When and Why to Turn the Other Cheek

One of the most famous teachings of Jesus was that of turn the other cheek. During his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus said:

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” Matthew 5:38-41

It’s radical stuff, regardless of the cultural context. For the Jews living under Roman rule, a soldier or Roman official could legally force any subject they chose to carry their luggage with them for one mile. This is the type of tyranny that would easily start a rebellion in the modern world. America’s inception came through an unfair tax on a hot beverage! We’d easily go to war over injustices such as the ones imposed on the Jews of antiquity.

Yet Jesus told those listening, the same people living under such tyranny and oppression, to not resist it. He took it a step further saying to go beyond what was expected and selflessly serve the person taking advantage of you!

When to Turn the Other Cheek

I struggle with this teaching. I think most Christians do. As humans, our natural inclination when people do us wrong is to retaliate. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But when we truly consider these teachings of Jesus, we tend to question our so-called “righteous” indignation.

On the one hand, justice is important. People should not be able to get away with whatever they do simply because we blindly hold to “turn the other cheek.” Yet, we know that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Furthermore, God forbids revenge on our own behalf. “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay.” (Deut. 32:35) Where is the line? Where is the balance between graciously refusing to retaliate, and getting walked all over?

In his best-selling book “Wild at Heart,” John Eldridge tells a story of a bully his child dealt with in elementary school. The kid, previously upbeat and outgoing, had turned sour and melancholy because of a bully that had hit him in the schoolyard. John told his son to hit the bully right back if the brute tried anything again. That seems extremely contrary to the doctrine of “turn the other cheek.” John acknowledges this and responds to those who balk at his response by saying “A man first needs a cheek to turn.”

A passive, weak person who routinely gets stepped on is not going to stand out as someone who graciously turns the other cheek. Anyone would assume the weak man is doing as he always does: acting like a doormat. A strong, confident person, someone truly capable of striking back, who refuses to retaliate will draw attention and stand out at something nearly inhuman. He has every right to hit back, as well as the ability, but he forgoes that right.

Furthermore, if other people are involved, the circumstances change. If others are being threatened, that is the time to stand up and defend. If others are being humiliated and slandered, that is the time to speak up. In those instances, the cheek is not ours to turn. We should refrain from vengeance on behalf of the wronged, but we should also seek justice.

Turning the other cheek is more about laying aside your personal rights than letting people get away with whatever they want to.

Why To Turn The Other Cheek

One of the sickest atrocities of early 2017 is the senseless murder of Robert Godwin Sr. in Cleveland Ohio. To add to the horrific nature of this crimes, Steve Stephens, the perpetrator, filmed his crime and uploaded it to Facebook.

Even more shocking for some were the responses to this tragedy by the victim’s family. They forgave their father’s killer on live television. They went on to say:  “We want to wrap our arms around him. I hold no animosity against this man. I could not do that if I did not know God as my God and my Savior. I could not forgive this man.”

These people were not making excuses for their father’s killer. If Stephens had survived and faced trial, he would have been sentenced however a jury saw fit. Justice would still have been served. The family of Robert Godwin Sr. did not release Stephens from the consequences of his actions. They forgave the personal offense against them. They gave up any right to vengeance or retaliation, in the name of love and forgiveness.

This is the radical teaching of Jesus Christ put into action. Forgiveness for the unforgivable. Love for the unlovable.

I’d be lying if I said this is something that comes naturally. Quite the opposite. Turning the other cheek is the most unnatural thing in the world. It goes against every fiber in my being. On our own we are powerless to do such things. As I said before, it is utterly inhuman.

Forgiveness that extends grace to the most abhorrent and evil acts. That is true forgiveness. That is supernatural.

This is why we turn the other cheek. The unforgiveable has been forgiven in us. We have no clue as to the depths of our own depravity. It is very easy to see and condemn the sins of others. It is harder to do the same to ourselves. God, in his great mercy, has forgiven us, and now he calls us to do the same.

Justice does not suffer when we do this. Justice is served in due time. Vengeance is not our responsibility. Forgiveness is.

Turning the other cheek is not easy. It is not even remotely human. In turning the other cheek, we show something greater than human love and forgiveness. We show the grace of God, something much more powerful than mere weakness or passivity.

Quotes taken from a CNN interview: http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2017/04/17/ohio-victim-family-murder-intvu-ac.cnn

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