Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:18, 21 (NIV)
Read: Romans 12:9-21
Consider: Todays’s reading from Romans 12 speaks of love in action. Initially it speaks of love and harmony among God’s people (Romans 12:9-13). We are told that we must be sincere (12:9), devoted to one another and honouring others above ourselves (12:10) and to be generous and hospitable (12:13). Paul was concerned that the life and witness of the believers (and the church) should be evident in how they treated each other.
The passage then moves on to those who seek to persecute the believers and in this situation Paul says: Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse (Romans 12:14). This sets the scene for this section of Romans 12:14-21, where the believers are instructed to ‘… not repay anyone evil for evil’ (12:17) and to ‘… not take revenge …’ (12:19). Paul recognises that human nature tends to seek revenge against those who hurt us in any way. Paul, however, wants the believer’s reaction to be a surprise to their persecutors and their enemies.
Of course, we all recognise that it can be very difficult to show kindness to those who only show unkindness to us. Paul seems to be thinking of how an otherwise hostile situation might be defused. This reminds me of Proverbs 15:1 where we read: A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Thinking of this we can make sense of what Romans 12:20 is saying. When someone hurts us or is openly hostile to us or the message we proclaim, we can either react positively or negatively. If we react negatively it is guaranteed that the hostility will continue. If we react positively, there is a chance for the situation to be resolved and for the hostility to be defused.
Notice what Paul suggests: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink (12:20); Paul is quoting from Proverbs 25:21-22. Can you see that these responses to the hostility will be so unexpected, that the anger might be be taken out of the situation. Paul then includes something that in our time appears to be vindictive in nature: In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head (12:20). While commentators have come up with some possible interpretations to be put on these words, the honest answer is that we do not know its precise meaning. However, as this whole section is about Christian love in action, we should not interpret it as something negative. Instead, even though its full meaning is lost on us, it must mean that heaping burning coals on someone’s head is an idiomatic expression for something that is a good thing.
Applying this passage to our lives means that when we express Christian love to someone it must be sincere, completely without any ulterior motives. We also should seek to live at peace with everyone (both within and outside the church). If we are in a conflict situation with someone, we should respond to their hostility in a way that surprises them and is possibly counter-cultural.
Pray: Father, help us to respond to other people’s hostility in ways that surprise them and speak clearly that we are yours. Make us more Christlike each day, so that we can truly be joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer. Amen