According to Proverbs 25:21–22, the Lord would have us treat our enemies with kindness and generosity: “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.” This passage states the paradoxical kingdom truth that the way to deal with an enemy is to do him good.
Elisha the prophet carried out a similar kindness for the Aramean army when they came against Israel, setting food and drink before the troops and then sending them home. After that, they stayed away from Israel (2 Kings 6:21–23; cf. 2 Chronicles 28:15). Old Testament law even commanded that an Israelite return his enemy’s ox or donkey if it strayed and give aid to his enemy’s ailing beast of burden (Exodus 23:4–5).
Heap burning coals on someone’s head is an expression associated with punishment in the Bible (Psalm 11:6; 140:10). The idea is that under the heat and pressure of applied kindness, the person will feel ashamed, regret his actions, and repent. The phrase could have originated from an ancient Egyptian propitiation ritual in which a person guilty of a crime was made to carry a basin of burning embers on his head as a symbol of his repentance. The goal of treating our enemies with kindness is to bring them to a place of conviction about their wrongdoing and, thus, cause them to repent.
In Romans 12:9–21, the apostle Paul cited Proverbs 25:21–22 to show that we overcome evil through love and goodness. He taught, “Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them” (verse 14, NLT). “Never pay back evil with more evil” (verse 17, NLT). “Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, ‘I will take revenge; I will pay them back,’ says the LORD. Instead, ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.’ Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good” (verses 19–21, NLT).
Our instinctive human reaction to being wronged is to retaliate against our enemies. Yet, such a response is prohibited to followers of Christ. Jesus taught, “Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39). As Christians, we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43–48). We conquer evil by doing what is good, and we win over our enemies by loving them and treating them with kindness and compassion.
In His great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called His disciples to be agents of peace in this world: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:9–12).
There are reasons why Christians should not take revenge. First and foremost, God has made it expressly clear in Scripture that it is His job to punish sin (Deuteronomy 32:35, 41; Ecclesiastes 12:14). And, since God wants “all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” Christians are to lead “peaceful and quiet” lives, so they don’t hinder the work of the gospel (1 Timothy 2:1–4). When we perform God’s job of avenging ourselves and punishing our enemies, we run the risk of bringing harm to the cause of the gospel. But when we love our enemies sincerely and sacrificially, God will honor and reward us.
For a Christian, the best way to defeat an enemy is to turn that enemy into a brother or sister in Christ. Romans 2:4 says that God’s kindness is intended to lead people to repentance. It stands to follow that our kindness to an enemy might also help bring that person to repentance. Treating our enemies with unexpected benevolence and generosity will have a disarming and discomforting effect, with the potential of leading them to remorse, repentance, and salvation in Jesus Christ.