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What does it mean to "heap burning coals" on your enemy's head?

In Romans 12, the apostle Paul begins talking about how followers of Christ should act differently than the rest of the world by saying, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2). As the chapter goes on, Paul gives a bunch of examples of how this looks practically. Take a moment to read through Romans 12 to get a better idea of what we're talking about here.

The key principle Paul is trying to get across is first found in Romans 12:17, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil." Paul goes on to explain how we should strive for peace and allow God to avenge any wrongdoing, for getting revenge is not our job. We are to use good to fight evil—just as Jesus did.

"Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them." —Romans 12:14

Then we get to verse 20, when Paul says something a little perplexing, considering he was just telling us to be a blessing to those who persecute us: "...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" (Romans 12:20, emphasis added).

What gives? First he says that we should let our love be genuine (v. 9), live in harmony (v. 16), and make peace with all (v. 18), then he says that by doing so, we're going to "heap burning coals" on our enemies' heads? Yikes. That doesn't sound loving, harmonious, or peaceful, does it?

When a specific phrase in the Bible is confusing, it's always a good idea to look at it in context.

To better understand this phrase, let's take a look at the verse in biblical context. Romans 12:20 is actually a quote from the Old Testament, specifically Proverbs 25:21-22, "If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you."

Bible scholars have studied what the phrase to "heap burning coals" meant in those days, and there are a couple thoughts, both of which actually end up having similar meanings.

One thought is that to "heap burning coals on his head" means to stop the conversation by fulfilling whatever need exists. For example, if your friend yells at you because you won't let him eat something in your lunch, you can offer the item to him plus more. That will more than fulfill his need and stop his anger, perhaps even stirring a realization about the meanness in his heart because it is in stark contrast to your act of kindness.

Another thought is that to "heap burning coals on his head" refers to a time when keeping one's hearth fire alive was a life-saving necessity. If someone could not keep their fire going, then they would go around the town, carrying some sort of container on his head, asking for hot coals to rekindle his fire. Putting coals in this container on his head would benefit him, fulfilling his need, and helping him.

Either way we interpret this phrase, Paul is saying to pay kindness to your enemies instead of trying to hurt them. Do not allow their mean or sinful actions to control you; make the decision to choose peace as your response. Do not try to get even or get back at them, rather overwhelm them with kindness, and "do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21). The hope is that perhaps your kindness will "destroy" your adversary's cruelty by making him into an ally.

TL;DR

In Romans 12:20, Paul is saying to pay kindness to your enemies instead of trying to hurt them. Do not allow their mean or sinful actions to control you. Instead, make the decision to choose peace as your response. Do not try to get even or get revenge for that is God's job (Romans 12:19). Instead, overwhelm them with kindness, and "do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21). The hope is that your kindness will "destroy" your adversary's cruelty and perhaps stir up a realization about the meanness in his heart because it is in stark contrast to your act of kindness.

By: Catiana Nak Kheiyn

Cat is the web producer and editor of 412teens.org. She loves audiobooks, feeding the people she cares about, and using Christmas lights to illuminate a room. When Catiana is not writing, cooking, or drawing, she enjoys spending time with her two kids, five socially-awkward cats, and her amazing friend-amily.

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