Romans 12:19-20, “19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it[a] to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 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.”
As we have seen, God does not call us to do what we cannot do and change the hearts of people so that they will be receptive to us, so as to constrain them to live at peace with us. Our only job is to live peaceably with all people as much as it depends upon us—all we are called to do is not give people a legitimate reason to be at war with us because we are rude, uncaring, or otherwise living in the flesh (Rom. 12:18).
This practical principle recognizes that at times there will be nothing we can do to have a harmonious relationship with others, for there are some individuals who will not like us no matter how we act. In today’s passage, the Apostle Paul expands upon this principle with a look at our responsibilities when we encounter people who not only dislike us but also actively seek to inflict harm upon us. When people actively work evil against us, we are not to avenge ourselves. On the contrary, God calls us to trust Him to set things right, to give people what they deserve for standing against us (v. 19).
We all find this admonition difficult to follow, but we may have an easier time of it when we remember the perfect justice of our Creator (Deut. 32:4). It is better to trust God to avenge us, for His vengeance is pure and comprehensive, always rendering to our persecutors exactly what they are owed. Paul’s exhortation also helps us trust the Lord when we find ourselves suffering unjust treatment at the hands of those who always seem to come out on top. No matter how successful they appear in this life, we know that God will deal with them in the end, and on that day, those who suffer for Christ will be exalted and will receive a great reward in heaven (Matt. 5:11-12).
Not only are we to refrain from taking vengeance on those who actively harm us, but we are to actively do good to them. The advantage of this is that such actions will “heap burning coals” on the heads of our enemies (Rom. 12:20). Commentators do not agree on the meaning of this statement, which is actually a quote from Proverbs 25:21-22. The sense could be that our actions of kindness end up heaping more divine judgment on the heads of our enemies because the Lord will hold them accountable for treating us poorly and for the graver sin of opposing us when we do good to them. Or, it could be that this text is telling us that our enemies will feel shame when we do good to them, and perhaps cease their hostility or even be converted as the Spirit uses the shame to bring about repentance.
What is your first inclination when people wrong you? Is it to seek vengeance on them, to do what you can to make them pay for what they have done? Or, is your response immediately to pray for them, to ask God to bless them and bring them into His kingdom? When others hurt us, we must seek to do good to them insofar as we can. This does not mean such things as lawsuits are always out of place. It means that no matter what happens, we hope and pray for our enemies’ salvation.