A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a philosopher on the radio who spoke on anger and forgiveness. In the course of her talk she brought up Romans 12:20. She said revenge was a terrible reason to forgive someone; to forgive your enemy so God would punish them, and the more we forgive them then the more they are punished?
In Romans 12:20, Paul says: “But ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him. For if he is thirsty, give him a drink. If you do this, you will pile burning coals on his head.’” International Standard Version. Other Bible translations call these ‘coals of fire’.
Taken alone, it certainly sounds like some sort of sneaky revenge upon an enemy. In the past, I have heard church people express both jokingly and seriously, exactly that sentiment. I’ve also heard the term Karma used in a similar way; if we don’t revenge ourselves upon our enemy then the universe will do so much more effectively then we ever could. But neither of these sentiments reflect the teachings of the Church.
We need to look at the whole passage. Verse 20 is Paul’s concluding statement after encouraging his readers to live differently from the world. He tells us to serve God by humbly serving others. There is no teaching of personal revenge within Christianity whether directly or by calling down God’s wrath in the form of burning coals. The church understands these ‘burning coals’ as the pricks of conscious into the heart of our enemy which, prayerfully leads them to God. The New Living Translation more accurately refers to “burning coals of shame on their heads”.
But it is not our place to judge or shame people into seeking out God. We are just supposed to love them into the Kingdom. As a mother, I have been the recipient of a full-blown temper tantrum complete with screaming and hitting. When I just held the child, soothing and stroking them until the screams turned to sobs and eventual calming, I could then find out what was wrong.
This method of diffusing anger might work with someone confronting us with angry words but in most cases, we might have to come up with ways involving less physical contact. Seeing past the anger, offering empathy, visiting the complaining neighbour with a pie, raking their leaves and shovelling their snow without being asked or paid; this is love. Unfortunately, it is antithetical to the overwhelming message of revenge and justification portrayed as entertainment these days.
Instead, think of our reaction when we discover a stranger has already paid for our coffee. We are surprised and grateful and most of us will pay it on, unconditionally. We don’t place restrictions on who is to receive the free cup of coffee.
When my kids fought, I would insist the aggressor apologize and then the aggrieved one would forgive him or at least would say the appropriate words. There was no forgiveness until an apology had been said, no matter how insincere.
Christians are to forgive whether or not an apology is made. This is unconditional forgiveness and it is what we do when we love God, ‘cause that’s what God does. As well, it is vital to our physical, emotional and spiritual health because, as recent psychological and medical studies have verified the teachings of the church, nursing anger in our hearts can destroy us.
Not only are we to unconditionally forgive our enemies, but we are also to ignore their ‘perceived sins against God’. We are not to turn people away from our churches and our businesses because they are ‘sinners’. We are all sinners, and sinners serving other sinners in love is what following Christ is all about.
If I refuse to love, forgive and serve someone then I am judging his transgressions instead of focusing on mine, and that makes me more of a sinner than he is.
The body of Christ has to follow the Head. Christ loves the world and the Body has to act in love to change the world, one person at a time.
As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”