“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.” Romans 12:20
Why would Paul say this to the Church in Rome? Paul is trying to explain love in action, or as we say in TJC, “Love Does.” Paul spent the previous two chapters (Romans chapters 10 & 11) explaining how God demonstrated love to the Nation of Israel. He quotes the prophet Isaiah over half a dozen times to drive his point home. Here, He is teaching that the demonstration of love God modeled is for His church to replicate in our daily lives individually and corporately.
Even with all that in mind, Romans 12:20 always seemed peculiar to me. Every teaching on it made it seem like a “Christian-ese” way to “passively aggressively” settle a score. Showing overwhelming, unexplainable kindness will make my adversary give in, repent, and maybe feel a tinge of pain in their souls. I mean, why else would we heap coals?! That perspective and interpretation always seemed out of alignment with the Gospel and God’s heart. He’s not interested in having us settle scores (Romans 12:17).
Recently, my pastor taught this in a way that finally made sense. Paul is quoting from Isaiah 6:6-7, “Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it, he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is atoned for.”
The coal symbolizes the removal of guilt and atones for transgressions. So Paul is saying, don’t just use one piece of coal or touch their lips with it. Heap loads of burning coal on them, covering their whole head to remove their guilt and transgressions against you. Coal is forgiveness, and it sears and seals God’s love and mercy (like the crust on a great steak).
I’ve been struggling with one of my co-workers for over a year. He did some things early on that seemed underhanded and caused me to lose trust in him. This week, he returned from a training course another colleague, and I attended about a month ago. Our intent was to show him how we had applied what we had learned so that his transition would go smoother. When we shared the plan with him, he quipped (in public) “I don’t think I need that. I’m sorry your training wasn’t as good as mine.” We put a lot of time into creating a plan that would help him, and he throws it in our face, without extending any professional courtesy or asking “Why?”
Then Romans 12:20 came to mind, and I said, “Yep, I’m gonna settle this score with “passive-aggressive kindness! Let’s heap some coals!” I shared my frustration with my wife, and she led and counseled me. She reminded me heaping coals isn’t “killing” him with kindness; it’s killing the guilt I think he should feel and dismissing the transgression. With that in mind, I refocused. I prayed, “Lord, how do I rightly live out this verse?” The Lord prompted me to extend the professional courtesy I wished he had shown me. I would have to ask him “Why” he felt the way he did. I did, and we had a good and productive conversation. He didn’t apologize but did say he understood how his words could be taken that way. He said he’d work on how he communicates with the team. I’ll take that as a win and keep my shovel handy because I know I’ll have to heap more coal going forward.
Daily Battle Order:
Did this passage ever seem weird to you? Did you have a different interpretation? Read Isaiah chapter 6. Put focus and context on Isaiah 6:6-7. Wrestle with it and be prepared to heap coals today.
The theme for this year on the Battlefield with TJC is Deep Change. Come join TJC and learn more about how deeply Christ can change your heart. https://www.joshuacommission.org/event-details/rescheduled-gettysburg-battlefield-maneuver-2023