Burning Coals

Romans 12:18-20:

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’”

I have to be honest, I’ve never liked this passage. I’ve always thought to myself, first of all, that we as believers shouldn’t be wishing God’s wrath or vengeance upon anyone, no matter their offense. We should hope, pray, and work for repentance, redemption, restoration, and reconciliation. So revenge has never been my M.O. And I’ve never really seen it as God’s, either.

The second reason why I’ve always disliked this passage is the idea of doing good to your enemy in order to “heap burning coals on his head.” That has always struck me as incredibly spiteful. And God doesn’t call us to spite our enemies. No, He calls us to love and bless them. So in my cognitive dissonance, I’ve just glossed over the verses, vowing to ask God about it one day. Well, it turns out that now I don’t have to—thank you Jon Green!

You see, Jon taught from this passage in his Sunday sermon this week, and he shed SO much light on the context of this passage for me. Specifically, he pointed out that this refers to a common-ish practice of the day, and one undertaken when an enemy was attacking. From the top of the city’s wall, soldiers would heap burning coals on the heads of their attackers in order to keep them at bay. And Jon rightly described this as a defensive action, a response from a position of strength, but one respecting appropriate boundaries. So rather than going on the offensive, or being spiteful, this heaping of coals was simply a strategy for protection. And for me, that changes everything.

So then, what about God’s wrath and His vengeance? Well, when Jon suggested that we are to leave revenge to God, I got to thinking that one reason for this is that we do not know how to properly wield vengeance. But God does. And do you know how we know that? John 8. You remember, don’t you, when a woman was brought before Jesus after being caught in adultery? And the teachers of the law wanted to stone her, but Jesus quietly called each one out in his sin, and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b). “At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:9-11).

So when we turn our enemies over to God—who is righteous, just, AND merciful—we can trust that He will do the right thing. We can certainly have no such faith in ourselves. What a relief, then, to let go and give it to God—not asking Him to avenge us, but pleading with Him for mercy and forgiveness, on behalf of our enemy. Jesus Himself did no less as He hung on the cross to die for our sins. Let us live by His example, saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

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