Romans 12:20 Parallel Verses [⇓ See commentary ⇓]

Romans 12:20, NIV: "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.'"

Romans 12:20, ESV: "To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”"

Romans 12:20, KJV: "Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head."

Romans 12:20, NASB: "'BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM; IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.'"

Romans 12:20, NLT: "Instead, 'If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.'"

Romans 12:20, CSB: "But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head."

What does Romans 12:20 mean? [⇑ See verse text ⇑]

Paul now adds to the difficulty of the previous verse. There he wrote that Christians must quit the work of seeking revenge against those who harm us. Why? As God's children, that's our Father's work, and He's better at it than we are. Instead of seeking petty revenge on our own terms, we should leave justice to the omnipotent God of the universe.

One reasonable way to interpret Paul's command would be as an instruction to avoid and ignore those who harm us. If we can't get even, at least we can stay away from them. However, Paul now reveals that this is not the path of those who follow Christ. Instead, we are called to active, positive, and generous engagement with those who harm us. Rather than simply ignoring our enemies, we ought to seek to do good for them and to them.

This is not meant to be taken as a command to stay in a situation in which someone is actively physically harming us. Retreating from violence or avoiding a physical abuser is not being discouraged here, at all. If we can take steps to avoid future injury, that is the right and wise thing to do. God is not commanding us to welcome any kind of abuse.

Even though we're not being commanded to "embrace" abuse, this is still a hard teaching. In quoting Solomon's words from Proverbs 25:21–22, Paul's description of how to respond to evildoers is galling, even infuriating, at first. At the same time, there is a certain ruthlessness about it, spiritually speaking. We are called to bring down fiery conviction on our enemies by being relentlessly kind in seeing and meeting their basic needs. As we do, two things happen. One, we reflect God's own mercy to us who were once His enemies (Romans 5:10). Second, we show both that we do not deserve to be treated poorly and that we are stronger than those who harm us.

The description of "heaping burning coals" is a reference to Proverbs 25:21–22. In Egypt, there had been a custom to carry a pan of burning coals on one's head as a sign of repentance. Kindness and forgiveness to those who abuse us, ideally, will make them ashamed of themselves, and hopefully bring them to repent. The strongest, most powerful response to persecution and hatred is to love your enemies.

Those who choose to do good to their enemies create the opportunity Paul describes in the following verse.