When kids have to spend time with an abusive parent, how can they apply ‘heap burning coals upon his head’?
A reader says:
I am a post-divorce survivor of domestic violence. My family have grown and changed a lot along with me through this process… from being unwitting allies of my X, to now maintaining no contact and helping me escape from my abuser.
My kids have to have regular visitation with their Dad by court order. He has been using power and control tactics over the kids when they are with him. During time with my side of the family the kids were venting and the verse that says by being kind you’ll “heap burning coals on his head” was brought up.
I am struggling with the proper application of this scripture to encourage my kids. What is a practical application for this verse that aligns with how abusers are to be treated? I don’t want my kids to become the aggressors, but I want to give them the skills and permission to defend themselves since they have no choice but to live in his home, under his rules at this time.
While I struggle sometimes with hating what he does, I don’t want to enter into sin while expressing righteous anger. And I’m not sure if I can separate hate for him, from hate for what he does to my kids and did to me.
Also there is a dynamic of the kids being divided in loyalty, which is tearing them up. I have a heart for all my children. One child is loyal to their Dad. I believe that child was heavily persecuted before the separation and is trying their hand at earning Dad’s approval through reporting my activities.
How do I encourage my kids to handle the injustices when they can’t yet divorce themselves from their Dad? And most importantly, I don’t want to lead my children to sin.
Let us look at the ‘coals of fire’ verse in context. I have put verse 20 in bold.
Let love be without dissembling. Hate that which is evil, and cleave unto that which is good. Be kind to one another, with brotherly love. Honour others before yourselves. Let not the work that you have in hand be tedious to you. Be fervent in the Spirit. Apply yourselves to the time. Rejoice in hope. Be patient in tribulation. Continue in prayer. Give to meet the needs of the saints, and be ready to take people in.
Bless those who persecute you; bless, but curse not. Be merry with those who are merry. Weep with those who weep. Be of equal affection one towards another. Be not high-minded, but make yourselves equal to the lowly. Do not be wise in your own opinions. Repay no one evil for evil. Provide beforehand for things that are honourable in the sight of all people. If it is possible, as for your part, have peace with all people.
Dearly beloveds, do not avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God. For it is written: Vengeance is mine, and I will reward, says the Lord. Therefore: If your enemy hungers, feed him, and if he thirsts, give him drink. For in so doing, you will heap coals of fire on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with goodness.
Here is an excerpt of what Matthew Henry said about verse 20.
Study the things that make for peace; if it be possible, without offending God and wounding conscience. Avenge not yourselves. This is a hard lesson to corrupt nature, therefore a remedy against it is added. Give place unto wrath. When a man’s passion is up, and the stream is strong, let it pass off; lest it be made to rage the more against us. The line of our duty is clearly marked out, and if our enemies are not melted by persevering kindness, we are not to seek vengeance; they will be consumed by the fiery wrath of that God to whom vengeance belongeth.
I think this interpretation by Matthew Henry strikes a good balance. Don’t repay evil for evil: vengeance belongs to God and He will carry it out perfectly. Be careful not to sin when your passion is up. Be kind to your enemies without wounding your own conscience in so doing. If you dissemble, if you fake love, if you slavishly appease an evildoer, you may feel like you are betraying your own conscience by being hypocritical. Or you might be betraying someone else. And there is no guarantee that the evildoer will be melted by your kindness.
There is no guarantee that our enemies will be melted by our kindness. I think this has been overlooked by many bible teachers. They assume the words “…you will heap coals of fire on his head” is a guarantee that the enemy will feel so ashamed of his sin that he will stop being mean. And people who make this assumption then lay guilt on abuse victims who don’t see that happen with their abusers.
It is a rare abuser in the affluent western world who feels any pressing need for food, water or life-saving medical assistance. Many abusers are swollen with affluence; they have a surfeit of food and drink rather than not enough. And they don’t want the spiritual food or drink which Christianity offers them, because they don’t want to repent.
I think a protective parent could discuss with their kids what “needs” a father might to which his kids might kindly and generously respond. It might be best to speak hypothetically, rather than zero in on their Dad. For example, if a father cut himself, his kids could get him antiseptic cream and band-aids. If he had a serious accident, they could call the ambulance. If he was working on his car, they could help him by fetching the tools he needed. If he was mowing the lawn on a very hot day, they could take him a drink of water. But if he was sitting on the couch demanding that his kids bring him his umpteenth beer from the fridge, the kids would not show kindness to him by complying – they would only be helping him entrench his addiction to beer.
And if a father asked his kids to lie for him, they could refuse: you don’t love someone by enabling or promoting their lies. And if a father was divorced and he asked his kids to tell him what their mother was doing with her life, what could they say? They could say, “I don’t think that’s any of your business, Dad.” Or, “Let’s talk about something else, Dad!” Or, “I don’t want to talk about that. Let’s play a game. Or let’s go for a bike ride.”
And if a father pushed his kids around physically, they could find a safe place to wait till their anger and hurt had calmed down. And then, if they felt it was safe to do so, they might like to remind their father that Jesus doesn’t like it when grownups hurt kids. (Matt 18:6).
