Paul—and God speaking through Him—has in mind in Romans 12.20? That by feigning that we don’t really want revenge, we could actually get it in a round about way? For years, that is how I interpreted this verse—but always with the question: ‘Why would God say this?’ It sounds so un-God-like.
I’m not quite sure I understand even still…but this past week, I think God may have given me a breakthrough in understanding Romans 12.20. This past week, something happened that appealed to the revengeful, “heap burning coals on his head” part of my sinful human nature. Something happened where, in my flesh, it might not have felt so bad to see God really let someone have it for what they had done. And Romans 12.20 came to mind—but it came with that nagging question: ‘Does God really want me, by being kind to this person, to actually have a motive of revenge?’
The overwhelming answer was NO! God wants me (and you) to be kind to those who oppose us “if perhaps God might grant them repentance” (2 Timothy 2.25). ‘So how does that square with Romans 12.20?’ I thought to myself. Then, all of the sudden, a lightbulb went on! 2 Timothy 2.25 and Romans 12.20 are talking about the same thing!
What kind of person is most likely to repent? The person who most intensely feels the reality of God’s impending judgment. The person who senses the fires of hell nipping at his heels. The person on whom God turns up the temperature of guilt. The person, as it were, who has had a pile of red-hot coals heaped on his head!
That’s it! God doesn’t want me to be kind to my enemy so that I can, through the back door, get revenge for his wrongdoing. God wants me to be kind to my enemy so that my kindness, in the light of his evil, will turn up the heat of guilt in his soul! That, I believe is what Paul may be getting at in Romans 12.20! We pile burning coals on our enemy’s head for his eternal good! And we show kindness so that, in our kindness, our enemy may see a portrait of that overwhelming kindness that Jesus showed in going to the cross for us sinners who despised Him!
So bag up a heaping helping of the kindness of Jesus…and see if God doesn’t turn up the heat that brings about repentance!