Burning Coals

From today's reading from Paul's letter to the Romans:

[I]f your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I used to wonder about that whole heaping burning coals on your enemies' heads thing, which is made almost indecipherable when read within the whole sentence.  One heaps burning coals on one's enemies' heads by being kind and generous to them!  

I used to think that this meant that you'll shame your enemies by doing this.  You will make them feel horrible about themselves and make them sorry for what they did.  The point was to make them feel bad, really bad. To make them sorry, sorry, sorry.

And maybe that's what Paul mean, but I don't think so.  I think it's not about making sure "you'll be sorry you did this to me."   Because that keeps me bitter; that keeps me imprisoned in my bitterness.  No, I think it's about changing my notion about vengeance.  I think it means that I should let go of my desire for the enemy to feel bad as a result of my own hurt...so that I will not be overcome by evil myself.   So that I will not be eaten up by bitterness and a desire for revenge.  I just don't think St Paul is suggesting that I go about feeding my enemies by cooking up a pot of soup, mumbling murderously as I stir, and banging it down on the table in front of them, saying through clenched teeth and with clenched fists, "ENJOY!!!"  And then they eat while I am livid with rage.

As long as I want to hurt someone back for hurting me, then I am succumbing to evil myself.  I am just doing the same thing, keeping the cycle going, tit for tat and all that.  Paul challenges me to break that cycle, to overcome evil, by substituting my desire for vengeance with a desire for the well-being of all God's children.  Jesus says, if anyone is thirsty, let them come to me.  Some of those who are thirsty are my "enemies."  And so, if my enemy is thirsty, and I am a follower of Jesus, then I am to give that enemy something to drink.  Paul may well be suggesting that I just let go of the whole thing about enemies and give that over to God.  It's God's job to judge, not mine.  My job is to feed the lambs and the sheep, even if I don't like them.

And so, I am left feeling that I have to give up any desire to heap burning coals on anyone's head and replace it with a desire to be lifegiving, to be forgiving, to be hopeful and generous.  And to feel my own life coming back, greening up, when I shed my desire for punishing people, 
even "punishing them with kindness."

Of course, this brings up the doormat question. Are we just supposed to lie down and let people run over us and take advantage of us and all that?  


There's a difference in having healthy boundaries, in calling someone to account for a transgression, and punishing people for those transgressions and ill treatments.  I find that many of us are afraid of "confrontation," and so we will not stand up for ourselves or others who are being badly treated until things get out of hand and then someone else (the law, some authority figure) will step in and take charge.  

But really, we don't have to make everything a confrontation.  We can simply say, "I don't like the way you are treating me or her or him. It's not ok for you to do that here.  In our community, we don't do this."  That's not being run over, and it's also not ratcheting things up into a full-blown fight.  There are ways to stand up for ourselves and for others that fall well short of inciting destructive conflict.

And so, I read it again.  If my enemy is thirsty, feed him.  If my enemy is hungry, feed her.  Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.
Let that good take up the space in my life that I am tempted to fill with a desire to punish him 
and the bitterness that wishes her harm.


Brenda said…
I'd like to heap some burning coals on a few people's heads......oh wait.....let me read that again :)
June Butler said…
Penny, so often when I read your posts, I feel a sense of peace. I don't tell you often, because that would be boring and repetitive, but it's true.

So it is with this post. I don't think loving enemies has anything to do with wanting them to suffer with burning coals or anything else. Still, we are left with the burning coals, one of those passages from the Scriptures to wrestle with, but not necessarily now, today.
Ha ha, Brenda, me, too.

Mimi, thank you for telling me that my posts give you peace. That means a lot to me. Thank you.
Nancy Wallace said…
Good post. The phrase about 'burning coals' is something of a puzzle. In the context of the previous verse it is clear that Paul is telling us that judgement/punishment must be left to God, but later (Romans 13:4) Paul talks of the magistrate as God's agent to execute judicial punishment on the wrongdoer. John Stott in 'The Message of Romans' (IVP 1994 pp. 334-337) writes helpfully about this, "Our personal responsibility is to love and serve our enemy according to his needs, and genuinely to seek his highest good. The coals of fire this may heap on him are intended to heal, not to hurt, to win, not to alienate, in fact, to shame him into repentance..." He cites the example of Jesus at the cross who (1 Peter 2:23) did not realitate to insults hurled at him, but on the other hand entrusted himself to the one who judges justly, confident that God's justice would prevail.
Thanks, Nancy - that's helpful. We ought to be brought up short by someone's lack of retaliation.