When I got my feelings hurt as a kid (and sometimes even now as an adult) my favorite way of getting even was to use guilt.
If someone called me a mean name, rather than thinking of a worse thing to call them, my plan was to make them feel guilty for it. To this day I don’t know why I was/am like that. Inflicting remorse just seemed like the sweetest revenge.
So when I was told that the Bible says we should be kind to our enemies to make them feel bad, I was all over the idea.
I know you’re wondering where in the Bible it says that:
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; For so you will heap coals of fire on his head,
And the Lord will reward you.
I know, of course, that the Bible’s meaning here isn’t that we should be nice to people as a roundabout way of getting even. The Bible would never say that. But that’s the way I took it.
I think that’s the way a lot of people take it.
It’s hard to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. It’s difficult enough sometimes to sacrifice for a friend, let alone someone who’s hurt us. But if we have the promise that they will at least feel guilty for what they did, sometimes that’s the incentive that gets us going.
I’ve read a lot of commentaries about these verses and one phrase that came up a lot was ‘Killing them with kindness.’ The idea being to overwhelm someone with such unexpected love and mercy, that they are humbled and brought to repentance. Kind of like what God did to us.
But here’s the problem I have with this theory: we are not God. It is not our job or place to invoke feelings of guilt, conviction, or repentance in another’s heart. That is the Holy Spirit’s job. God can and does use our expressions of love to reach people, but if we are showing them love in the hopes of personal vindication, rather than simply to love them as God called us too, then we’re missing something.
Here’s another possible translation for the verse that my sister heard from a pastor at her church. Please note that in all my research I was only able to find one other reference to it.
In the ancient Hebrew culture, Jews kept a bowl of live coals in their home. If their coals went out, it was a serious problem because they couldn’t light fires they needed for cooking and heating. They would have to put the bowl on their head and walk around asking for live coals. If the other Jews were so inclined, they would take some of their own live coals, which were precious to them for obvious reasons, and place them in the bowls. In light of this custom, the act of heaping burning coals onto someone’s head wasn’t one designed to teach a lesson, but rather an act of great generosity and mercy.
I know that the end result can still be the same; your enemy is so blown away by your kindness that they repent and become your friend. But this translation completely changes the motivation. It turns it from a pursuit of personal vindication, to an act of raw and selfless love. One in which there may very well be nothing in it for the good doer.
Instead of allowing ulterior motives to dictate my decisions, I want to become the type of person who loves so extravagantly that when I’m wronged by someone, my first inclination is to show love and mercy simply because the Holy Spirit and Christ’s sacrifice have enabled me to have and share love and mercy.
I want to freely give, as I have freely received.
I don’t want to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. I want to love because God has called me to love. The other person’s repentance is between them and God.
My job is to show love by sharing my live coals.