“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20-21).
It seems to me that some have a perverse view of what it means to “heap coals of fire” on one’s enemy. Some think that this teaches that if you want to get back at your enemy, then be kind to them, and God will really heap the fire of punishment on them in hell. This might be considered a way to get revenge. This cannot be the correct view. The Bible teaches that we are to love our enemies and even pray for them (Matthew 5:43-46; Luke 6:27-28). Jesus did (Luke 23:34). We are not even to rejoice at our enemies’ destruction (Proverbs 24:17-18; Job 31:29-30). Can one truly be loving his enemies if the very reason he shows any kindness to them is to bring misery to them in hell? I think not.
It seems to me that the key to understanding these words is to consider the words which follows – “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Instead of allow our enemies to cause us to do evil, we are to seek to change them with good behavior. Kind and righteous behavior sometimes changes enemies (1 Samuel 26:18-21; Proverbs 15:1; 16:7; 1 Peter 2:11-12). “The right way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend” (K.C. Moser, The Gist of Romans, p. 115).
What does the heaping coals on the head mean? Here are two reasonable possibilities: (1) Just as hard metal softens under heat, by doing good one might soften a hard head. (2) The coals refer to pain which leads to repentance. Barnes commented, “Coals of fire are doubtless emblematical of ‘pain.’ …Burning coals heaped on a man’s head would be an expression of intense agony… the ‘effect’ of doing good to an enemy would be to produce pain. But the pain would result from shame, remorse of conscience, a conviction of the evil of his conduct… that may lead to repentance.” (Commentary on Romans, p. 395). Your good conduct may shame your enemy for his behavior (Titus 2:7-8), and even lead him to Christ (1 Peter 2:11-12). Both of these views lead to the same end, overcoming evil with good.
Let us strive to heap coals of fire each and every day. May we seek to overcome evil with good.