When talking to people about important issues it is often necessary to repeat yourself. You might need to repeat the fact that you want a refund to a store clerk who seems intent on doing anything but give you that refund. You might need to tell a loved one, “This is what I need right now . . . “ over and over until that person actually hears what you are saying. Sometimes this is called “the broken record” approach to communication. In this technique you repeat the point you are trying to get across in a variety of ways until the person actually hears what you are trying to say.
I get the feeling that Paul is using the broken record technique on us. Let’s review what he has been telling us.
- V. 9-10 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.
- v. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
- V. 16 Live in harmony with one another
- V. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil.
- V. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
You don’t have to be a Bible Scholar to see that Paul seems to be developing a theme. He is driving home the point that our relationships with each other are important. How we respond to our brothers and sisters in Christ; how we relate to each other in times of conflict; how we relate to those who attack us . . . will reveal more about our faith than any theological exam. True Christianity should make a practical difference! Paul underscores this in the last verses of the chapter.
19 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. 20 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.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Why is Paul hammering away at the issue of how we relate to each other? Was something going on in the church in Rome that led Paul to in a sense underline, bold, and capitalize the issue of our relationship to one another? Was Paul reflecting on his own personal experience with enemies? Was Paul remembering his own experience as an antagonist of the church watching Stephen pray for those who were stoning him? Was that the moment that spiritual uneasiness began to build in the heart of this former Pharisee?
Perhaps Paul had talked to many who said they would trust Christ but they had met too many mean Christians. Maybe they told Paul that they felt beat up by believers when they were hurting or lost instead of feeling loved.
Frankly, I don’t know. What we do know is Paul had a passion for Christians to get along with each other. In the today’s text Paul seems to be dealing with conflict with those who are outside the church (though the principles certainly apply to those who are fellow believers.) There are a few new principles.
You Must Choose How You Will Respond to Difficult People
Paul has told us to bless and not curse. Now he tells us not to respond to those who attack us with a spirit of revenge. He says we should overcome evil with good. All these commands indicate that we have a choice in how we respond to the attacks of those around us. We don’t have to respond in kind. Spurgeon said we either overcome evil or are overcome BY evil.
The desire to strike back at someone who attacks us is natural. When someone tries to intimidate us, we try to intimidate them back. It is part of our sinful nature. However, it doesn’t have to stay that way.
We see a great illustration in the story of David and Saul in 1 Samuel. Saul was the first King of Israel. Over the course of time Saul became arrogant and started to drift from obedience to God. The Lord told him that he would take the kingdom from him. In fact, David was quietly anointed while Saul was still on the throne. From that moment David experienced God’s blessing in many ways and Saul felt threatened. He was so threatened, in fact, that he became obsessed with having David killed.
David and his fighting men tried to avoid Saul’s army. Twice David had the perfect opportunity to kill Saul. It would have been a very natural and understandable thing for David to do. Afterall, Saul was seeking David’s life. People could say it was self-defense. However, David refused to raise a hand against the King. He chose to continue to honor and respect Saul. He believed that since it was God who put Saul in power it would be God who would have to remove that power.
The Christian approach to conflict is supposed to be different from the methods of the world.
- The way of the Devil is to attack, the way of God is pursue understanding
- The way of the Devil is to get even for hurts real or perceived; the Christian seeks to forgive.
- The way of the Devil is to focus on “winning”; it’s all about us. The way of God is to be most concerned about the Kingdom of God.
- The way of the Devil is to blast away; the way of the Lord is to reach out in love.
Our job is to choose the kind of person we want to be. Do we want to follow the ways of the Devil or the way of the Lord? Before making this choice we need to ask ourselves some pointed questions:
1. When we offend God, when we do stupid things, when we deliberately sin, what response do we want from God? Do we want justice or mercy? Jesus told us, “Judge not, lest you be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Mt. 7:1,2) If we want kindness and mercy from God we must show it to others.
- When we offend another do we want them to assume the worst or do we hope they will let us explain? Do we want anger or mercy? The Bible tells us that we should treat others the way we want to be treated.
- When Jesus was attacked how did He respond? Jesus stood up for the truth but never felt the need to defend Himself. He always confronted error with a desire to reach another person. His motive was love. He had compassion for those who were weak and hurting.
We have a choice: what kind of person do you choose to be?
Keep An Eternal Perspective
Paul tells us that we should not take revenge but instead should “leave room for God’s wrath”. What exactly does that mean? Is Paul saying, “Don’t sweat it . . . God is going to get your enemies in the end”? Is he saying, “When you act in judgment toward another you are usurping God’s rightful place so back off”? I don’t know. Either way Paul is telling us to take an eternal perspective.
This is difficult for us. We are quick to make snap judgments. We want justice and we want it right now! Some people take that to such an extreme that they become vigilantes. They take matters into their own hands and punish the offenders like the lynch mobs of old.
There are several things we need to keep in mind. First, God alone can judge fairly. No matter how clear we are on what a person did or intended to do, we really don’t know all the variables. We can’t measure someone’s heart. We don’t really know whether they are telling the truth or whether they are lying. When we dispense justice we are often as guilty as those who put innocent men in prison and destroy their lives.
Second, No One is Going to “Get Away” with anything. God has promised us that wrongs will be righted and that justice will be done. The wicked will be punished. We are very impatient people. We assume that because someone seems to get away with something over a period of time that they are going to get away with it forever. That’s not so. We will be vindicated from every wrong committed against us.
