We drove home that night in silence. Not an uncomfortable, awkward silence but rather the kind that you have when there are sleepy kids in the back of the car and you are all looking forward to climbing into your nice, warm beds. As we turned into our neighborhood, my husband reached over, squeezed my hand and gently said to me, “You know, I think what you did was heap coals on her tonight.” I didn’t answer right away, as I replayed the events of the evening in my head. The sting of the insult. The way that I’m still so surprised each time it hurts me even though I promise myself I will have a thicker skin the next time it happens.
I turned to my husband and said, “I don’t know if I was heaping coals or if I was just too stunned to do anything except sit there and take it. I just did what everyone else did and pretended like it didn’t happen. And I’m not even sure I really know what ‘heaping coals’ actually means, do you?”
Before he could reply we were pulling into our driveway and hustling everyone upstairs to bed. It wasn’t until a few days later that I recalled our conversation, even though I had already replayed that evening’s events a million times over in my mind.
The term ‘heaping coals’ comes from Proverbs 25 where it says in verses 21-22, “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.”
So bizarre, right? It sounds so nice in the beginning, giving your enemy food and water. Similar to Matthew 5:39 where we are told, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
But heaping burning coals on their heads sounds like the exact opposite of turning the other cheek. It sounds mean and painful. It sounds a lot more like revenge to me.
So I decided to dig a little bit deeper, to find some context for this peculiar phrase. I think in some ways I was looking for a distraction, a way to not keep rehashing how I had been hurt and wondering if I there was anything I could have done to avoid it.
And as I read through commentaries on this verse in the Bible, I finally found one which provided the cultural context I was looking for.
“The statement about heaping burning coals on the heads of our enemies is parallel to the statements about blessing our enemies with food and water. When this Proverb was written, people heated their homes and cooked with fire. But sometimes, a person’s fire would go out during the night, and before they could cook their breakfast, they had to go to a neighbor’s house to get a coal so they could relight their fire. So Proverbs 25:22 teaches that if the fire of your enemy goes out, and they come asking for a coal to relight their fire, instead of turning them away or giving just one, we should be be extravagantly generous. How? We must keep one coal for yourself, and give all the rest of the burning coals to our enemy.”
Think about it this way, someone who lashes out at or is hurtful towards other has a light or a ‘fire’ that has gone out inside of them. For whatever reason, be it insecurity, jealousy or their own painful history, they have allowed their fire to not just burn down to embers but to completely burn out.
We’re all shaped by our experiences, we all have insecurities and wounds, but some of us struggle to heal from them. Some of us hold onto them. Some of us are just stuck, unable to see how that deep insecurity affects those around us. How it damages and ruins relationships. Some of us have even made it so far as to recognize that there is an issue but, for whatever reason, we won’t allow the Lord to do the work necessary to heal us. And by not healing those darkest areas of our hearts, we make ourselves vulnerable to the temptation of letting our wounds overflow in such a way that we then wound others. When we allow our coals to burn out, we grow cold.
But, if you are the neighbor whose fire is roaring, who has more than enough coals to go around, you have a choice to make when you are faced with the opportunity to share them.
You could say, “It’s your own fault you let those coals burn out. I worked hard to keep mine burning while you neglected yours so you don’t really deserve to have me share mine with you.”
Or you could do what is counter-intuitive, what goes against our human nature and can only be done when we are obedient to the Lord. When we submit our will to Him and give up the right to be right. In fact, what we have to do is trade our need to be right for our need to be redeemed. That’s the only way I have found myself able to be extravagantly generous.
This isn’t just begrudgingly handing over one, measly, barely lit coal. This is heaping coals on them. It’s going so far as to only keep one coal for ourselves and give them ALL of the rest.
And what does this look like in our lives? Well, my guess is that few of us will ever be called to literally give away burning coals. But, I think it’s safe to assume that all of us have faced that moment where we can either turn someone away because they simply don’t deserve our grace and forgiveness, or we can turn them towards the Lord by offering grace in abundance. Grace that is given out of an extravagantly generous spirit.
