Romans 12:20 says that when a believer acts kindly toward an enemy, coals of fire are actually heaped upon the enemy’s head. Please explain. Doesn’t that hurtful result negate the good the believer has done?
First, Romans 12:20 is not speaking of literal coals of fire heaped upon an enemy. We who believe the Bible take the Scriptures literally, but we also recognize the Bible’s use of figures of speech, symbols, and so forth. These literary devices can easily be identified by context and even by reality itself. Has a believer ever seen literal coals of fire drop upon an enemy when the believer has acted kindly?
The apostle Paul, writing under the direction of the Holy Spirit to the Roman believers, imparted wise instruction concerning their responsibilities toward other people. Following his counsel would help them exert a strong, effective testimony to the unbelieving world. In writing Romans 12:20, Paul quoted from Proverbs 25:21 and 22. And we see the same principles in the Old Testament Law: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). “Vengeance is Mine, and recompense; their foot shall slip in due time; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things to come hasten upon them” (Deuteronomy 32:35). These words from the Law also apply to our day.
So what is Romans 12:20 saying? Certain actions will bring results. The believer’s intent should never be to act in vengeance or to cause harm to the enemy. An appropriate result may be surprise, shock, shame, or reconciliation. Some Bible teachers have pointed out that Paul may have written of burning coals as a reference to a custom in his day: a person would show repentance by carrying a pan of burning charcoal on his or her head. In other words, Romans 12:20 illustrates that a believer’s helping an enemy, rather than retaliating, may cause the latter to be penitent and change his or her ways. That is the overcoming of evil with good that the apostle Paul spoke of in verse 21.
Someone said that the best way to “destroy” an enemy is to make him or her a friend. That is done through love. It is certainly Biblical to love one’s enemies, as Jesus taught, and we can’t use that method enough in winning people to Christ.
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