Oscar Wilde said once, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” As a devout and well-read Christian, I can’t help but imagine he had Proverbs 25 in mind when he said this. This is a very strange little bit of wisdom in dealing with ones’ enemies, and it is often misunderstood.
21 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, 22 for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you. -Pr 25:21–22
The idea that this passage is communicating is not an uncommon theme in the Scriptures. Love is the Godlike response to evil in our relationships. This is easier to understand. Jesus says this same thing as well.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? -Mt 5:43–46
Jesus advocates something that is incredibly counter cultural. Loving enemies is something that doesn’t really enter into the thinking of humanity. Enemies are meant to be hated. Jesus wants us to love the very people that hate, mistreat, and anger us. This ethic should rise out of our understanding of the gospel itself. Christ loved us though we as a human race had declared God and enemy. Paul reminds us of this in Romans, “For if, while we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). We cannot separate the loving of enemies form the example in the gospel.
It might make sense for us to love enemies in response to the gospel. Jesus did it, so then, why should we not do it. As much as this may make sense, while still being incredibly difficult, the second part of this forgiveness dynamic that Proverbs introduces us to is still uniquely perplexing.
22 for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.
It should be asked, “how can you show love to your enemies and still seek to throw burning coals on his head?” Well, you can’t, and so I think it is safe to say that this, like most sayings in proverbial and wisdom literature in the Bible, is a statement of implication rather than a statement of action. It could be read in this same way, “In showing love to enemies, you will have upsetting effect on your enemies.” Kindness and love, as Jesus says, are the most unsettling and unexpected responses to hatred. This is no secret. It throws people of their balance, and it causes them to experience questions, shame, conviction, and a desire to love in return. This is not unlike the example we have in the gospel. The gesture of love in the cross causes us to question our life, feel shame for our sin, and to find conviction and love in Christ Jesus. In the tremendous gesture of Christ’s sacrifice toward those that hate Him, we see an enemy becoming a friend of Christ through the realization of their own sin. In the same way, when we respond like Christ in love, it causes our enemies to be very unsettled, and to realize the unreasonableness of their own hatred for us. Doing something unkind to someone that shows genuine love for us, is the most unsettling, heartbreaking, and life changing experience that most people have. We all do these things sometimes. We do unkind things to family members and friends. These things break our hearts, and they are often nothing as severe as we might do to our enemies. As severe as these things feel, how much more severe do you imagine the response would be if we would treat these people like we do our enemies. It would be devastating to us. When someone you mistreat loves you, it can be jarring.
Proverbs reminds us that it is incredibly difficult and uncomfortable for us to be loved by someone that we have mistreated. In fact, it can be enough to rethink our mistreatment of that person as proverbs tells us.
…for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.
The latter part of that verse speaks of rewards that the Lord provides. This is not related to some kind of spiritual reward received when we do the unexpected in our relational conflicts. The first part of that statement has a direct causal relationship with the latter clause. In other words, as people are unsettled and conflicted over mistreating us, God’s rewards are realized for us. The reward that we get is not distant and intangible. The reward that we get is the transformation of an enemy’s heart. The idea of dealing with your enemies in a Biblical way is very simple. If we respond to hatred the way people do, then we will get the results that people get. This often looks like a repeating cycle of hatred, violence, and evil that often descends to worse and worse levels. I don’t need to illustrate this, because this truth is self-evident in human history both personal and collective. If we respond to hatred the way Jesus does, we will get the same results that Jesus did. That’s is, we will get the transformation of an enemy into a friend. The human method of response might be more natural to us, but it is also less rewarding. How many people have been rewarded by responding to mistreatment and hatred with mistreatment and hatred? The answer should be obvious to us. That mode of dealing with the problem of enemies doesn’t work. Jesus’ method works much better. It has the power to change the hearts of people and bring peace and relationship between the most unlikely of people. This is a proverbial idea. It is a general rule of the God. Some people’s hearts won’t change but as Christians, if Jesus did it, whether it works or not, we should do it as well. For the Christian, loving your enemy is not about changing them. Loving your enemy is all about following Christ. The grace in this approach, as difficult as it is at times, is that through it God may change the heart of that enemy and make them into a friend. At that time you can rejoice together at the peace you find. As is always the case, the selfless love of Christ has the potential to break the cycle of human hatred.