Not only that, our actions lead us to an unselfish approach to people. Take another look at verses 19-21. “these are God’s words: ‘Therefore if your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head’. Don’t allow yourself to be overpowered with evil. Take the offensive – overpower evil by good.’”
If we are trying to portray actions motivated out of the love of God, then we have to respond to the basic level of human need. If our enemy is hungry, we feed him; if he is thirsty, we give him a drink. In other words, we find a need—fill it. The examples Paul gave are examples of only two of the most basic needs of life. But I bet we can fill in all kinds of other needs. What if our enemy needs compassion, or love, or a little understanding, or a listening ear, or a word of kindness, or help with the children, a ride somewhere, some money, or all kinds of other things? Should we be there? Yep. Those too! Oh, I hear you saying, “But they’re my enemy.” That is the point! It takes the grace of God to love our enemies in practical ways. This kind of Christian love distinguishes those who are Christian in word from those who are Christian in deed. Does that make sense? There are all kinds of folks who confess to be a Christian, but provide no evidence of it.
Just a short note here on the phrase, “In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” There are several theories that seem to make sense insofar as this is concerned. The first is that by doing good to those who are our enemies, we heap coals of the burning pain of shame and remorse upon them. The second is that by doing good to them, we are actually meeting a desperate need. In Bible times, a family had to keep a fire going all the time to insure that they could cook and keep warm. If the fire went out, they had to go to a neighbor for some live coals. They would carry them back in a container on their head, Oriental fashion. Therefore, the thought is that by doing good to our enemy, we are actually doing him a kindness.
It also might help to know that Paul is actually quoting Proverbs 25:21-22:
“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you”
If you can understand this proverb, it will unlock Paul’s words as well. You see, the saying is in the middle of several proverbs that use physical images to describe emotional reactions. Right before it is the passage, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or one that pours vinegar on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart” (Proverbs 25:20, RSV). This is like going to a person who lost all his children in a car accident, or maybe lost the job he worked at for 32 years or owns his own business that is failing, and saying, “Well, Jesus loves you.” It is absolutely true . . . but is it going to comfort them? Can you imagine going to a person who just learned he has cancer, his wife is having a nervous breakdown and his friends won’t talk to him anymore because they think he is too depressing; and you say: “Cheer up! Jesus loves you!” Do you really think their deep anguish is going to be soothed with a Pick-Me-Up Bouquet.®
When you find yourself counseling someone, it isn’t necessary for them to forget their problems, but they do need to grow stronger and increase their dependence on the Lord. He has to be their true source of comfort and joy. Trying to make a person in mourning happy just upsets them even more. In the same way, the passage about coals is about the emotional discomfort an enemy will feel when you stimulate his conscience about how he is treating you. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia:
The word ‘coal’ is often used in a metaphorical sense: 2 Samuel 14: 7 speaks of the ‘quenching of the coal’ of a man, meaning the complete annihilation of his issue; while in Proverbs 25:22 kindness bestowed upon an enemy is called “heaping coals of fire upon his head,” since it tends to waken his deadened conscience and help him to realize his wrong. Ecclus. (Sirach) viii. 10 compares the smoldering and easily roused passion of the godless man to the coal that is easily lighted and breaks forth into flame.
At first, the picture of putting coals on a person’s head sounds like you are supposed to cause some kind of burning pain. That would teach them, don’t you think? But it would certainly violate everything we have just been taught! This is supposed to be a picture of stirring up the coals of a fire to bring it back to life. It is a picture of stirring within a person a response of remorse, when they see your kindness in the face of their meanness. This must be what Paul’s passage is saying—we cause our enemies to be remorseful for their actions toward us, which is how we overcome evil by doing good.
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Letter to Christians at Rome