The Characteristics of Christian Behaviour
(g) Facing Our Foes
If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. 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. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
How do we react when we feel hurt and offended? What do we say when we are falsely accused and misunderstood? This is a key aspect of Christian Behaviour because we inevitably face challenging situations which either cause us to produce the beauty of grace or display the worst of fallen humanity. The truth is, we often fail to react appropriately because we haven’t understood the clear teaching of Scripture. In this passage we are taught how the Christian should relate to his or her enemies in very clear language. These verse form part of a sub-section, which commenced in v9, focusing upon Christian Love and its application to daily living. Paul has already intimated that love must be shown to our enemies (v14, v17) He now pauses to reason out this aspect of Christian Love with greater clarity.
1: Seeking Peace; v18
If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
Peace is a condition which is often elusive. Throughout world history there have been very few periods when there was international peace. Wars and infighting have been and are commonplace. Within societies and often within families there is hatred and bitter enmities. Tragically even within the Church of Christ there is strife. Realistically, however, there are people who are very difficult to enjoy peace and harmony with. Augustus Toplady, the writer of Rock of Ages, was said to be a most cantankerous individual. He wrote with great bitterness against John Wesley to such an extent that Wesley refused to reply saying, “He is too dirty a writer for me to meddle with; I should only foul my fingers.” There have been many difficulties standing in the way of harmony, even among Christians, throughout every era of world and Church History. Nevertheless we must make every effort to live peaceably with all people in every area of life.
2: Resisting Revenge; v19
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves
Revenge is a human and natural reaction when we feel personally wronged. We live in a society where people insist and stand up for their rights. It seems that even children know their rights nowadays and are quick to impose their will upon adults! We must be cautious, however, about insisting on our rights in personal disputes. Such a spirit can often be revengeful and selfish. The Scriptures teach here that the desire for revenge should resisted because it is carnal and not spiritual.
3: Trusting God; v19
but rather give place unto wrath
Rather we should “give place unto wrath”. This essentially means that we should allow our wrath to stand back and allow the wrath of another to take the stage. Vengeance belongs unto the Lord. We should never attempt to do what is the Lord’s right alone. He will vindicate the innocent and judge the evil doer in his time.
Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord
4: Winning Ways; v20
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.
This text is very challenging. We should feed a hungry enemy and give water to a thirsty adversary. We ought to help the most ardent critic if the situation arises. The reason why we should be kind to our enemies is the greatest challenge; “…for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” It is often accepted that when we are kind to our foes we actually bring judgement upon them. This is a poor interpretation. Is it Christian to be kind in order that those who receive our kindness may have a doubling of God’s wrath? Is this consistent in a chapter which deals with Christian Love? I think not. Coals of fire on one’s head would produce an irresistible heat. In like manner we are kind to our enemies in order that they be changed. Deed’s of kindness is the most powerful method effecting the attitudes of others and saving their souls (if they are unsaved). In 1970 John Perkins, a Christian teenager with a burden for the black community in Mississippi, went to prison to post bail for a group of students who had been arrested for holding a civil rights march. He was surrounded by police officers and savagely beaten principally because he was black. It took him months to recover from that night but later he wrote about the impact that event had upon him spiritually, “I remembered their faces-so twisted with hate…For the first time I saw what hate had done to those people…I just couldn’t hate back. I could only pity them…I said to God that night…’I really want to preach a gospel that will heal these people too.” How much thought and time do we put into winning our enemies rather than seeking their judgement?
5: Practicing Goodness; v21
Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
The final verse presents us with a guiding principle which ought to be practiced by every Christian when confronting a hostile situation. Evil will never be conquered by evil. Stooping to the level of our opponents will inflame rather than the heal the situation. Our aim should be to apply the principles of Christian love and forgiveness because ultimately it will be this spirit that the Lord is pleased with. David is the prime example of one who overcame the evil of Saul by simply living out the will of God. When an opportunity arose that would have allowed him to take the life of the King he refused because he could not touch the Lord’s anointed. For this he was blessed. The Book of Proverbs provides us with many practical insights as to how we should approach difficult situations that involve other people;
Hatred stirreth up strifes: but love covereth all sins.
A fool’s wrath is presently known: but a prudent man covereth shame.
A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.