By Harold Sala
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. Romans 12:20
“I don’t get mad–I get even!” reads the message on the bumper sticker. The taste of vengeance is so sweet–or is it? When the Japanese invaded China in World War 2, William’s family was torn apart. His father was imprisoned and died there in what prison officials described as an “accident.” His sister was also imprisoned. Eventually, they came for William. It seemed that one Japanese official had it in for the family which was active in the small church in their village.
William plotted his revenge. After the war was ended and William was eventually allowed to leave China, he determined to go through Japan on his way to the United States. He intended to locate the man who had so hurt his family, and, at least, discredit him before his family and his colleagues at work. The long-awaited taste of vengeance seemed to grow sweeter day by day.
In Japan he stayed with a friend, and while he was there, he picked up a book by Corrie ten Boom, a woman who had also been badly victimized by the injustices of war. In her book, Corrie told how forgiveness–not vengeance–is the only answer to the hatred which destroys people. Through this, God began clearly speaking to William. He knew what he was about to do was wrong. Scripture speaks so clearly, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19, KJV). Could it be clearer than that?
William did look up the man, but instead of taking revenge, he forgave the man, and continued on his journey, cleansed and whole.
Few stories, however, end as this one, which is completely factual. Why does God say so specifically that we have no right to take vengeance on our enemies? Paul knew that treating evil with kindness is contrary to human nature, yet he also knew that revenge only multiplies itself in an unending torrent of pain and wrongdoing.
Here’s what he said: “Do not take revenge, my 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.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19-21).
Paul’s reference to heaping coals of fire on a person’s head may have been an allusion to a practice that was observed in Egypt, where to show remorse over wrongdoing, an individual would literally take charcoal and bear the coals in a dish on his head. Paul is saying, “Leave the business of getting even to God because He has a long memory. Don’t worry about it! It’s His responsibility, not yours.”
In giving this advice, Paul echoes what Moses wrote 1400 years before, as God told people not to take vengeance on each other. God said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them” (Deuteronomy 32:35).
Overcoming evil with kindness produces shame in those who do wrong. It is the only kind of a transaction that forever cancels wrongdoing and lets it die.
A final thought. What Paul wrote isn’t easy, but it is possible. If you have been wronged and you secretly await your day of getting even, release that attitude in prayer and ask God to give you grace to forgive. He will, and when you forget about getting even, you will be amazed how quickly things get better. Leave vengeance to God; He’s much better dealing with it than we are.
Resource reading: 1 Peter 2:23-25.