Romans 12: 17 - 20

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’

This is where the chapter gets really tough.  Last week we touched on blessing those who persecute us, but now Paul expands on this idea and addresses the very real feelings and temptations that can arise when we are the victims of other people’s wrong actions.

Living as followers of Jesus does not provide immunity from trouble. Paul tells us this in 2 Timothy 3:12:

In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

That was not in the advertising brochure, was it?

But it’s not that we get persecuted but how we handle unjust treatment that is important.

These verses warn us against taking justice into our own hands.  These verses warn us about taking personal revenge. 

 Integrity

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone

 

Verse 17 is about living in complete integrity. 

Stephen Covey reminds us that: Integrity includes but goes beyond honesty...One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present...Integrity also means avoiding any communication that is deceptive, full of guile, or beneath the dignity of people.[1]

 

It might seem conflicting for Paul to instruct us here to do good not only in the eyes of God but also in those of people – surely if God knows that we’re doing right then that’s all that matters? But this isn’t about bending to other people’s will or being liked. It’s about making sure we are beyond reproach. People may not like us but still be able to recognise the integrity of our actions.

This is not about doing good deeds in order to be praised or admired, like the Pharisees; this is about displaying God’s goodness through a life well lived, and so drawing people to him.

1 Peter 3:1-2

Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.

When we follow God’s laws with such goodness and love, people around us can’t help but notice.

Philippians 2:14-15

14 Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world

And loving our enemies is the most radical way we can demonstrate that our capacity for goodness has a supernatural source.

In the original Greek, the words that are translated ‘be careful’ suggest planning and meditating beforehand. This is necessary to avoid being caught off guard and repaying evil with evil. If we have already reflected on and prayed about how we want to conduct ourselves, we will be less likely to act in the heat of the moment, following our emotions.

Sometimes provocation can be extreme.  

In 1 Samuel 24:5, Saul and his men were hunting David down in an attempt to kill him. When the tables were turned and David found Saul isolated and vulnerable, he resisted the calls to kill Saul and said this to him:

(1 Samuel 24:10 – 13)

 ‘This day you have seen with your own eyes how the Lord gave you into my hands in the cave. Some urged me to kill you, but I spared you; I said, “I will not lay my hand on my lord, because he is the Lord’s anointed.” See, my father, look at this piece of your robe in my hand! I cut off the corner of your robe but did not kill you. See that there is nothing in my hand to indicate that I am guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life. May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you. As the old saying goes, “From evildoers come evil deeds,” so my hand will not touch you.’ 

Even though all the circumstances would have made it easy for David to retaliate and take Saul’s life, David chose peace over revenge. Peace is a choice: as far as it depends on us.

Resist revenge 

In his book on Healthy Congregations Peter Steinke picks up this comment: The two emotions most detrimental to health are vengeance and bitterness. Conversely, the most nourishing attitude is gratitude (Hans Selye)[2]

 

In Psalm 37:37–38 David himself writes:

Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace. But all sinners will be destroyed; there will be no future for the wicked. 

The reason we can pursue peace despite the injustice of a situation is that we know that God will work everything out in his perfect justice in the end.

Judgement and punishment are not our duty as individuals – as humans we will only ever have limited knowledge of a situation whereas God knows the secrets of all hearts (Psalm 44:21) and is the only one who can truly judge justly.

(1 Samuel 16:7)

But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."

 Where we act out of passionate resentment towards those who have hurt us, God acts out of his perfect knowledge. Who are we to take such a responsibility into our own hands? 

Earlier in Psalm 37 (v. 7) David writes:

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.   

Sin often has its natural consequences in this life, and we may see our persecutors suffer the consequences of their actions. But if not we wait with patience, trusting that God will resolve it all at the final judgement. We know that God is abundantly patient with all of us (2 Peter 3:9), which is great news for us when we consider our own mistakes – but it also means that he is patient with those who have hurt us. He does not wish suffering on them but wants them to come to repentance too.

Following Jesus’ example however, we are not called to sit gloatingly like Jonah, rubbing our hands together in glee under his bush looking down on Nineveh waiting in anticipation for God to punish those who hurt us.

We are called to positive action and, in doing so, we will heap burning coals on the head of our enemy. This is slightly strange imagery for us to understand, but it certainly sounds like a painful outcome. It could be a metaphor based on the way that burning coals were used to melt metals. In the same way, doing good to those who hurt us will melt their hardened hearts and, hopefully, bring them to repentance and peace towards us. Remorse is a painful emotion to experience.

When we do good to our enemies, we are following the words and actions of Jesus. God’s kindness to us is intended to bring us to repentance (Romans 2:4) and Jesus teaches on this topic in the Sermon on the Mount:

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? (Matthew 5:44 – 46)

As fellow sinners, we are in no place to judge another person, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

This is tough stuff. What it asks us to do is to go against our natural instinct to ‘do unto others as they do unto you’. Or another take: Do unto them before they do unto you”

What we’re being asked to do instead is to lean on our understanding of God’s justice and mercy and draw from that. What does that look like? Forgiveness instead of resentment; kindness instead of cruelty; words of encouragement instead of ridicule.

Let’s not underestimate how difficult this is; it may require a radical change on our part.  Acknowledging the hurt may be the first step before forgiveness can follow. If forgiveness feels like too big a leap, first pray to want to forgive, and focus on the forgiveness that Jesus has offered you. We will look at this in a bit more detail next week.

This week, 40acts is all about giving when it hurts. This is giving which costs – in all sorts of ways. It can be daunting, making us take a deep breath or think ‘I can’t do that’. But whatever it is, remember that Jesus did it first – he gave everything for us.

Putting on love (based on Colossians 3: 12-15)

 You are God’s chosen people, holy and supremely loved.

So clothe yourselves with gentleness, with humility and with patience. Above all put on love. Let love bind us together in perfect unity.

Show tolerance to one another and forgive your hurts. Know that the Lord has forgiven you with grace, with endurance and with kindness. Above all put on love. Let love bind us together in perfect unity.

Let Christ’s peace rule in your hearts and as you sing hymns and spiritual songs, let your hearts be filled with compassion, with contentment and with joy. Above all put on love. Let love bind us together in perfect unity.

Closing prayer May the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, rest upon us; may the grace of God grant us grace to live lives of complete integrity and to be beyond reproach; may the love of God fill our lives and reach out to others, this day and every day. Amen.

 



[1] Stephen R Covey The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People 195-197

 

[2] Peter L Steinke Healthy Congregations: a systems approach 19