What does it mean, "You will heap burning coals on his head" in Romans 12:20?

The passage says: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." The idea of "burning coals on his head" doesn't seem to fit with the idea of showing kindness to an enemy, so what does it mean?

Romans 12:20

NKJV - 20 Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.

Clarify Share Report Asked February 04 2017 Tot Tito Dulay Lim

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Mini Tim Maas Retired Quality Assurance Specialist with the U.S. Army
The thought that Paul was expressing in this verse was not new. He was quoting from Solomon's words in Proverbs 25:21-22, and saying that, by a Christian being kind to an enemy, the enemy would (or should) rightly experience such embarrassment and shame for his unjust hatred or maltreatment of the Christian, that it would cause the enemy to figuratively feel as if he had had burning coals piled on his head (that is, the "hot flush" that people often feel when they are caught doing something that they themselves know (or come to realize) is wrong). 

What the Christian's enemy would be feeling in that case would not be unjust, or something that the Christian himself would have caused or been responsible for in a malicious way, but a sense of reproach that the enemy's own God-given conscience was inflicting upon him, and that would have been meant to make the enemy realize the wrongfulness of his actions toward the Christian, and to bring the enemy to repentance.

February 04 2017 0 responses Vote Up Share Report

Mini m f
In ancient times heated coals would be needed for cooking and as a source of heat and light. On very cold nights it could be the difference between life and death. If you had to carry hot coals you would not carry them by hand as the heat would rush onto the hand and arm. For this reason, people carried them safely on the head in a pottery urn. More to the point, a good person gives coals to their neighbour who is lacking to carry home, be they in physical or spiritual need.

May 28 2017 0 responses Vote Up Share Report

My picture Jack Gutknecht ABC/DTS graduate, guitar music ministry Baptist church
Maybe, just maybe, the coals of fire refer to the feeling of shame our enemies will experience when we return good for evil. —Wiersbe

The big picture is this:

In Romans 12 Paul deals with the service the Christian is expected to perform. He first deals with grace (Romans 12:3), gifts (Romans 12:4-8), and then these guidelines (Romans 12:9-21) about how to deal with your friends (Rom 12:9-13, 15-16), and then secondly and specifically how to deal with your foes (Ro. 12:14, 17-21);
a. Bless them when they persecute you (Ro 12:14).
b. Let God repay them for the evil done to you (Ro 12:17-19).
c. Give them food when they are hungry and water when they are thirsty (Ro 12:20-21).

The big idea is to overcome evil with good, I think when we are talking about the coals.

February 09 2023 0 responses Vote Up Share Report

Mini Justin Hale
Satan has been busy at work once again 'redefining' kindness for us, as he has with every other 'fruit of the Holy Spirit.'

The modern 'secular' definition of 'kindness' is to be 'nice, sweet, thoughtful, considerate and yielding.' That is NOT the definition given by the Holy Spirit in scripture. 'Kindness' actually contains the word 'kin' for a reason. To be 'kind' means to 'treat someone like family.'

How does GOD treat family members?


That certainly doesn't sound very 'nice, sweet, thoughtful, considerate and yielding.' Consider for a moment how the 'enemy' mentioned in Romans 12:20 got into a situation where they don't even have basic necessities. 

They got into that situation because WE put them there in response to their evil. They received 'discipline' from GOD, who decided to 'treat them like family' out of love for them and us, rather than let them keep growing more powerful, influential and harmful.

When Jesus tells us to 'pray for our enemies' He is commanding us to pray for their 'divine discipline' rather than futilely or vainly trying to 'hate' them ourselves by just ignoring or ostracizing them. This prayer is called the 'anathema.' Basically, it is the only 'curse' we are permitted and required to pray down on anyone. It is done out of a deep love, since it is against our natural tendencies to actually want to see any other human harmed or destroyed. We see ourselves in them and this is difficult to 'wish' on anyone, even if they are a genuinely 'bad' person. The exception, of course, would be 'bad' people themselves who have become calloused beyond feeling any empathy or sympathy for others. 

If that isn't you, praying the 'anathema' will be difficult for you, (and should be), but it is an act of love for the 'enemy', for yourself and for everyone else around you. 

So what does 'pour burning coals upon their head' actually mean?

Well when our 'enemy' has been reduced to a state where even basic necessities are hard to come by, they are at great risk of losing their dignity as humans. GOD never wants that, since people are made in His direct image. Desperate people also have potential 'leverage' by appealing to that part of our conscience or nature that sees ourselves in their situation, (even in that 'bad' person), and which wants to be 'nice, sweet, thoughtful, considerate and yielding.'

Evil relies upon this while trying to 'rebuild' or 're-empower' itself. Any resources beyond basic necessities will help evil do that, especially if it can slander Christians as 'mean and heartless' for not providing for their basic dignity. Our 'enemy' tricks others into 'helping' empower them and uses the slander to enlist this help. It says, "Here is your big chance to be a 'better person' than those heartless Christians. Plus, there will be something in it for you after I get back on my feet."

Evil even frequently exploits Christians themselves by trying to make them feel 'guilty' by accusing them of a 'lack of kindness.' It steals their own resources then uses them to return to a position of influence and begin persecuting and slandering them again!

Thus, evil needed to 'redefine' kindness first.

The actual 'burning coals' refer to incendiary warfare like what was used to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Holy Spirit is explaining that evil will remain powerless, (under this 'divine discipline'), only as long as we avoid its slander by always preserving its human dignity with basic necessities, but also never allowing it to escape 'divine fire' and rebuild itself unless the person involved truly and genuinely repents. 

If this is properly maintained, there is no 'upside' to pursuing evil and only those absolutely driven by evil itself will continue to walk its path. It will not be able to unwittingly deceive Christians or anyone else who may still be 'on the fence' about following GOD.

February 09 2023 0 responses Vote Up Share Report

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