“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21).
In this day of constant lawsuits and incessant demands for legal rights, Paul’s command sounds almost impossible, but these verses summarize the core of Christian living. If we love someone the way Christ loves us, we will be willing to forgive. If we have experienced God’s grace, we will want to pass it on to others.
This command relates primarily to believers’ relationships with unbelievers. The Old Testament principle of justice was “eye for eye” (Ex. 21:24), but we are told, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil… live at peace with everyone.” Recognizing that limits exist, however, Paul includes the words, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you” (v. 18). Harmony with others may not always be achievable, but believers should not be responsible for that lack of peace (Matt. 5:9).
Paul exhorts us not to take revenge after we are misused. Rather, we should leave room for God’s wrath. God has promised to avenge His people: “It is Mine to avenge, I will repay” (Deut. 32:35; Heb. 10:30). David’s refusal to kill Saul on two occasions when it seemed God had delivered Saul into David’s hands is a classic biblical example of this principle.
When someone hurts us deeply, instead of giving him what he deserves, Paul says to forgive him.In light of God’s promise to execute vengeance, we are to feed our enemy and quench his thirst—in short, respond to his evil with Christian love.By giving our enemy a drink, we are not excusing his misdeeds; rather, we are recognizing him, forgiving him, and loving him in spite of his sins—just as Christ does for us.
Grace is undeserved favor. Even if our enemy never repents, forgiving him will free us of a heavy load of anger, resentment, and bitterness.Jesus wants us to pray for those who hurt us (Mt. 5:44). By returning evil with good, we are acting as Christ did to us and trusting God to be the final judge.
Read more in my book, Back to the Basics: A Guide for Christian Living.