This verse is the pivotal verse in the passage, Romans 12:14-21. It recognizes two important facts about dealing with difficult people: 1) we should live at peace with people, and 2) it’s not always possible. In fact, the passage leading up to verse 18 talk about when it is possible, and then with verse 18, the subject switches to what to do when it is not possible to live at peace with others. So let’s look at it this way.
I. When peace is possible
Most of the time, we can live at peace with others. Whenever it is possible, we should. But how? Verses 14-16 gives us some practical ways to live at peace with difficult people.
A. Be a blessing (v. 14)
We've all heard of family members who refuse to speak to one another for years. How sad! Most of the time, peace is possible between two people, if you are willing to make the first move toward reconciliation. So choose to be a blessing.
Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” This statement, like several others here, refer back to Jesus’ word in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus told us, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Paul must have remembered his own past with this statement, for many years before, Paul was the young Pharisee named Saul who held the coats of those who stoned to death the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Acts 7:60 records that as he died, Stephen said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Perhaps it was the impact of Stephen’s refusal to curse his persecutors that caused Saul to be so troubled in spirit and respond to the call of God on the road to Damascus, as is recorded two chapters later, in Acts 9.
B. Be empathetic (v. 15)
In verse 15 he adds, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” This is more than sympathy; it is empathy. It is identifying with those who hurt. It’s like the little 8-year-old boy who went over to see an elderly man next door whose wife had just died. When he came back, the boy’s mother asked, “What did you say?” The boy said, “Oh, nothing, we just sat on the porch and I helped him cry.” This is an extremely important response to a difficult person, because when we can identify with them and understand why they act the way they do, then we will be much better at relating to them.
C. Be agreeable (v. 16a)
Verse 16 begins, “Live in harmony with one another.” Literally, the Greek means to “have the same mind toward one another.” We can disagree in substance and still be agreeable in spirit.
D. Be humble (v. 16b)
Sometimes the reason that the other person is so difficult to deal with us because the problem is within ourselves! Thus Paul reminds us, “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position (this can be translated, ‘be willing to do menial work.’) Do not be conceited.” As Proverbs 3:7 says, “Do not be wise in your own eyes.”
You never know how if you would just be kind to people in low position, how you may benefit from your kindness one day.
II. When peace is impossible
Paul said in verse 18 to live at peace “if it is possible” and if “it depends on you.” He was recognizing that there are times when it is impossible for us to bring about peace in our own power. So what do you do when there is no peace? What do you do when it’s out of your hands?
A. Do not seek personal revenge (v. 17a, 19a)
Although I have listed this under the category of “when peace is impossible,” it probably fits under both categories. This is a principle that goes both ways.
Verse 17 says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…” Verse 19 says, “Do not take revenge, my friends…” Jesus also taught the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:39, 41). Jesus was not talking about social injustice; He was making reference to personal insults. This sounds strange to Americans who are used to demanding our rights, but the Christian is to be willing to give up his or her rights for the greater good of bringing peace.
However, even if peace is impossible, it is still the right response to the evil person. As Proverbs 12:16 says, it is wise to ignore an insult.
B. Do what is right (v. 17b)
You see, we do not need to let the meanness of another person drag us down to their level. Thus verse 17 continues, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” It would be very easy respond to the ugly text message with an ugly reply. It would be easy when a person blesses you out in front of others, to let them have it with a few choice words of your own. It would be easy when the competition cheats to get ahead, for you to cut corners and cheat, as well. We must decide that even when the other person refuses to do what is right, that we will do what is right. Even when we cannot keep the peace, we can keep our integrity.
C. Let God avenge (v. 19b)
What about a terrorist like Osama bin Laden? Is it wrong to seek revenge against somebody like that?
Verse 19 begins by saying, “Do not take revenge” but the verse goes on to say, “leave room for God’s wrath.” That is, we do not take revenge for personal insults and injuries, but we do make room for God to work his vengeance, particularly against social injustice like a terrorist.
There was a great German pastor in World War II named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who opposed Hitler. Bonhoeffer even participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and he was a Christian pastor! Why would he do that? Bonhoeffer did it because he knew that it would stop a greater evil. In the Old Testament, Moses was sent to Pharaoh and told to demand justice for the Hebrew slaves. God even sent a "death angel" as a final plague upon the Egyptians to set the people free. When the Hebrews fled across the Red Sea and Pharaoh chased them, God allowed the Egyptians to drown in the sea, and Exodus 15 records the song of rejoicing that Moses sang at their defeat.
How do we reconcile this with Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies? We need to make a distinction between personal offenses and social justice. Proverbs 24:17 says, “Do not gloat when your enemy falls.” Yet Proverbs 11:10 says that “when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.” Both of these statements are in the same book of the Bible, and both are true. While it is a virtue to overlook a personal insult, it is not a virtue to overlook a social injustice. The former is gracious; the latter is gross negligence.
D. Overcome evil with good (v. 20-21)
Finally, we deal with the most difficult of people, the evil person, by overcoming evil with good. The statement in verse 20 has an application both ways, like verse 17, to personal insults and difficult people with whom we might reconcile, but it also applies to the more difficult and devilish people and situations from which we can expect no reconciliation.
Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22, saying, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
This can be interpreted two different ways. The popular way to understand it, is to mean “Kill them with kindness” and thus shame them into repentance. It reminds me of the church sign that said, “Love your enemies—it messes with their heads.” It is true many times that we overcome evil by refusing to respond with evil. By showing kindness, we can often change a heart.
Most Christians are familiar with this statement, “heap burning coals on their head,” and we’ve come to use it in the sense of shaming them by killing them with kindness. But there is a second way to understand this—a way that applies to times when it is not possible to find peace. In ancient times, Egyptians had a ritual of punishment for those who repented, where they had to walk on fiery hot coals, and in scripture, fire and hot coals were often used of punishment. Psalm 140:10 says, “Let burning coals fall upon them; may they be thrown into the fire.” How is this overcoming evil with good? Well, in the next chapter of Romans, chapter 13, Paul talks about how God has placed the government over us for our good. He says in Romans 13:4 that the government is God’s servant for God, the avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. President Barack Obama and former president George W. Bush are opposites in their political views, but one thing they both agree on was the government action is removing the terrorist, Osama bin Laden. They both said that while they took no personal pleasure in the death of Osama bin Laden, nevertheless, “Justice was done.”
Thus we could read verses 20-21 this way: On a personal level, respond to evil with kindness. If your enemy is hungry, feed him. Let his evil thus be so obvious and so exposed, in such contrast to your goodness, that evil will be conquered by good. God will bring about the vengeance, often by using the government law enforcement and military to bring about justice. In this way, you will heap burning coals of punishment on his head, but leaving room for God’s wrath. We need to be like the preacher who said, “I’m not going to get even. I’m going to tell God on you!” (Charles R. Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart, p. 495.)
How do you deal with difficult people? If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with them. If possible, be a blessing, be empathetic, be agreeable, be humble. And if none of those things are possible, you may just need to walk away and "tell God on them."
How does God want you to deal with your difficult person?
(Copyright 2011 by Bob Rogers)