If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the LORD will reward you.
Proverbs 25:21–22

On first reading of Proverbs 25:21–22 we can’t help but humming, “Go ahead, go ahead now” and thinking maybe our girl Selena Gomez was on to something. Maybe the best way to take revenge on an enemy is to pack on the pleasantries. Except we’re not sure that was quite what the writer of Proverbs was talking about here.

The imagery in this verse actually parallels the actions of the high priest on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:12). The priest would gather coals from off the altar then add incense to create a pleasant fragrance. It was this cloud of fragrance that would cover the mercy seat, symbolizing God’s atonement for His people’s sins.

What this verse is leading us to do is not a passive-aggressive takedown. Rather, it’s encouraging us to make a sacrificial offering to God by being kind to unkind people, even when it’s not easy. It’s also a gentle reminder to us that God sent Christ to die for our sins when we were at our worst and most unlovable. So, as we were forgiven, so we ought to forgive others.

Notice also how this verse challenges us to acknowledge our enemy’s needs and respond in generosity. It’s easy, when we have an offense against a person, to become so focused on our own hurting heart that we forget they have one too. To an extreme, hatred dehumanizes our enemies so we can justify the way we feel and act toward them. However, by asking us to recognize our enemy’s hunger and thirst, God is inviting us to empathize with them and to remember they are human, just like we are.

Maybe you don’t have an enemy per se. But we’ve all encountered a bully or dealt with an unpleasant person in our life. We challenge you to take this verse to heart. The next time you feel like repaying evil for evil, choose to be kind instead. Your sacrificial actions will be like a sweet-smelling incense to the Lord and will surely be rewarded.

Father, thank You for loving us when we were unlovable. Help us to show kindness to every person we come in contact with, even when they don’t treat us well, and to forgive those who’ve offended us. In Jesus’ name, amen.