“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. 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. Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21 HCSB)
So far, Paul has been giving us a lot of contrasting thoughts and actions throughout this entire chapter (Romans 12). He began by challenging us to see ourselves in light of God’s mercies towards us – God as the mercy giver and ourselves as the ones deeply in need of His mercy – and then to give ourselves as a living sacrifice to Him in service as the only reasonable and proper response to worship. He then began to flesh out that concept of a living sacrifice in the ways we respond in love to those inside the church and those outside the church. Now, he gives us a series of stark contrasts in how we are to be “living sacrifices” to Christ in confronting and conquering evil.
Having grown up during the era of the classic comic books and comic book characters, I am very familiar with the battle between good and evil. However, while that battle of super heroes and villains tries to define the line between good and evil, it actually blurs the line in most instances. Well, what it actually does is cast a very clear light on the struggle we all face in recognizing the difference between good and evil when we tend to do exactly what scripture forbids, repay evil with evil. To be honest, I believe this is exactly what we see happening in our world of modern American politics. Each side viewing the other as the epitome of evil and then seeking to “stomp out” evil using the very tactics that we despise in our enemy. As Pogo once said, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
What we often fail to recognize is how the call to follow Christ should impact more than just where we will spend eternity. Please, don’t misunderstand me. I believe that following Christ DOES impact where we will spend eternity, but it is SUPPOSED to also impact how we live this life. Paul tells us, don’t repay anyone evil for evil. Instead, seek to do what is good, what is right in God’s sight but do it so that the world can and will see it. Somehow, many Christians have lost sight of that goal. Jesus told us to be salt and light in this world and we have somehow turned that into a negative thing. We are supposed to make life taste good and give light to those who are stumbling around in the darkness. Christians should be a source of joy and encouragement for their friends and neighbors, not a source of irritation and pain.
I know, I know. Some of you are starting in with the “but, what about” arguments. Am I right? But, what about this situation or what about that circumstance? Paul addresses those, too. He continues with: “If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone.” He acknowledges these very real struggles with the “if possible” clause. Some people make it difficult to live at peace with them. I know some of those folks and you know some of those folks but it doesn’t change Paul’s mind. On your part… or as much as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. We should do our part to make our little corner of the world a peaceful, kind and God honoring place.
I find it interesting that Paul, the man who languished in a Roman prison on several occasions and suffered at the hands of his persecutors on many occasions, reminds us that, if possible and as much as it depends on us, we should seek to live at peace with all men. I would remind you that Jesus said, “The peacemakers are blessed, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9 HCSB) But, in a world where we should seek to look more and more like Jesus, we are looking more and more like the world around us.
You may retort, but OUR values and the outcomes we seek are very different from THEIR values and the outcomes they seek. I would remind you of the previous verse in our focal passage: “don’t repay ANYONE evil for evil.” This call for seeking peace was not made in a cultural vacuum devoid of struggle and conflict. On the contrary, Paul calls upon the Roman Christians to live out the values of Christ in the midst of cultural conflict, upheaval and personal struggle. When evil punches you in the face, don’t punch them back but do your part, turn the other cheek and seek to live at peace.
“For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps. He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth; when He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He was suffering, He did not threaten but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:21-23 HCSB)
That brings me to the next part of Paul’s admonition, “Friends, don’t avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the the Lord.” We want vengeance, don’t we? As the saying goes, I don’t get mad – I get even. Vengeance is that repayment of evil with evil. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Just for a second, let’s consider the other side of what is implied in this statement. If we get revenge on those who have wronged us, does that complete the transaction? Has that person received all of the wrath they can or will receive because of their transgression? Paul says, “leave room for His wrath” and implies that our actions of vengeance against them may not leave room for God’s judgment and His wrath against their sins. In other words, if they punch you and you punch them back then they’ve received full judgment of their actions and there is no further recourse or judgment due. There’s no room left for God’s judgment and wrath.
You might question my logic, but I would encourage you to go back and read that verse, again. We are reminded that vengeance isn’t ours, it belongs to God. When we strike back in vengeance, have we stripped God of His right to hold them accountable because we assumed His role? We took His place, we acted out of place, we assumed the role of God and became the judge, passed sentence and took out our wrath against them. Is that what King David meant in Psalm 51 when he acknowledged that his sin was against God and God alone? “Against You — You alone — I have sinned and done this evil in Your sight. So You are right when You pass sentence; You are blameless when You judge.” (Psalms 51:4 HCSB) If sin can only be against God, then He alone has the right and responsibility to pass judgment and take vengeance and execute His wrath. Regardless of whether I’m right or wrong, there’s no question that if we strike out in vengeance then we’ve overstepped our authority. That alone belongs to God. That much is crystal clear.
Now, the contrast… black and white. Night and day. The real battle between good and evil. Walking with Christ and in His Spirit or living like we want to live, driven by the desires of our hearts and minds. God alone has the right to vengeance and we are called to respond like Christ. Wait for it…
We are to feed our enemy, if he’s hungry. Give him something to drink, if he’s thirsty.
