Heaping Coals

I grew up in a home of Christian faith, and I distinctly remember a part of the teaching about treating people who are against you; your enemy. It said,

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”

I remember reading as an adult too, and, you’ve got to admit, that is a pretty weird statement. The image that this created in my mind was that of an antagonist and that God was actually suggesting to people who have enemies, ‘treat them nicely so that they get really angry and fume, that will be pretty funny’. I could never work that out.

I recently discovered that there was an Egyptian custom in which a person who had made an error and was wanting to make an amends, would carry a pan of coals on their head as a sign of their remorse, and the above teaching is likely to be in reference to that practice.

That changed some things for me. It turned an antagonistic philosophy and transformed it into a message of returning good for evil in the hope that someone who was actively out to harm you would be in a restored relationship with you. Now, I don’t know that repentance and restoration is a guaranteed outcome of giving food and drink to someone who hates you. There is always a risk in any act of generosity, especially one as this counter-intuitive (eye for eye, remember? That’s a whole other conversation…). But the possibility that you could bring something amazing out of something awful is worth it. Even if it only means that you don’t have to live with an active resentment towards the person, because the act of generosity towards them can shift your perspective.

I Will Not Give That Which Costs Me Nothing

One of the greatest examples of generosity comes from the life of King David, in the Old Testament in the Bible.

He had made a mistake. His pride got the better of him and he insisted on knowing exactly how many fighting men he had under his command. Whilst it sounds innocuous enough, what it shows is his priority at the time. It showed what his ‘god’ was in that moment. He put his faith in numbers rather than in the strength of God – as a result his men paid the price as a plague devastated them.

A prophet came to David after the plague had passed, David felt incredibly guilty and ashamed that his actions had caused damage to his men, and the Prophet said, ‘it’s time to worship God now, go and build an altar on that land over there and worship.’

As David went to do that, the owner of the land approached him and offered to give him the land and the animals to use for free. Surely that’s one of the many benefits of being a king…

But his response showed his true heart – he said ‘I will not offer something to God that cost me nothing’. It would have been all to easy to go ahead and take advantage of the situation but David knew he needed to value what he was about to offer God.

That is an incredibly powerful message. As we think about giving and generosity may it be a helpful reminder, that giving without sacrifice is not generosity. If it costs us nothing to give then the gift is worth nothing.

How Do I Make a Difference?

It can be overwhelming. The reality of all the need in the world can be too much for us at times to know where to start, and we can find ourselves frozen in inaction, not knowing what to do.

I have always been encouraged by the story of David as he encountered Goliath. You might know it well. At a time when God’s people were overcome by the size of the enemy in front of them, God found them a hero. A kid from the farm who had no discernible attributes that would bring victory on the battlefield. There was nothing conventional about David and the way that he approached the giant that everyone else was afraid of. The armour didn’t fit, his background didn’t fit and more surprisingly, his level of faith didn’t fit that of the experienced soldiers around him.

He approached the situation with an understanding that the God he served was so much bigger than the giant problem before him. And so he stepped up – and won the battle.

If ever we need a remedy to inaction, this is it. If we can shift our focus from the problem in front of us, no matter how big it seems, to the God we serve that is the change of perspective required which can allow us to take the first step and leave inaction behind.