2 Corinthians 9:8-11 says, “God can pour on the blessings in astonishing ways so that you’re ready for anything and everything, more than just ready to do what needs to be done. As one psalmist puts it, He throws caution to the winds, giving to the needy in reckless abandon. His right-living, right-giving ways never run out, never wear out. This most generous God who gives seed to the farmer that becomes bread for your meals is more than extravagant with you. He gives you something you can then give away, which grows into full-formed lives, robust in God, wealthy in every way, so that you can be generous in every way, producing with us great praise to God.” (The Message)
What we are given by our Heavenly Father is meant to be given away. It’s meant to be shared, to heap on someone.
Giving away one coal would be helpful, but would it be impactful? Probably not. But imagine if you are forced to ask your neighbor for help, knowing you haven’t treated them well in the past and instead of finding them only mildly willing to help you out, they give to you abundantly. They are extravagantly generous. How much more would that represent to them the love of God?
Does this mean we let someone come in and steal all of our coals away, lying down like a doormat while they walk all over us? No. I fully believe that we can extend grace without allowing someone to have power over us. We can show love when it isn’t shown to us.
So, was I heaping coals that night as I sat there reeling from the hurt that person had caused me? I’m not sure. Because, frankly, in that moment I was so stunned that I don’t know if I was even thinking clearly enough to process it.
But perhaps the ‘heaping’ doesn’t happen all at once.
Perhaps you share a few coals when you listen to them talk about their life while they show little interest in your own. Perhaps you share a few coals when you compliment them knowing they won’t ever reciprocate. Perhaps you share a few coals when you have the opportunity to tear them down and you build them up instead.
Because when you fully grasp just how much grace the Lord gives us, how much He heaps it on we who are so completely undeserving, it suddenly becomes a bit easier to heap it on others.
Greatly appreciate your thoughts this morning. Very meaningful for me.
Well said! I never knew the context of that verse myself. Thanks
Leesa Nesty says
Thank you so much for sharing this. Thank you for allowing God to work through you to bless others. This was very insightful as to how God would have us behave in this type of situation.
Cindy Barganier says
How interesting that our pastor shared the exact same interpretation of that verse (which I had never known before) last week. It changes everything doesn’t it? I am sorry that you were hurt my sweet friend. Remember this: rejected people reject people, hurting people hurt people. It is the devil’s way to keep us in bondage.
Love you Sister.
Sue Tait says
I have often wondered exactly what that phrase “Heaping Coals” meant but have never heard it explained in this way. Thank you for your interpretation, which is the best one I have ever heard, and it brings to light something that was always rather confusing and hazy to me before… You have shown me something I never saw before! Bless you for it~~~! Much love to you, and thank you for your care and efforts to share things. I receive so much good from your writing.
Again, Bless You, My Dear!!!
Thanks for sharing today. This is a deep one to take in! Love your heart.
Jo Anne Howard says
OH my. What a wonderful sermon on grace. This just brought tears to my eyes and a lift to my spirit this morning. You did such a marvelous job of using a personal experience to share such good news about the LORD. Thank you. And please consider doing more (like on Sundays?) Loved it
Wow–such good words today. I’m making this my devotional today. I should remember these scriptures every day. Blessings to you in Jesus name!
Your words have lifted my spirits. So often, when hurt by another, there is a temptation to ruminate over the experience…wishing there had been a good, spiteful retort available in the moment. But, you have reminded me that it is better to ‘err’ on the side of kindness.
Lisa R says
I couldn’t even imagine where your post was headed from your email introduction! I had never heard the phrase, “heaping coals” before. What a well written explanation and something kinda close to home for me right now. I guess I am currently at the point where I have to question just how much more hurt, pain and negativity can I accept and let my family be exposed too. I am curious to hear what others think about cutting ties and not continually extending grace in the eyes of our Lord?
At The Picket Fence says
Lisa I completely understand where you are coming from! It’s so hard to know where to draw the line especially when we know that God calls us to show love, grace and forgiveness. But I firmly believe that He doesn’t ask us to just lay down and let people mistreat us either. For me, it’s been a long process towards understanding that I can feel loving towards them in my heart and pray for them but not allow them to have power or control over me. It has meant distancing myself and not trying so hard all the time. But, it’s also meant knowing that I need to forgive them even if they’ve never asked me to. None of this is easy and it’s taken me years to get to this point and I know I still have a long way to go! 🙂
Lisa R says
Thanks:) I just continue to pray for clarity and peace with my decision. I hope you find that too
Sheree Shepherd says
That touched my heart… Thanks!
