Romans 12:18-21 —
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 doing so you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Greetings, readers! We have finally arrived at the end of Romans 12. Now that we are here, I want to remind you why we started: to discover what God wants His Church to be like! We have looked at mindsets and walked through the characteristics of the Church.
My own heart has been worked over, and I have had to seek the Lord and repent in several areas. I have not arrived! But, thank the Lord, “He’s still working on me”!
While I enjoy writing these devotions, I find myself quite anxious while I type this one. These verses are quite heavy, and I do not feel that I can adequately break them down. Rather than try to fully explain it, I want us to understand the gist of what is being talked about here in the correct context.
It is easy to take these characteristics and try to make a list of rules to follow. When we read them, there are some that stick out and show us problem areas in our lives. This goes back to the image of a wellness visit with your doctor. Testing and blood work may show some area in your life that needs exercise or medication. Ultimately, the entire issue – both in the doctor’s office and in our walks with Christ – lies inside of us.
Sometimes we agree with the doctor and start on whatever regimen that he/she suggests. Other times we decide that we know better and carry on. Today, folks, we have an EKG of our spiritual heart that is likely going to show some irregular rhythms that need addressing.
In this case, we need to look back and remember what we were like before God saved us. Titus 3:3 describes it like this: “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” Notice the phrase “we ourselves were once” – this is supposed to be our past. This does not mean that we are perfect in our present, but it does mean that there should be differences from the past. It means that we should not freely partake of the sin that once enslaved us. There should be a struggle – a wrestling – with the former self (Romans 7:13-25).
Today’s characteristics in Romans 12 are a struggle for me, and they are a continuation out of the ones from last week.
It is human nature to want vengeance. If someone sins against us or is hateful toward us, we want that person to pay. It is what they deserve after all. We want restitution. We want amends to be made. We want that person to get worse than they gave to us. But there is a problem with that type of thinking in followers of Christ – that thinking does not follow Christ.
I worry here that I will not be able to adequately explain this, but, ultimately, there is not much explaining to be done. Our natural tendencies are toward sin and self-satisfaction. Our natural tendencies need redemption. Just as Titus 3:3 shows the former way of life for believers, Titus 3:4-5a gives a beautiful picture of new life in Christ: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy…”. Thankfully, God did not seek vengeance against us but decided to love us and make a Way for us!
Is that not one of the most uncomfortable thoughts – God taking vengeance on people? Yet, we certainly deserve it. Romans 6:23 tells us the “wages of sin is death”, meaning that we have earned a death sentence because of our sin. It is fitting for a punishment to be given out. It is right. It is just. But we only want justice for other people and not for ourselves if we have to pay a penalty. But, if we have trusted in Christ, He has paid the penalty for us.
Colossians 2:13-14 describes this so well:
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
Let that sink in. Forgiveness of sin does not mean that it magically goes away. The penalty must be paid! Justice must be satisfied! If you are saved, Jesus in His mercy and grace paid your penalty by taking your/our punishment on Himself.
So, why am I talking about all of this? To understand why we should show kindness to our enemies cannot happen unless we understand how God showed kindness to His enemies – us. Romans 5:10 says, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son….” If God had not shown kindness to us while we were His enemies, we would never have been reconciled to Him. It could not have happened any other way. If He had struck out at us in vengeance – which He would be just and right to do – we would already be in Hell.
Our treatment of our enemies ultimately reveals our hearts. Do we care more about their eternal souls or our own earthly comfort? This hurts my feelings. This makes me sad because I know the answer. I want to be happy and for people to treat me the way that I want to be treated. I want to be the center of my own universe. But Jesus is my Lord, and that means I need to submit and quit trying to sit on His throne in my life.
Look at Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” In the context of this chapter, I believe that this needs to happen first in our own hearts. When we seek vengeance, it affects us more than the people with whom we are angry. When we do not forgive, it is really ourselves who are hurt and damaged. I have heard it said that refusing to forgive someone and holding a grudge is like drinking poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die. We must remember that hate (again look at Titus 3:3) cannot exist in our hearts and not damage us.
It would be easy to stop here and just leave the forgiveness of our enemies as an issue for our own hearts, but I think there is a little more to it. There is also the issue of their hearts. Look at Romans 3:22b-25:
“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins.”
Think about that phrase “passed over former sins”. This does not mean that God ignored those sins. It means that He was divinely patient with us. He did not strike us dead at the first sin. There was opportunity for faith and repentance!
Moreover, hatred and anger will never lead to faith and repentance. Think of how often you have heard someone (or said yourself) say “Go to Hell!” in anger. We pass it off as just a common, meaningless phrase, but that is what seeking vengeance leads to: your enemy going to Hell. My heart aches as I write these words because I have wanted that same thing for people who have done me wrong. But that is not how I learned about Christ (Ephesians 4:20)!
Whew! This is tough. But there is good news: God is sovereign and in control. He is not bound by my anger or hatred, and He is still working on me! If you find yourself in the same boat as me, trust me when I say there will be no moment easier to forgive someone than right now. Every moment you wait to forgive will be more and more difficult because hate will abide in your heart a little longer.
Pray for God to change your perspective and your heart. Ask Him to help you see the person who wronged you as a soul bound for an eternal destination. And let these words from 2 Timothy 2:24-26 be your heart and mind as you seek the Lord in this matter:
“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”
I love you and am praying for you. May God continue to work on my heart and yours!