What does Romans 12:20 mean?
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.”
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.'
CSB: ButIf your enemy is hungry, feed him.If he is thirsty, give him something to drink.For in so doingyou will be heaping fiery coals on his head.
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.'
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.
Verse Commentary:
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.
Verse Context:
Romans 12:9–21 is a list of numerous brief, bullet-pointed commands. Taken together, they paint a picture of what the living-sacrifice Christian life should look like. The unifying theme of the list is setting ourselves aside, to effectively love and serve the Lord, each other, and even our enemies. We must serve with enthusiasm and focus, mastering our emotions to rejoice in our future and be patient in our present. We must refuse to sink to evil's level in taking revenge and instead overcome evil by doing good to those who harm us.
Chapter Summary:
In Romans 12, Paul describes the worship of our God as becoming living sacrifices to our God, giving up seeking what we want from life and learning to know and serve what God wants. That begins with using our spiritual gifts to serve each other in the church. Paul's list of commands describes a lifestyle of setting ourselves aside. Our goal as Christians is to love and lift each other up. We must focus our expectation on eternity and wait with patience and prayer for our Father to provide. We must refuse to sink to evil's level, giving good to those who harm us instead of revenge.
Chapter Context:
Romans 11 ended with a hymn describing God's vast ownership of the universe. Romans 12 begins by asking the question, ''Since He owed us nothing and has given us great mercy, how should we respond?'' The answer is a life of self-sacrificing worship spent in serving the Lord and other believers, refusing revenge and overcoming evil with good. Romans 13 will continue to describe God's intended lifestyle for those in Christ.
Book Summary:
The book of Romans is the New Testament's longest, most structured, and most detailed description of Christian theology. Paul lays out the core of the gospel message: salvation by grace alone through faith alone. His intent is to explain the good news of Jesus Christ in accurate and clear terms. As part of this effort, Paul addresses the conflicts between law and grace, between Jews and Gentiles, and between sin and righteousness. As is common in his writing, Paul closes out his letter with a series of practical applications.
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