Romans 12:14-21 - A Crazy Idea!

Romans 12 explains an idea that sounds "crazy" to the world and it involves heaping burning coals on our enemy's head.

When someone treats us badly, our most natural response is to return the disfavor. If someone is rude, stingy, arrogant, critical, or inconsiderate, we feel they deserve the same treatment from us. 

But God commands us to do the craziest thing in Romans 12 (and in many other places in Scripture): 

"Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.… Do not repay anyone evil for evil.… Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Romans 12: 14, 17, 19-21 

God always calls us to do things opposite of our human nature, and for good reasons. 

We can’t change others, but we can refuse to become like them. 

We can't change others, but God can change us, if we allow Him (Philippians 2:12-13).

When we return love for hate, generosity for stinginess, consideration for selfishness, and good for bad, we are following our Lord who did all of those things for us. 

God’s commands often sound foolish to our fallen world, but we Christians know they are transforming truths. 

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Romans 12 explains an idea that sounds "crazy" to the world and it involves heaping burning coals on our enemy's head.

What does it mean to “heap burning coals” on our enemy’s head? 

This phrase literally means to cause our enemy pain—not by hurting them, but by loving them. Whether they acknowledge it or not, our good behavior shames them. Sometimes this results in their repentance, sometimes it doesn’t. But whether it changes our enemy or not, it always changes us by strengthening our faith. 

See also Proverbs 25:21-22

I have heard various positive explanations for the significance of  burning coals on the head, but none of them are supported contextually. All major commentaries (source) describe this as God's perfect "divine judgement." Our enemies can respond to God's judgement in repentance or hardness of heart, and they will be forgiven or punished accordingly. See Romans 1:18,

Some additional Scriptures that encourage us to return good for evil

Luke 6:27: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.

Luke 6:32-33: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.

Proverbs 15:1“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Romans 12 explains an idea that sounds "crazy" to the world and it involves heaping burning coals on our enemy's head.

How does this message in Scripture align with the modern Boundaries movement?

It doesn’t, and that’s one reason I have written a number of articles about the unbiblical teachings of Boundaries. (See the Boundaries Collection.) There are times when boundaries are appropriate to protect ourselves physically, but most people enforce boundaries to protect their egos from rude or non-affirming family members. We cannot read Romans 12 and justify cutting off a family member because they don’t treat us considerately. In fact, when we do things God's way, those “burning coals” often completely transform relationships. And if they don't transform the other person, they strengthen our own faith, especially in areas of humility and in understanding how best to deal with difficult people. To read about a time this happened in one of my relationships, see Didn’t Want to Do It, but Did It Anyway.  

There are times Christians should humbly and respectfully confront difficult people, but cutting them off is not a biblical response. 

Bible Love Notes


  1. Very thought provoking article! Love it! Perhaps I've misunderstood the modern boundaries movement because this seems to perfectly line up with it. Having no boundaries with our enemies seems to me like it would result in their behavior pulling me into an emotional tailspin and completely ruining my day. Having boundaries (from my perspective) dictates the exact behavior described here. I don't allow their toxicity, hate or bitterness into my heart for a second because the boundary is there and I instead go in the exact opposite direction they were expecting. Can you help me see where I might be misunderstanding the concept of boundaries?

    1. I have studied two of the Boundaries books and scores of articles on their website, and while they have a few accurate uses of Scripture, their overall message would contradict just about every verse in Romans 12.

      From my research, Boundaries books would reword the passage I quote above in this way:

      "Put a fence up to keep out those who persecute you; keep yourself "safe" .… If someone does something you consider wrong, cut them off.… Judge annoying or non-affirming people using terms like "toxic" and "unsafe," and if they disapprove of anything you say or do, consider their words "weapon" wielded against you. It is God's duty to take revenge, but you can help Him out by refusing to reconcile with anyone who doesn't affirm you in the way you desire, especially your parents... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil by erecting boundaries and refusing to do the hard word of reconciliation."

      If you read my collection of articles on Boundaries, you will se actual quotes from boundaries teachings, linked to the sources. And you will see them compared with multiple Scripture which they contradict.

      Except in rare cases of physical or sexual abuse, Boundaries teachings promote selfishness, helping people play God and keeping them from learning how to deal biblically with difficult relationships.