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  • Writer's pictureRyan Robertson

Grace, Not Vengeance (Romans 12:20-21)

To the contrary, "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." ²¹Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. —Romans 12:20-21

“He had it coming.” “What goes around comes around.” These are just two of the phrases that show how the world thinks about vengeance. It’s expected. If I’m honest, it’s also an impulse I’ve had personally. My sinful flesh wants to do to others what they’ve done to me. Sadly, it’s an impulse we see in our children from a young age, isn’t it?

Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22 in the beginning of this passage. Proverbs, a book of wisdom literature, was written while Israel was still under the Old Covenant with its “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” laws. Here Solomon commends the unlikely: feed and give water to a hungry and thirsty enemy. The law will do what the law is designed to do, but Christian, love your enemy. Be generous to those who would harm you. Surprise the watching world by displaying grace instead of vengeance. This is wisdom!

What can we do when others wrong us? When our enemies seek to, and ultimately succeed at, harming us? How do we love those who hate us and show them unexpected kindness?

We can gain encouragement from the example of Gracia Burnham who, along with her husband, Martin, was kidnapped by members of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in 2001. During a rescue attempt, she was freed, though Martin was killed. The Abu Sayyaf kidnappers were ultimately sentenced to life in prison in the Philippines. In prison, three terrorists gave their lives to Christ. Gracia and her kids sent money every month for her former captors to buy fresh vegetables to supplement their diet in prison. Gracia fed the very men who kidnapped her and her husband, a kidnapping that ultimately led to his death. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him.”

We can also look to Jesus, who prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He prayed this for those who mocked, tortured, and killed him (Luke 23:24). Living like Jesus and doing what we are commanded to do, in the strength that He supplies, should be our ultimate motivation. As heaping coals would burn the head of one’s enemy, the fire of God’s grace can melt a heart of stone.

Overcome evil with good. Be kind to those who despise you, who persecute you, whom the world sees as your enemies. Tend to their needs. Display the gospel. Pray that the Holy Spirit would do His work. And in so doing, reflect the One who has set you free.


For Reflection

1. What circumstances stir up the desire to return evil for evil in your life?

2. How does Gracia Burnham's story strike you?

3. Ask God to help you pray for those who cause you harm, and look for an opportunity to meet one of their practical needs.


Ryan Robertson has served as the President of Reaching & Teaching since April 2020. Robertson has previously served in executive leadership positions for public companies and other non-profit organizations, and has been a board member of several different charities. In 2014, he obtained his CPA from the State of Massachusetts. Robertson is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Missiology program at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Ryan and his wife Erin have three children and are members of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY, where Ryan serves as an elder.

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