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.