WOW! Thank you!! That was an awesome lesson. Thank you for sharing what the Lord taught you! I never knew that about that verse!! God is just asking us to be as gracious to others as He is to us-we don’t “deserve” His grace either!
Jane Henson says
It is so hard to love people sometimes. One of my professors put it best, ‘When people deserve love the lest is when they need it most. Pushing a person away sometimes just confirms how unlovable we are and we deserve to feel and treat people the way we do/are’. Having faith in the person for their souls to be repaired and be the people we loved before is really hard. Showing them love sometimes makes them worse- do it anyway.
heidi @ Decor & More says
Beautifully said, Vanessa. Love your heart for Him!
I think your husband could have explained himself better to you than he did. (Sorry). I too know what its like to be (in my case-Very Publically Humiliated, where Everyone at the funeral–yes-funeral saw it)….I have no idea nor do I need to know-but I know this; God does NOT say we must be a Whipping Post or Door Mat in order to keep our faith. I try daily to forgive these people; however there is a horrible history of what they did to their parent-(my spouse) as well as myself. Sooooo…as I experienced yet Another of their viscous, evil attacks as I was doing a Reading at a funeral….you heard that right. I have now decided to Never see or be around these people as long as I am on this planet Earth. I Liberated myself that day. I do pray for them and their souls and I do pray that I can forgive them. That said I am DONE. !!
At The Picket Fence says
I’m so very sorry for the pain you have experienced! I cannot imagine how difficult your situation must be. My husband is the most incredibly loving and supportive man and has walked this road with me and my relationship with this person for many years. He was being encouraging to me and telling me that he was proud of the way I had handled myself. I completely agree that we are not called to be doormats and yet for many reasons this person will always be apart of my life in some way. So I’m choosing to extend grace and love and forgiveness BUT I no longer give them power or control over me. Relationships are so hard!
Anita Ward says
Very well explained and I think your husband hit the nail on the head!
At The Picket Fence says
Thank you Anita!
grammy goodwill says
This is an amazing message and so timely for me to read as I begin Lent. Thank you for sharing it.
First I’m sorry you were hurt by someone close to you. Second, thank you for clarification on this verse. Years agaI had a missionary friend explain this scripture to me and it is very convicting when someone wrongs me. I love that you share your heart with us readers. Your love for the Lord shines through your written words. You are a blessing!
I have a very good of example of this.
My ex-husband’s wife has never been nice to me in any way. She has been the opposite. Then came the day my daughter was getting married. Of course, my ex and his wife were there. My daughter decided to have both her dads walk her down the isle.
Just as the wedding party was lining up, my ex’s wife was leaving to go seat herself. I stopped her and said oh, we had planned for you to be escorted in and seated in the front row. She was astonished and asked who would escort her. I said my son would be happy to escort you down the isle and seat you. She was in shock and smiling from ear to ear.
Did it change the way she treats me today?….no but that is not the point. The point is I put away all the hurt and made the day special for not only her but for my daughter. I know it made my daughter’s wedding day that much more special to see her mom going out of her way to get along well with everyone and make sure there was no reason for any stress for anyone that day.
If only we could all act that way every day……I strive to get there.
Linda H says
Wow, I wish more people would take the high road like you did. I’ve been to a few weddings where the ex’s new spouse is not even allowed to attend.
I don’t understand why people can’t just put everything aside for one day, especially for the sake of the bride!
I just found this devotion this morning. But, things are always in God’s timing. I needed to see this today and it has encouraged my heart. It is so hard when it sometimes seem I am the one to keep “heaping coals”. I copied every word so I can refer back to this and be encouraged again and again. Thank you for your willingness to follow the Lord’s leadership for today..
Laura Thomas says
You explained this so well! I think you’re spot on— sometimes the heaping of coals happens over a period of time, a gradual heaping. Thanks for sharing… stopping by from Hope*Writers 🙂
Irene Kimball says
I “took in” this sharing and found it very helpful. I think I need to really work on this. Putting aside the quick response to spar back in the face of negativity and instead pausing long enough to either make no response or to find a positive in the process.
Thank you for sharing this. Such a good lesson and a great thing to practice on a daily basis.