Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World: Wise words from the book of Proverbs

‘If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty give him water to drink. For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee'

Proverb 25.21-22

‘Heaping coals of fire’ upon an opponent’s head has become a proverbial expression in English and remains in common use even today. The thought behind the proverb is that if we repay evil with good we shall awaken the conscience of our enemy and make him feel uncomfortable. The ‘coals of fire’ are the pangs of conscience that are ignited when someone feels bad about what they have done to us.

The natural tendency is for us to ‘give as good as we get.’ Yet this instinctive response does little to defuse the situation and invariably brings more trouble. It also reveals a vindictive, spiteful side to our character. Showing kindness to those who oppose us, on the other hand, is a fundamental principle of the Christian faith. Two results stem for such generous behaviour to our enemies. In the first place, we will do our enemy good, for we will bring him/her to see the unworthiness of his/her behaviour and to feel embarrassed about it. Kindness at our hands, so unexpected in response to the unkindness we had been shown, teaches a lesson neither violence nor vituperation ever could. The second result is that God will reward us. He sees our generous behaviour and will reward us for it, even if others will not.

When we show kindness to our enemies we imitate God Himself, for when we were at enmity with God, and perhaps still are, when we opposed Him, disregarded Him and disobeyed Him, yet still He sent His Son to die upon the cross,‘the just for the unjust to bring us to God’. He responded in love to us, despite our enmity to Him. ‘When we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son’, Rom 5. 10. Christ set us an example for, ‘when he was reviled, [he] reviled not again; when he suffered he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously’, 1 Pet. 2. 23. He will never ask us to do what He was not willing to do Himself. Kindness and grace shown in response to unkindness is ‘the noblest of all actions as it succeeds in saving the enemy while it destroys his enmity’. Have you responded to God’s love? Have you mirrored it in your actions to others?

It is easy for us to ‘bite and devour one another’. Gal. 5. 15. Everyone does it. But the apostle Paul, in quoting this proverb in Romans 12. 20, adds, ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’. Are you big enough to do that?