If you are one of those people who think you can sin without consequence, you are wrong. God will judge the wicked. Those who stand outside of the grace of our Lord Jesus will face the burning terror of God’s wrath.
Third, we must remember that the God of Judgment is also the God of Mercy (aren’t you grateful?). If justice were dispensed immediately for every crime committed, we wouldn’t live to see our teenage years! The people we are angry with right now may become our brothers and sisters in Christ! Just as God has extended mercy to us, so He may also extend it to others. We will not know the end of the story until we get there.
Embrace the Power of Good
Paul tells us that we should overcome evil with good. He says, “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.” We sometimes forget that God has not called us to defeat enemy soldiers; He has called us to win them to the gospel! When we are seeking to defeat someone we can bring out the huge artillery that is designed to destroy with no regard for life. However, if our goal is to win our enemies, we must take a different approach. The approach commended by Jesus and here by the Apostle Paul is to “overcome evil with good.”
This phrase “heap burning coals on his head” is one that has been much debated. It is an image we don’t understand. Some people believe it means to “kill a person with kindness.” They believe Paul is telling us that if we are nice to a person who is nasty to us we can take delight in the fact that we will be driving them crazy!
This interpretation seems to miss the spirit of the passage. Paul is not teaching us some sinister way to “get even”, he is teaching us a better way. It is more likely that Paul is either advocating an act of benevolence (giving coals to those who are in need) or saying that our good deeds will lead the other person to repent and to see that their actions were wrong. Some commentators point to those who used to carry a pot of hot coals on their head to show that they were truly sorry for something.
If this interpretation is correct then Paul is saying that our kindness will help another see their need to change. Our kindness can help change the heart of another. Where anger hardens another, love softens them.
Some immediately respond to this idea with”: that won’t work!” I work with people all the time and if you don’t fight back, people are going to walk all over you. It is true that not everyone will respond positively to our efforts to win them with kindness. However, there are two things to consider when we think about ignoring God’s counsel.
The price tag of ignoring God’s way is too high
Charles Spurgeon wrote.
Brethren, the desire to return evil for evil does not succeed, because it injures us much more than it injures the person whom we seek to overcome. It has been said that the worst peace is better than the best war, and I believe almost anything is better than becoming angry. Scarcely any injury which we can ever sustain will so injure us as the injury which must arise to us from becoming angry and revengeful. Our enemies are not worth putting ourselves out about after all, and ten minutes of a palpitating heart, and of a disturbed circulation, causes us greater real damage in body than an enemy could inflict in seven years. Ten minutes of a fiery deluge overflowing the whole soul is a serious catastrophe, not to be often risked. Ten minutes in which you could not look Jesus in the face, ten minutes in which you would be ashamed to think of the Master’s being near, ten minutes of broken fellowship — why this is a very serious self-torture.
The fact is, when we return evil for evil we are no different than the person who attacked us.
Second, this is our only hope of bringing about productive change
In 2 Kings 6 there is the great story about the King of Aram trying to kill Elisha because he kept tipping off the King of Israel what he was going to do. One day the army arrived at Elisha’s home. His servant was scared but Elisha knew the army of the Lord surrounded him. He prayed that the men might be blinded and they were. He led them to the city and the King of Israel wanted to put them to death. Elisha said,
[Don’t miss this] 22 “Do not kill them,” he answered. “Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master.” 23 So he prepared a great feast for them, and after they had finished eating and drinking, he sent them away, and they returned to their master. So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory.
Elisha showed kindness to those who sought to kill him. As a result, the people stopped raiding Israel!
The way to bring transformation and to stem the tide of abortion is not to hurl obscenities at people and act with violence; the way to counteract the Gay Agenda is not to respond with hatred; the way to bring change to those who are in non-Christian religions is not to condemn them . . . this is what people expect! The way to bring real change is to show people the love of Jesus! Christ’s love is what will transform a heart and change a mind.
Kindness does not always mean that the person who offends you will change. However, those watching you may be changed. Other unbelievers may be brought to faith. Your children may come to see Christ more clearly. And beyond a doubt, YOU will change. The bitterness, resentment and irritability will be gone and it will be replaced with the heart of the Master.
Let me give you three steps to applying this text today. First, look at that situation that has you tied up in knots . . .you know, the one that gets you irritated just thinking about it. Take a step back. Take an eternal perspective on the situation. Instead of looking only at your wounds, look also at the Kingdom of Christ. What will your response do to the Kingdom? Are you willing to trust God’s justice? Are you willing to leave vengeance with Him? Decide today to trust God to arbitrate.
Second, determine that you will “do no harm”. Decide that you will do no harm to the other person by hurling abuse at them or by taking aggressive action toward them. Determine that you will do no harm to the Kingdom by your gossip and slanderous comments.
Finally, take a step to do something good toward the person you are having difficulty with. If you have said or done something offensive, suck it up and apologize. Ask for forgiveness. Look for opportunities to share a kind word, to shake a hand, to do an act of love. Somewhere in the course of everyone’s life there will be a time of hurt. If you see your antagonist hurting, don’t gloat! Instead extend the love of Jesus. It won’t be easy. In fact, it may be the hardest thing you have ever done. But if you will reach out in faith you may see real change. Some of the people who were once your enemies will become your friends. Some who hated you will become your brother in Christ. And more than that . . . .YOU will be set free. You will be set free from the bitterness, resentment, and anger that enslave your mind. You will know a new joy, a joy that comes from trusting God in such a radical way that you are willing to love even your enemies.