In this kind of discussion, I would encourage the kids to articulate in their own words whether each way of responding is right or wrong, whether it is sinful or not sinful. Would it be sinning against the father? Would it be sinning against their own conscience? Would it be sinning against someone else? And how can they weigh all that up?
Even if the children don’t have answers, these are good questions to help children think about. The idea is to develop your children’s discernment and help them think for themselves, and to praise them for beginning to wrestle with these hard questions, because even grownups find it hard to wrestle with these questions!
For kids who have to see their abusive parent, the dilemmas they find most difficult are:
- how do I please Dad without betraying my own conscience?
- What is the safest way to respond when Dad is being mean?
- Is it right to please Dad by doing everything he says? Or is that wrong?
- When Dad wants me to ‘be kind’ to him but I know what he wants is not good, what do I do?
- And how can I stay safe while trying to resist him when I think he is wrong?
These are the same dilemmas that adult victims of intimate partner abuse experience. And as we know, there are no easy answers and each situation is different. Each person is different. Each temperament is different.
But it is worth telling kids that WHENEVER PEOPLE ARE BADLY TREATED, THEY ALWAYS RESIST.
So you can elucidate and honour the way the kids are resisting bad treatment.
What I am about to say, I have adapted from the booklet Honouring Resistance: How Women Resist Abuse in Intimate Relationships. I have adapted it to how kids resist abuse from an abusive parent.
In our experience of working with victims of domestic abuse, none of them complied with violence, disrespect, or oppression. They always tried to reduce, prevent or stop the abuse in some way.
Because they are in such danger, kids usually do not resist the perpetrator’s abuse openly (although some victims do resist openly anyway). Often the only way victims can resist the abuse is in their thoughts, or through small acts that are sometimes not even noticed by others.
A child’s resistance may not stop the abuse, because the perpetrator is making his own decisions about how he wants to behave. A perpetrator’s abusive behaviour is totally his responsibility, and he is the only one who can stop the abuse. However, the child’s thoughts or actions indicate that in no way does he/she “go along with” the abuse, or “let it happen.” The childrens’ resistance shows their desire to escape the abuse, to keep their dignity, and
to make a better life for themselves.
The following examples show some of the many ways kids resist abuse. We will take a look at what the perpetrator tries to do, and how the kids resist him. I will refer to the perpetrator as ‘Dad’.
If Dad tries to isolate a child from friends or other family members, the child might talk show resistance by talking to or texting their friends or other family members when Dad is not paying attention, or when he’s asleep. Or the child might show resistance by pretending to Dad that she doesn’t care about not being able to talk to her friends, because she is happy just reading a book or watching a movie or playing a game. (If the child is worried that such a pretence would be sinful, the protective parent could read my series Is it always sinful to tell an untruth? and use it as a springboard for a conversation with the child.)
If Dad tries to humiliate the child, the child might show resistance by thinking or acting in ways that sustain her self-respect and dignity. For example, she might hold her head up high and say to herself “Stand tall” when Dad said insulting things to her. Or she might silently remind herself that Jesus says “Whoever hurts one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung about his neck and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
If Dad tries to control the child, the child might show resistance by thinking or acting in ways that show she refuses to be controlled. For example, she might quietly disregard Dad’s “instructions” on what she should do about the annoying behaviour of another family member.
Or the child could comply with Dad’s demands but do so in very dramatic way. Let’s say he insists that she put away everything her room in exactly the right spot, and gets angry if anything is “out of order.” The child might be unable to challenge him openly, so she decides to do what he wants, but in a dramatic fashion. She puts everything away especially neatly in the “right” place. She then labels in great detail each section of the room where the items “belong.” I think this is what Jesus means by walking the extra mile, or turning the other cheek, or when someone sues you at law for your cloak, give him your coat also (Matt 5:39-41). Those are all forms of non-violent resistance.
If Dad tries to say that both he and the child are responsible for his wrong actions, the child shows resistance by thinking or acting in ways that show for herself that he is the only one responsible for his behaviour. For example, if Dad is cooking and burns the dinner and then blames the child, the child might feel angry and she might think to herself “what a load of of rubbish!” Or she might feel angry and resolve to change her surname when she becomes of age, so she doesn’t have to bear his surname any more. Those are ways that she makes it clear for herself that she is not responsible for what Dad did, and she will not endorse what Dad did.
If Dad tries to hurt the child, the child shows resistance by doing things to reduce, endure or escape the pain. For example, if the child accidentally spills her glass of cordial and Dad hits her on the side of the head as punishment, it would not be wrong for the child to say, “Stop it! You shouldn’t hit me; it was only an accident. And you shouldn’t hit anyone on the head.” Or she might refuse to show her emotional vulnerability – she might resolve not to cry even though she is in pain. Or she might pretend to comply with his demands, but find more subtle ways to resist him. Or she might say “Go ahead, jerk, hit me again, but it will not change my mind.” Or during a physical or verbal assault she might dissociate and take her mind to a pleasant peaceful place.
