Romans 12:17-21 (ESV) Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 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.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12 is one of the grandest chapters in the Bible. It is filled with practical counsel for all Christians. Paul has effectively demonstrated that justification comes through God’s grace and is contingent upon an active faith. Having been justified through faith, we become God’s children. As children we are to emulate our heavenly Father and reflect godly attributes in daily living. In Romans 12, a concise explanation of consecrated living is found. This chapter is marvelous. It rightly deserves the title, “The Little Bible .”
From Romans 12, we can pinpoint one of the hardest obstacles of Christian living—people! Think how much simpler life would be if we did not have to bother with irritating people. It would be easier to accept the bothersome folks if they were restricted to the world, but we find the harsh, crude, and bitter even within the body of Christ! This causes us much grief.
In order to cope with these problem people, we must look to God’s Word for guidance. In the closing verse of
Romans 12, we find God’s counsel in capsule form for coping with irritating brethren.
Since Christians have been justified by grace through faith, they are to be different from the world. Even in conflicts, Christians are to behave differently than the world. “Getting even” is the normal reaction in the world. Since Christians are not a part of the world, they must do that which is much better than “getting even” (cf. Matthew 5:38-48).
Paul presents a great challenge to us. It is to live “at peace” with “Brother Irritable Smith” and “Brother Aggravation Jones.” If we fail, only one alternative remains—to be in a constant struggle with them. How can we get along with brethren who stir us to conflict?
PROCEDURES FOR REACTING TO HOSTILITY
In Romans 12:17-21, Paul presents the following steps to govern the Christians conduct when faced with conflict.
First, meet hostility with a holy and beautiful life (12:17). Some seem to thrive on garbage that is found in another’s life. They delight in spreading past sins (that have been repented of and forgiven). Some revel in talking about the blotches found in another’s character. These will never talk directly about the matters, but their tone and insinuations are plain. Paul knew some like this and gave God’s counsel regarding them.
The best way to confront such people is with a life dedicated to moral beauty. When a person has past sins brought against him, the accusations fade before good works (1 Peter 2:11, 12). Certainly our past is a part of us, but if we live in the present (having repented of the past) we are without blemish to God (Hebrews 8:12; Philippians 3:13).
Two brothers grew up in a village and were quite rowdy. They stole some sheep and were caught. The punishment was for each to be branded on the forehead with the two letters “ST” (sheep thief). For one the punishment was too great. He became a drunk and died a horrible death at his own hands. The other decided to change his life. He dedicated himself to helping his fellow citizens and assisted in every good work. Years passed, and his influence grew in the village and the surrounding area. At his death, two small boys, standing beside an adult, viewed the casket. They asked what the “ST” meant, and the adult said, “I don’t really know. I guess it stands for ‘saint.’” This is the counsel of Romans 12.
Christians are to be absentminded about repented failures as our heavenly Father (Colossians 3:13; Matthew 18:21-35). But some will refuse to forget and delight in keeping the past present. The only response that will be effective is to live a godly life that voids any accusation of evil.
If our present lives are moral and right in God’s sight, we should not be concerned about the malicious gossips and backbiters (1 Corinthians 4:3-5).
Second, develop peace with those who are hostile (12: 18). We are presented with what seems to be an unbelievable command. Hearing this command, we shake our heads and ask, “How can I be expected to live in peace with who is intent on tearing me to pieces?” Surely everyone of us is intimately acquainted with those who are so obnoxious and so contrary that even a few minutes in their presence is far too long to be around them.
Paul suggests two principles to govern our behavior. First, we should understand that some are simply not peaceable and we will never be able to get along with them. “If possible” suggests that with some people it is not possible. Second, we need to realize that we are only responsible for our half of the relationship. It is impossible for us to make another person happy. It is impossible for us to make another “at peace” if he does not want to be. A cautious warning is implied in both points: Even if another remains hostile, we must be sure that everything possible (on our end of the relationship) is being done to bring peace. This warning is found in the phrase, “so far as it depends on you.” If we have done everything possible, we do not have to feel guilty about another’s hostility.
If we can do something which ensures peace, we should do it—“so far as it” is possible.
