Question: What does the Bible mean in Romans 12 when it says if your enemy treats you unfairly, “Love and feed him, for in doing so you will dump coals of fire on his head?” I regularly interact with someone who acts like my friend one week, then “plays games” with me the next. But I am tired of their games. I thought of retaliating, but I know that is a terrible witness to Christianity.
Response: The full context of this thought can be seen in Romans:12:17-20: “Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. 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.”
As you very correctly note, lashing back at those who have treated us poorly is a terrible witness. Furthermore, verse 18 tells us that “as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” That’s what we’re called to do—that is, do all that we can. In addition, we are not to give way to wrath, because the Lord states, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”
The action for us to take, as Paul admonishes, is this: “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” (Romans:12:20). This utterance by Paul was not new at the time, for He was directly quoting Proverbs:25:21-22.
Further, the admonition parallels what our Lord said. In Matthew:5:44-48, the Lord Jesus declares, “But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust....Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
In short, we are to do good (as much as is possible) to these people, knowing that the Lord will be their judge and, in answer to our prayers, may very well bring them to salvation or at the least change their attitude.