The Kindness Conundrum
Beloved Members of St. Martin’s,
Last week in our epistle from Romans 12:1-8, Paul urged us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God.
This week, in urging us to bend over backwards being kind to those who seek to hurt us, it almost sounds like Paul is now demanding our sanity.
In 205 words in Romans 12:9-21, there is a rapid-fire list of 27 specific commandments about how we are called as followers of Jesus to live in relationship with others. Twenty-seven! And seven of those begin with either “do not” (six times) or “never” (once). All the rest are stated positively, centering around the words “love,” “bless,” and “rejoice.” Under all of this are commands to give: to “contribute to the needs of the saints (fellow church members),” and to give your enemies food and drink if they hunger or thirst.
It is obvious that Paul himself understands that the standards of behavior here ARE incredibly demanding. Probably the most difficult is being not only not vengeful, but actually kind and solicitous to your enemies. Perhaps that’s why he includes that little bit that, if you are loving toward your enemies, it will actually “heap burning coals upon their heads.” My family used to call it “killing them with kindness.” That’s a pretty bizarre collection of words, if you stop and look at them. Are we really being kind if we are also “killing them?”
And of course, Paul assumes that our enemies even HAVE consciences or moral compasses, which is a big assumption, then or now.
But then that brings up a conundrum: do I gain anything by doing these kindnesses, if that “heaping of burning coals” on their heads is then something I can’t avoid enjoying? It reminds me of an episode of the TV comedy Friends years ago, when Phoebe kept trying to perform a completely altruistic act that did not benefit her in the slightest. No, I think that Paul is trying to toss us a bone there.
This section of the letter to the church in Rome emphatically urges us to live into a paradox as people of faith. We live in a world that we believe is based largely on merit, but we pray (at least when it comes to ourselves) for a God that uses a different accounting method. Many of us know that we fall short of doing what we ought to do in all our relationships. Most of us believe we could be better children, better parents, better friends, and better Christians. Knowing our faults and failings, we also want to believe in grace for ourselves—but all too often we want to believe in judgment and condemnation for others.
The point is not to heap burning coals upon our enemies but to be kind and loving to them—it’s the kindness and love that should be emphasized. If we’re not careful, enjoying heaping burning coals on the heads of those who have wronged us approaches schadenfreude—a great German word for the phrase “enjoying another’s misfortune. Satisfying as that may be, it also seems to be antithetical to a real spirit of kindness and forgiveness.
This is all a part of the command that began chapter 12 in this letter: to not be “conformed to the spirit of the world” around us. To live by the golden rule, instead, and to be better people through Christ who strengthens us, and models for us this kind of self-giving love. It’s part of making generosity and grace a true part of our lives.
And there’s no time like now to rededicate ourselves to living in the Way of Jesus.
In Christ’s love,