How do Christians live together and in the larger world? How should we live as people offering our entire lives in sacrifice to God (Rom 12:1–2)? That’s the question Paul has been answering in Romans 12. If we love others the way Christ loves us, we will forgive them and show them the same undeserved grace we have received.
Earlier Paul wrote that Christians must not repay evil for evil (Rom 12:17). Then he expanded it by stating that we must not avenge ourselves or try to “get even”, but instead leave room for God’s wrath (Rom 12:19). Why? As God’s children, that’s our Father’s work, and He’s better at it than we are. Instead of seeking petty revenge on our own terms, we should leave justice to the omnipotent God of the universe.
We can reasonably interpret Paul’s command as an instruction to avoid and ignore those who harm us. However, Paul reveals that this is not the path of those who follow Christ. Instead, we are called to active, positive, and generous engagement with those who harm us. Rather than simply ignoring our enemies, we ought to seek to do good for them and to them. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.” (Rom 12:20)
This is not meant to be taken as a command to stay in a situation in which someone is actively physically harming us. Retreating from violence or avoiding a physical abuser is not being discouraged here, at all. If we can take steps to avoid future injury, that is the right and wise thing to do. God is not commanding us to welcome any kind of abuse.
Even though we’re not being commanded to “embrace” abuse, this is still a hard teaching. In quoting Solomon’s words from Prov 25:21–22, Paul’s description of how to respond to evildoers is galling, even infuriating, at first. At the same time, there is a certain ruthlessness about it, spiritually speaking. We are called to bring down fiery conviction on our enemies by being relentlessly kind in seeing and meeting their basic needs. As we do, two things happen. One, we reflect God’s own mercy to us who were once His enemies (Rom 5:10). Second, we show both that we do not deserve to be treated poorly and that we are stronger than those who harm us.
As we said, the description of “heaping burning coals” is a reference to Prov 25:21–22. In Egypt, there had been a custom to carry a pan of burning coals on one’s head as a sign of repentance. Kindness and forgiveness to those who abuse us, ideally, will make them ashamed of themselves, and hopefully bring them to repent. The strongest, most powerful response to persecution and hatred is to love your enemies. Those who choose to do good to their enemies create the opportunity Paul describes in the following verse, that we’ll look at tomorrow.