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. [Romans 12:17-21 (ESV)]
When Paul addressed a Christian’s relationship with his enemies, he said never to return evil for evil and to act honorably so we don’t reflect badly on the Gospel. Paul qualified his direction to live in peace with all by adding, “if possible, so far as it depends on you.” While some people don’t want to live in peace, as Christians, we must refuse to instigate, escalate, or participate in conflict. Since peace-loving people who won’t return evil with more of the same tend to be the sort of people who are taken advantage of, Paul then addresses the issue of revenge. Quoting Deuteronomy 32:25, he makes it clear that we are not to retaliate; vengeance is solely God’s department, not ours.
Telling us not to allow evil to overcome us but to overcome evil by doing good, Paul says our sincere kindness to an enemy is the way to do that. Moreover, by doing so, we’ll “heap burning coals on his head.” While this quote from Proverbs 25:21-22 actually sounds a little vengeful, those burning coals probably refer to an ancient Egyptian practice in which a person’s regret or repentance was demonstrated by carrying a pan filled with burning coals on his head.
In theory, our unexpected and sincere kindness will cause hot coals of shame and guilt in the wrong-doers’ conscience far more effectively than would hostility or spite. What those burning coals aren’t is a back-handed form of revenge—counterfeit kindness used to irritate, manipulate, or publicly humiliate them or a way to get in the last word. They’re certainly not a reason to gloat in self-righteousness. Our genuine kindness is the way to facilitate regret and repentance in the evil doers—whether or not they repent, however, is their choice. Nevertheless, as Christians, we must do our part.
As an illustration of this concept, Chinese evangelist Watchman Nee told a story about two Christian brothers who had a rice paddy located on top of a hill. Each morning, they drew water, climbed up the hill, and irrigated their rice paddy. One morning, they found their paddy dry but the neighbor’s paddy, just downhill from theirs, quite wet. While they were sleeping, he’d dug a hole in their irrigation channel and stolen their water. Rather than retaliate, they filled their paddy again but the same thing happened for several days. When they confided to a church elder that they didn’t have the sense of peace they expected from walking in obedience to God, the brothers were told they hadn’t done enough. The elder told them to fill their neighbor’s paddy with water before filling theirs. Strangely, as they did so, the brothers began to sense the peace they desired and, while continuing to water both paddies, they grew more joyful as they worked. The neighbor who’d stolen their water finally came to them, apologized, and said, “If this is Christianity, I want to hear about it.” Their kindness heaped burning coals on their neighbor’s head and he repented!
Simply not retaliating wasn’t enough for the brothers and it’s not enough for us. When someone slaps us, Jesus expects more from us than just silently walking away; He calls us to love and pray for our enemy. We are to go the extra mile by feeding him when he is hungry, giving him water when he thirsts, and even watering his rice paddy when he’s stolen our water! Admittedly, that’s not always easy; it certainly isn’t our natural response. Can we do it perfectly? Probably not, but we can try!
The world’s philosophy leads people to expect retaliation when they have wronged another. To receive kindness, to see love when it seems uncalled for, can melt the hardest heart. [Expositor’s Bible Commentary]