If Dad acts unpredictably, trying to make the child afraid so he can gain control of her, the child shows resistance either by creating predictability in her own life, or by becoming unpredictable herself. For example, the child might pay close attention to the small details of everyday life to lessen the risk to herself: she takes as much responsibility as possible for her own safety. Or she might try to divert his attention by acting like she is passionate about some trivial thing that she had never been enthusiastic about before, in order to divert Dad from hurting her.
If Dad tries to make excuses for his abuse, the child shows resistance by thinking or acting in ways that show for herself that the abuse is wrong and there is no excuse for his abuse. For example, she might write down in a journal (hidden from Dad) what he did wrong and how he tried to lay blame on her for his bad behaviour.
If Dad tries to hide his abuse and violence, the child shows resistance by thinking or acting in ways that expose the abuse and violence. For example, if the child knows her Dad as someone who can often be mean and scary, and she hears him describing himself as a ‘gentle bunny rabbit,’ she might feel astonished. Her astonishment shows she refuses to accept Dad’s description of himself as ‘harmless’. And she might expose Dad’s abuse by telling others – including members of his own family – about it.
If Dad tries to make the child ‘stoop to his level’, the child shows resistance by refusing to behave in the same way as Dad. For example, she might purposely do something nice for him in the middle of his verbal assaults, such as writing him a card and listing all of his good qualities. She could do this even knowing it would probably make made no difference to the severity of his attack on her.
Children who have to spend time their abusive parent often find that the only safe resistance is taking steps outside the abuser’s knowledge.
The protective parent can help the children by elucidating, validating and honouring the ways in which the children are resisting oppression and violence, including the secret dignity-preserving thoughts of their hearts, which the abuser cannot destroy.
The protective parent can also help the children think about whether a particular strategy of resistance is sinful or not sinful. The plumb-line is not the abuser’s upside-down version of right and wrong, but God’s right-side-up version. The children probably won’t fully understand this because they have been brainwashed by their Dad, but the protective parent can help them start to think these things through by saying things like, “That’s Dad’s opinion; I have a different opinion. I believe the Bible teaches such and such.”
Here are some scriptures that you might want to share with your kids
The LORD tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
For the LORD is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face.
As for the head of those who surround me,
Let the evil of their lips cover them;
Let burning coals fall upon them;
Let them be cast into the fire,
Into deep pits, that they rise not up again.
Let not a slanderer be established in the earth;
Let evil hunt the violent man to overthrow him.
And here is a scriptural example of non-violent resistance by David when he was being abused by King Saul
1 Sam 24
Now it happened, when Saul had returned from following the Philistines, that it was told him, saying, “Take note! David is in the Wilderness of En Gedi.” Then Saul took three thousand chosen men from all Israel, and went to seek David and his men on the Rocks of the Wild Goats. So he came to the sheepfolds by the road, where there was a cave; and Saul went in to attend to his needs. (David and his men were staying in the recesses of the cave.) Then the men of David said to him, “This is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘Behold, I will deliver your enemy into your hand, that you may do to him as it seems good to you.’ ” And David arose and secretly cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. Now it happened afterward that David’s heart troubled him because he had cut Saul’s robe. And he said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord.” So David restrained his servants with these words, and did not allow them to rise against Saul. And Saul got up from the cave and went on his way.
David also arose afterward, went out of the cave, and called out to Saul, saying, “My lord the king!” And when Saul looked behind him, David stooped with his face to the earth, and bowed down. And David said to Saul: “Why do you listen to the words of men who say, ‘Indeed David seeks your harm’? Look, this day your eyes have seen that the Lord delivered you today into my hand in the cave, and someone urged me to kill you. But my eye spared you, and I said, ‘I will not stretch out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed.’ Moreover, my father, see! Yes, see the corner of your robe in my hand! For in that I cut off the corner of your robe, and did not kill you, know and see that there is neither evil nor rebellion in my hand, and I have not sinned against you. Yet you hunt my life to take it. Let the Lord judge between you and me, and let the Lord avenge me on you. But my hand shall not be against you. As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Wickedness proceeds from the wicked.’ But my hand shall not be against you. After whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom do you pursue? A dead dog? A flea? Therefore let the Lord be judge, and judge between you and me, and see and plead my case, and deliver me out of your hand.”
So it was, when David had finished speaking these words to Saul, that Saul said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. Then he said to David: “You are more righteous than I; for you have rewarded me with good, whereas I have rewarded you with evil. And you have shown this day how you have dealt well with me; for when the Lord delivered me into your hand, you did not kill me. For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him get away safely? Therefore may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. And now I know indeed that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand. Therefore swear now to me by the Lord that you will not cut off my descendants after me, and that you will not destroy my name from my father’s house.”
So David swore to Saul. And Saul went home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold.
OT quotes are from the NKJ version. NT quotes are from the NMB – more info about the NMB here.
The survivor’s story is used with her permission.
Chris Moles discredits and mislabels victims of domestic abuse – this post discusses the ‘burning coals’ reference in Romans 12. It also discusses Jesus’ recommendation of non-violent resistance to prick the abuser’s conscience.
Is it wrong to feel ANGER and HATRED for my abuser? – one of our FAQs
How can I help my children heal from abuse? – another one of our FAQs