Burning Coals

Verlyn Verbrugge

READ : Romans 12:14-21

. . . if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them . . . drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. (v. 20)

Ouch! That would really hurt, wouldn’t it – to have burning coals heaped on your head! It reminds me of the bumper sticker I read years ago, “Don’t get mad, get even.” How can Paul write this seemingly vindictive verse, especially when he is trying to summarize the transformed Christian life (12:1-2)? And how does showing kindness to an enemy heap burning coals on his or her head?

Paul is quoting from Proverbs 25:21-22 here. That Old Testament text may reflect an ancient Egyptian ritual, whereby a guilty person, in order to show genuine repentance, would walk around with a basin of burning coals on his head. In any case, the burning coals image is intended as a symbol of the burning pangs of shame, guilt, and repentance. Paul’s phrase here essentially means, “Kill your enemy with kindness.”

If we are kind to those who least expect kindness from us, we will indeed be overcoming evil with good. It may not be easy, of course, to bless those who persecute us, but vengeance is something we must leave up to God. Our task is to fight evil with nonviolent practices of peace.


Dear God, help my life bless everyone with whom I come into contact. And help me live at peace with everyone. Amen.