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.

Hostility

I recently found myself working from a cafe and when a large group of seniors came in. I was very politely approached by staff to see if I could shift tables to allow for the group to sit together. This was not a problem of course – I was more than happy to oblige…until I realised that the group of seniors didn’t seem to be that thankful. I felt they almost had an expectation that I should move for them. There was almost a sense of entitlement. I found myself wishing they were more thankful for my act of kindness and even feeling some regret for being so willing to help out. Very quickly, I am a little ashamed to say, my willingness to help out and do something for someone else turned into hostility, which all came about because of how I perceived that people were responding.

If we knew in advance whether or not someone was going to be thankful, or show gratitude to us in a manner that we would expect, I wonder how much that would impact our behaviour. It may make things easier but it could possibly create a world in which we would only do nice things to those who would offer thanks in return. It would take the risk out of generosity. Making it a kind of love your neighbour and hate your enemy situation.

But Jesus flipped this mentality on its head, He taught his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them. It is an encouragement to act out of generosity to anyone you come across regardless of how they might respond to you. It’s a tough ask.

But it comes with an incredible strength. Someone whose behaviour does not depend on the response of those around them shows true character, especially if they are able to be generous is a hostile environment.

It’s much easier to repay people in kind, to offer animosity for animosity. Being generous is a life changer, for you and the people you are being generous to. You might not get a wave of thanks in return, but it’s worth the effort to bring a little bit of love into our world.