Talk about a hard U turn. That’s like driving in one direction as fast as we possibly can and then slamming on the brakes, pulling the hand brake and executing a sliding 180 degree turn around. That’s like a cattle rustler stealing our prized calf and us asking, how would you like your steak cooked? That’s not just hard for us to do, it is impossible without the resurrection power of Christ’s Spirit living and working within us. Our sinful, human nature screams out “don’t feed your enemy!” That’s crazy. Strike him down. Now, while he’s weak and hungry! Christ tells us to invite him to our table, seat him in the place of honor and feed him. Give him a glass of our best wine or a cup of cold water, as the situation may warrant. Why? Because that’s what our Lord commands and how He lived.
No, it isn’t natural but that’s the point. It isn’t easy, but it is what we are called to do. Christ has given us a new nature. Don’t be conformed to this world, be transformed through the renewing of your minds. Do this in order that you may prove to the world, or put on public display, the perfect will of God for every believer. Notice the outcome of our obedience, in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on your enemy’s head. Ah, there it is. We get to heap hot burning coals on the heads of our enemies.
Ah, vengeance, I love the taste and smell of it. If that’s what you’re thinking, you got it all wrong. Keep these words in context and it will help you understand them better. Heaping coals on the enemy’s head is not about vengeance, it is about contrition and repentance. There was an ancient tradition of carrying hot coals on one’s head as a sign of contrition and repentance. This appears to be what Paul is referencing, given the context of a Christian response of love in the face of hatred, kindness in response to evil. In fact, Paul follows the comment about heaping fiery coals on our enemy’s head with “don’t be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.” So, the fiery coals must be something good that is done to conquer evil – our love and kindness drawing the evil one to Christ with their hearts filled with contrition and repentance – the ultimate good and goal of a Christ focused life.
When Christians stand in prideful, willful disobedience to Christ and His commands then our world is not drawn to Him in contrition and repentance. When we stand before the world claiming to be followers of Christ but refuse to acknowledge our own sin and failures, they turn a deaf ear to our claims. However, when we refuse to repay evil with evil and when we walk in humble contrition over our own failures to be Christlike, then others are drawn to Him.
In closing, I want to address a topic that is difficult and painful. One that is often left in the shadows or only spoken of in whispers. Over the last several years, it has become painfully evident that many atrocities have been perpetrated upon the most vulnerable in our society through the abuse of power and trust in the church. Most of us have been appalled and sickened by the sexual abuse claims leveled against priests, ministers and volunteers in churches across our land and around our world. But we must also be outraged by the subsequent coverup attempts by church leadership. In fact, our own Southern Baptist Convention lies embroiled in controversy over our alleged mishandling of such abuses. We are rightfully humiliated by these heinous crimes perpetrated by those who claimed to minister in the name of Christ. But we must not hide these sins or their crimes. That only exacerbates the sin, shields the perpetrator and forces those who’ve been hurt to hide in fear and shame. You don’t conquer evil with evil, you conquer evil with good.
While we cannot take our vengeance out upon the perpetrators, we must take action. We must expose them and their actions to the judgment and justice of our courts of law and to the judgment and wrath of Almighty God. Also, we must expose our own sin, the sin of failing to see the tears and hear the cries of the victims, to the redeeming grace of God through contrition and repentance. Is there risk in taking such a stance? Absolutely. We run the risk of expensive lawsuits and the public exposure and renunciation of these heinous actions by those we trusted or placed in positions of leadership, whether at the local church level or the national convention level. But there’s a greater risk we face, if we fail to take these steps… the wrath of our God upon our disobedience and the deaf ear our neighbors will turn towards our proclamation of the Gospel.
It is easy to stop, to read the words I’ve written and to say, “I’ve nothing to confess. I’m guilty of no such sin and I’ve done nothing to support or hide the sins of those who are guilty.” To be honest, I’ve felt the same way. At this time, I’m unaware of any similar claim that anyone could make against our local church or anyone now or previously associated with it. But that doesn’t mean we are completely innocent or free of guilt by association. I’m not just a part of this local church fellowship and neither are you. When we proclaim the truth of God’s Word and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with our neighbors, we stand in the light of all that has preceded us and point them towards the shadow (unknown) of those that will come after us (see Heb. 12:1-2). As such, we share in their glory and in their failures. Scripture is filled with stories of the men and women of faith who fought and succeeded triumphantly as well as those who failed just as spectacularly. As we share our faith, we must be prepared to answer the questions regarding both and how they fit into the grand story of God’s grace – and answer, we must.
Let me be clear, these failures don’t negate the validity of the Gospels they actually reinforce it. Scripture doesn’t hide the sin of man, it throws a spotlight on it. The Gospels don’t coverup our failures, it provides hope in the midst of their humiliating and devastating reality. Jesus specifically said, I didn’t come for those who are healthy but for the sick. What we often misunderstand that to mean is that there are some who are healthy or righteous and don’t need Jesus grace and forgiveness. Ha! No, that’s not what it means – at all. It means He came for those who are willing to admit it, recognize they are sick and in need of His healing – sick with sin, desperate and dying from the disease. That’s ALL of us – “for all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23).” The church isn’t filled with sinless saints, it is full of sinners seeking God’s mercy. Never forget that!
So, let’s stop covering up our sin and acting like hypocritical Pharisees. Instead, let’s start falling on our knees in humble confession and seeking God’s forgiveness. Wait, what’s that I feel? I think it might be coals of fire on my head guiding me towards contrition and repentance… only then can we conquer evil with good.