Romans 12: 17 - 21
You can’t always stop people from hating you, but you don’t have to hate them back. You can’t always make people love you, but you can always love them back. Jesus gave us the principle that we call the Golden Rule - “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7: 12). Treat people as you would like to be treated. Speak to them as you would like to be spoken to. Grant them the honour that you wish they would grant to you. Give them the respect you desire for yourself. Offer them the kindness that you wish they would offer you.
Here Paul expands upon the Golden Rule and applies it to the hardest of all hard cases. How do you respond to those people who badly mistreat you? What do you do when you’ve been done wrong? The answer comes in 2 parts. When we’ve been done wrong, we are to live in peace with our enemies if at all possible and we are not to seek revenge. In fact, we are to reach out to those who have hurt us by doing practical deeds of kindness to our enemies. In so doing, we will actually overcome evil with good.
1. The Call to Peace v. 17, 18
1 negative and 2 positive statements - negative - “Repay no one evil for evil”- speaking of retaliation and seeking revenge - first positive statement involves personal responsibility -“Give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all”- don’t give people a reason to treat you unkindly.
This has many practical applications. It touches how we dress and act, the way we treat others in public, it involves things like common courtesy, honesty at work, having a cheerful heart, being a team player, not being a troublemaker, a whiner or a hypochondriac. The principle is: Live in such a way that no one can make an honest accusation against you. Live so that if they are going to accuse you, they have to tell a lie to do it.
Second positive statement: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Utterly realistic - it isn’t always possible to live at peace with everyone. Sometimes despite our best efforts, we’ll just rub people the wrong way. Sometimes you are thrown in a situation at school or at work with people who are jerks! You can’t do anything about it. Such people don’t want peace, they want to make trouble.
You can find at least one person like that in every school, every business and usually on every block. Paul’s advice in such cases is simple: Live at peace with everyone. If that doesn’t work, make sure that you aren’t part of the problem. “As far as it depends on you.” The only person you can take care of is you. “It takes 2 to tango.” “It takes two to tangle.” If you refuse to tangle, at least you can’t be blamed for causing the problem. You can’t control other people or how they respond to you. But you can create an environment that either makes it more or less likely for them to blow up in your face. Be a peacemaker - if someone makes trouble for you, no one can legitimately blame you.
2. The Warning Against Revenge v. 19a
There are no exceptions, no extenuating circumstances, no ifs, ands or buts. Revenge and retaliation are forever ruled out for the believer in Christ. 3 reasons for ruling out all attempts at revenge.
A. Revenge is God’s Work v. 19b
President J. F. Kennedy - “Don’t get mad, get even.” That is the wisdom of the world. If we are truthful, that’s the way most people, even Christians, operate. With one slight correction: We get mad, then we get even. By contrast, Paul says, “Let God handle the revenge. That’s his special ministry.” Have you ever thought that revenge is a “ministry” of God? Vengeance is one aspect of God’s justice - His way of balancing the scales of life.
What happens when we try to take revenge into our own hands? - We almost always mess it up. We’re either too harsh or too soft, we strike fast or too late, or we attack the wrong person or we say the wrong thing, or we just end up making things worse and not better. The most fundamental reason not to take revenge is that by our clumsiness we may block God’s work in another person’s life. We just want to get even, but God wants to bring that person to a place of repentance and reconciliation. God has a better view than we do and he has a higher goal. Vengeance is his specialty.
He’s the God who delivered Goliath into David’s hands and the same God who caused David’s son to die because of his affair with Bathsheba. He allowed Peter to walk on water and then rebuked him to his face, “Get behind me, Satan!” He worked miracles in the early church but killed Ananias and Sapphira when they lied about their giving. He sent the gift of tongues to the church in Corinth, but sent sickness and death to the congregation because they were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper.
He’s God. He sees things we don’t see, he watches the motives of the heart. He knows our thoughts before we think them, our words before we speak them. He knows what we’re going to do before we do it and he knows the reason why. Revenge is his special ministry to mankind. You can never do it as well as he can. But you can mess things up by trying to take revenge on your enemies. So leave it to the Lord. He’s far better at it than you will ever be.
B. There is a Better Way to Get Even v. 20
Paul is quoting from the Book of Proverbs - has 3 parts: the command, the result, and the reward. The command - “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” This flies in the face of common sense. You shoot enemies, you don’t feed them. If you start feeding your enemies, they will just get stronger and stronger and then they will attack you. They might do that. But it doesn’t matter. You are to act contrary to your natural tendencies when your enemies are involved.
Who Is My Enemy? An enemy is any person God uses to reveal my weaknesses. An enemy is like a chisel God uses to chip away at the rough spots in my life. These are often people who are close to you, and because they are close to you, God is using them to expose the weak areas of your life.
