It is all too easy to seek out vengeance. It seems to be in most people’s DNA. Someone says something against us and we retaliate. Someone makes a crude gesture on the road and we cut them off. Someone hits us and we hit them back. Often we do these type of things without even giving a second thought to them (or even thinking about our response at all; we just act on instinct). But as Christians, we are called to live above instinct, and to take every thought captive to obey Christ.
One reads from Solomon, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you,” (Proverbs 25:21-22, ESV). Paul repeated these words in Romans 12:20. The concept is clear, or should I say that the command is clear. This isn’t a suggestion, but a mandate to the one who follows Christ. As Paul finished his quotation he did so with a follow-up command, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” (Romans 12:21, ESV) . That is a flat-out command. It’s not optional.
The evil of others against us never gives us the right to respond with evil and that includes evil intentions. I have often heard people use these words as a weapon, explaining that God wants us to “kill them with kindness. That’ll show ’em.” Those are not the intentions of these words. This is a cause and effect verse. Giving him bread to eat and water to drink will bring about a change of heart. In ancient Egypt (remember Solomon had much contact with the Egyptians–1 Kings 3:1), those who showed genuine repentance would walk around with bowls of hot coals upon their heads. Thus to show kindness and love to one’s enemies is to treat them as a neighbor and is done in hopes of showing them that you and they are not enemies at all.
Do they get away with all the evil things they have done to you? Not at all. That was Paul’s point in Romans 12. Let God deal with the evil acts in His just way. We seek to bring them to a heart of repentance. We are not to do God’s work. Only God can do His work perfectly; when we seek to do His work, we do it imperfectly. We do it in sin.
Paul promises (thus God promises) that God will reward you. That’s because this is faith in action. Do we truly believe that God is just? Do we honestly believe that we mean much to God and that God will deal justly with our enemies? If so, then we live out what we believe: turn from vengeance and turn toward love and neighborliness.