Third, recognize that evil will be punished, but (and this is a vital qualification!) we are not to be the ones to punish (12:19). Once we are irritated by another, our first reaction is to strike back, take matters into our hands, and see that the evil done to us is rapidly repaid. But Paul’s counsel is for us to “leave room for the wrath of God.” God will repay evil in one of three ways—through His providential care, through legal authorities, or at the final judgment.
It is essential that Christians develop this maturity regarding revenge. We must trust in the promise of God that the evil committed against us will be punished.
Fourth, be alert for opportunities to do good to those who act hostile against us (12:20, 21). Here is a “bitter pill.” It is easier to turn and walk away than to “do good” to our enemies. It is far easier to contemplate God’s wrath striking those who wrong us than to think that God will “do good” to them. It is impossible to describe the emotions that arise when we are told to look for ways to further the welfare of one who aggravates us. Paul’s counsel is supported by inspiration in this text and also from the reference to Proverbs 25. God’s advice is not only clear but abundant—we must seek good for those who hurt us.
“Burning coals” is a phrase that is not literal (although some wish it were). One woman was involved in a long-running quarrel with her husband. The verbal jabs had developed a biting bitterness over the years. Finally, the wife sought counsel. “Have you tried heaping coals of fire on his head?” She replied, “No, but I did try a skillet of hot grease!” The phrase “burning coals” refers to acts of kindness. This will allow love to do its work of healing bitter hearts. The active good we do to those who have wronged us will cause a burning shame to change their hearts.
These four steps are God’s commands to Christians who struggle with irritating and ag- gravating people. There is no way we will ever live on earth without such people, so our best course of action is to learn how to deal with such. God gives us these four points for instruction on how we can effectively deal with hostility.
MAJOR MESSAGES FOR REACTING TO HOSTILITY
Because of the seriousness of interpersonal conflicts within the Lord’s church, let us emphasize the major thoughts of Romans 12:17-21 by meditating on five messages. Even though these may be utilized, there will be people who will cause us to feel exasperated and frustrated. Put- ting these principles into practice will equip us to better deal with these people.
Message One: Peacefulness is a virtue that must be cultivated with all people. So we will not become unduly guilty, Paul gives two questions to an- swer if peace is not present. “Is it possible for this person to be peaceful?” We need to apply the test of reason with this question. Remember, it is unreasonable to expect peace from some. Second, God’s greatest desire is for Christians to live so their lives will be a blessing and will reflect His mercy (Titus 2:10).
God’s confident counsel is that His children can “overcome” the evil of conflict and bring blessings. We will “overcome” enemies by making them our friends. We “overcome” the urge of vindictiveness by becoming more tolerant and forgiving. We “overcome” evil men and women by doing good and shaming their spitefulness when we turn the other cheek.
Admit the presence of “Brother Irritable Smith” and “Brother Aggravation Jones” in our lives. Having such people does not cast a wrong reflection of us. The wrong reflection only comes when we fail to accept the challenge they bring to our lives. May hostility not exist because of our actions but in spite of our actions (Philippians 2:2-4).
We must take an honest inventory of our motives and attitudes by asking, “Have I tried, as much as possible, to develop peace with this person?”
Message Two: There is no justifiable reason to suspend efforts to establish peace with all men. As opportunities present themselves, we must seize them (Galatians 6:10). Just because a person is “unpeaceable” at one time does not mean I am to “write him off” as unpeaceable always. A good deed may very well open the avenue to a peace- ful relationship between that person and me.
Message Three: The mature faith is able to leave the execution of vengeance to God. It is hard to do this. It takes stern discipline to do this. But does the Christian have another option? (1 Peter 2:23).
Message Four: Even our desires for the swift and severe judgment of God are inconsistent with the sanctified life of Romans 12:20. We are to follow the example of our Lord who, even on the cross, desired reconciliation with those who hung Him there!
Message Five: If we are to follow inspiration’s counsel in dealing with interpersonal conflict, we will never be vanquished by the evil that is heaped upon us. By following God’s counsel, we will become instruments through which hate and bitterness will be quenched. By governing our response to evil, those who have mistreated us will be blessed by our lives (Romans 12:21).