Happy result from treating your enemies this way. Paul is suggesting that we can win our enemies to our side by deeds of love and kindness. “The coals of fire this may heap on him are intended to heal, not to hurt, to win, not to alienate, in fact, to shame him into repentance" (John Stott). You’ve heard of “killing them with kindness.” That’s what Paul is talking about here. Through deeds of love shown to those who have hurt us deeply, we may actually change their hearts. In that case, our enemy has now become our friend. Someone has said that the best way to get rid of an enemy is to turn him into a friend. The Apostle Paul would certainly agree.
What would qualify as “hot coals?” A kind word, a phone call, a brief note, a flower, a meal, a small gift, a letter of recommendation, running an errand, offering a lift, helping them complete a project, rewriting their report, stepping in to save a project that was failing, putting in a good word with their superiors, helping them clean the classroom. The list is endless, because “hot coals” refers to any act of kindness you do for an enemy. The only limit is your creativity.
Then there is the reward: "And the Lord will reward you.” That’s in the Proverbs passage, not in Romans. But the principle is true nonetheless. God will be no man’s debtor. God rewards those who show kindness to their enemies. How will he do it? It’s hard to say. One obvious answer might be to cause your “hot coals” to turn your enemy into a friend. Or he might promote you or pour out new blessings or grant you answers to your prayers or new spiritual growth. With that truth firmly in mind, we come to the third reason why revenge is ruled out for the children of God.
C. Revenge Destroys You but Good Overcomes Evil v. 21
This appears to be a useless piece of nice advice, like “cheer up, things could be worse.” For most of us, it’s not realistic. What Paul means is, “Don’t let revenge destroy your life.” So many times we look at life as a kind of competition. “He hit me so I had to hit him back.” “Sure, I said some awful things to him, but he said them to me first.” This happens in marriage all the time. We play a game of tit for tat. You hurt me so now I’m going to hurt you. You cheated on me, so now it’s okay if I cheat on you. You slapped me, so I can slap you back. You raised your voice, so now I’m going to raise mine just one decibel louder than yours. And on it goes. If we’re Christians, we may even use the Bible to support that. You know the part about an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It’s called evening the score.
Why It Doesn’t Work
What happens when you try to get even? You unleash this whole cycle of retribution and violence. It never ends because someone else always wants to get the last word. There is a very practical reason behind Paul’s advice. You may win the battle, you may even get the last word or strike the last blow, but in the end, you’ve destroyed your own spiritual life. In the process of hurting another person, you’ve hurt yourself too. Anger has done its dirty work on the inside. You seethe with malice, rage, hurtful feelings, and horrible thoughts that keep you up late at night. That’s one reason why many people are sick today. They aren’t sick because of some bug or strange virus. No, their soul is sick and as a result their body is sick. The list is long, but it includes high blood pressure, heart problems, back problems, tension headaches, nightmares, ulcers, stomach problems, weight problems, blurred vision, a stiff neck and insomnia.
Here’s something else you may not have considered. As long as you try to get even, you’re still living in the past. It may have happened years ago, but you’re still stewing about your divorce or how unfairly your boss treated you, or how your children disappointed you. One other thing: When you try to get even, evil destroys you because the other person keeps on winning. He still controls your life as long as you want revenge. Think about that. The only way to get free of your past is to let it go once and for all. But if you want to get even, you’re still chained to the past. To make matters worse, your enemy is probably sleeping like a baby while you are up half the night thinking of terrible things you like to do to him. He’s won twice - once when he hurt you, and twice because you’re still thinking about getting even with him. No wonder he’s smiling. And no wonder you’re not.
Paul concludes by saying, “Overcome evil with good.” This is the bottom line. Although we live in a world where evil seems to win out, that’s only a temporary situation. God has so arranged things that evil does well in the short run, but good always wins in the end. If life is like a 100m sprint, bet on evil. But it’s not. Life is a marathon, and because it is, good wins out in the end. That may not happen in one lifetime or in one generation, but over time, and across the generations, God moves to bring justice into the world. And if justice doesn’t come in this life, it always comes in heaven. Justice will be done. Evildoers will be punished and those who follow the way of Jesus will be rewarded. That’s the promise of God.
It’s all about God all the time. It’s not about us and it’s not about the people who have hurt us. You will never pour hot coals of kindness on your enemies until you “learn what God is like.”
Study his ways. Memorise his Word. Ponder his character. Remember his goodness to you. Think about his compassion for sinners. Examine his justice. Fix your mind on his holiness. Consider his wisdom. Meditate on his mercy. Delight in his decrees. Obey his commands. Believe his promises. Give thanks for his salvation. Rejoice in his faithfulness.
“Live before the face of God.” It’s a reminder that God is always watching everything we do. His eye is always on us, nothing escapes his notice, and all of life must be lived for his approval. J.S. Bach carved the words Soli Deo Gloria on his organ at Leipzig to remind him that all his music must be composed and performed for the glory of God. That’s why the initials SDG appear at the end of his compositions. The only way to be delivered from a spirit of revenge is to be so filled with God that revenge finds no place in your heart. When God himself fills your heart, you will find a new strength to love your enemies no matter what it takes.
Learn what God is like, and you will overcome evil with good.