Agape love seeks the best even for our enemies. This is how to beat evil, not by battling it with vengeance. Evil is defeated by good.
Here in v. 20 Paul is quoting Proverbs (Proverbs 25:21, 22), once again effectively using the Old Testament to support his teaching, and in v. 21, he sums up the point of this wisdom. The Proverbs are truthful sayings, principles for living righteously. Once again, Paul demonstrates that there is nothing new about his teaching. The Bible is consistent throughout— righteousness comes by faith, from Abraham to Solomon.
The trick to defeating evil, according to Paul, is to counter it with good. If we are mistreated, we should not seek vengeance for ourselves, but instead try to bless the person who has harmed us. The message here is not to be a passive victim who is taken advantage of by others; it is to overcome evil with good. If your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink. The natural temptation when someone is abusing us is to fight back in the same manner, to “sink to their level,” to act with equal sinfulness.
A humble attitude knows that God will set all wrongs right (v.19); it is not our role, and we should not give way to anger and vengeance. The way to resist this natural temptation is to fight fire with water. We can calm hostility by treating our enemy as though he were a friend. There are obvious connections to what Christ taught on interpersonal conflict, such as the Golden Rule (which applies to all human interaction), that we ought to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12). Further, Christ taught that if someone hits one side of our face, we should turn the other side to our oppressor as well (Matthew 5:39).
By offering kindness instead of further violence, we heap burning coals on [our enemy’s] head (v. 20). There are different interpretations as to what exactly this image of burning coals means, but it seems clear enough that returning an evil deed with a good deed puts a sort of heat on our enemy’s head. This heat is not judgement, otherwise it would contradict the many verses prior against taking vengeance rather than leaving that to God. However, every person is made in the image of God, and knows inside what right really is. So, when we demonstrate that by kindness in the face of hostility, we create a contrast that makes our enemy look terrible. Our motivation for treating evil with goodness should not be to punish the evil act, but to overcome it. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Again, it is for our benefit and growth that we be above feuds and vengeance. By adopting this attitude, it sows peace into our own souls, and prevents us from being controlled by the actions of another.
Still, there is a natural outcome when a sinner is met with kindness instead of retaliation; a hot sensation is on their head, whether this is conviction from God, a contrast visible to others, or the heat of God’s displeasure. Whatever the case, it is likely to put shame on the person trying to start it. There is no guarantee of this; again, Paul is describing principles to follow so that we can live by faith, and in faith, even if an enemy continues to work evil against us, we have assurance that God will repay harmful people for their actions. It’s not our role; our role is to overcome evil with good. This is how we live by faith, living harmoniously with others as God designed.
20 “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
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