What Does “Heap Coals Of Fire On His Head” in Rom 12:20 Mean?

Romans 12:19-21 reads “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

The obvious teaching from this verse is that when someone treats us badly, we should not do in like kind, instead we should return good for the evil. And in doing so, we will “heap coals of fire” on their head. But what does that mean – to heap coals of fire on someone’s head?

I Pet 3:15-16 confirms what we already inherently know from reading Rom 12:20 – our returning of good for evil should make the perpetrator “ashamed,” that is, feel guilty for their actions. If when someone treats us unkindly, we treat them unkindly back (Eph 4:32), they are likely to feel vindicated in their past actions (Prov 15:1). But if we return their meanness with kindness, then that tends to make them feel bad for their actions. If you want a person to feel bad for their harsh treatment of you, that is, if you want them to feel guilty and possibly repent (and that should always be our desire), then your best course of action is to return their evil with kindness, gentleness, compassion, and benevolence.

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