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The natural response of the fallen man is to respond in kind, to be nice to those who treat him well and to be mean to those who treat him badly. When Paul states in 1 Corinthians 4:12, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure,” his teaching echoes that of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:38–47, Jesus teaches us that in matters of minor personal offense it is our duty to turn the other cheek: “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (v. 39).
In verse 44, Jesus states that we are to pray for those who persecute us, and in verses 45–47 He gives the rationale for doing so:
So that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
When someone treats us badly and we respond by showing them kindness, we demonstrate that we belong to our heavenly Father and that He is at work in us by His Spirit. When we show kindness to someone who has treated us badly, we are imitating the daily kindnesses that our heavenly Father shows to those who do not know Him and who rebel against Him.
Responding in kind is the ordinary way of the world. It is what is expected. There is nothing exceptional about it. But not responding in kind is something unusual, unexpected, and extraordinary. It is not natural; in fact, it requires something beyond the natural inclination of the human heart. It requires a heart transformed by the inner working of the Holy Spirit. It requires self-denial. It requires the movement of God’s Spirit upon the soul.
Not responding in kind requires us as believers to think about the bigger issues at stake. It requires us to think about how we may bear witness to the grace of God shown to us in the gospel. It requires the believer to look at the one who offended us as a being created in the image of God, a precious soul in need of the grace of God. If someone offends us, it should be our desire to be reconciled to him, especially if that person is a brother or sister in Christ. If we respond in kind, hurt for hurt, meanness for meanness, harsh word for harsh word, reconciliation is undermined and Christ is dishonored. If we are filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18) and the fruit of the Spirit is present (Gal. 5:22–23), self-control and self-denial will prevail, and we can resist the temptation to respond in kind. When we refrain from responding in kind, the door is open for something more.
What Jesus requires of His disciples is something more than mere restraint. It is not just that one refrains from responding in kind; it is more than that. Jesus wants His disciples to respond by blessing in the face of cursing. One can sow seeds of kindness, patience, love, and reconciliation. By not responding in kind, believers demonstrate that they are different from the world and its ways. By not responding in kind, believers show that they are the true sons of God who have been and are being transformed by the grace of God in the inner man.
The Apostle Paul also promotes this godly and Christ-honoring way of responding to hurt or offense. In Romans 12:14–21, he writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them,” and, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (vv. 14, 17). Here again we hear echoes of the teaching of our Lord. Jesus teaches us in Luke 6:28: “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Again, this is contrary to the inclinations of the fallen nature of mankind. However, God has granted His Spirit to us as believers that we might have the power to do what He requires of us (Rom. 8:4).
The believer who is under the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit will look at the big picture instead of the narrow focus of how he has been offended. He will look up to the greatness of his heavenly Father, who, although He has been offended infinitely more by sinful men, allows the warming rays of the sun to shine on them and the refreshing rains to fall on them in kindness. His heart will be overwhelmed by the realization that God has not responded to him in kind, that for all of his sin, disrespect, and rebellion, God has responded to him in kindness. In Titus 3:3–5, we read:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us.
When a Christian faces harsh, unkind, or unfair treatment from others, the manner of his response can bring great glory to God. When the temptation to respond in kind is resisted, the door is opened for an opportunity to see God at work. When prayer is offered for persecutors and blessing is given in response to cursing, God’s Spirit is at work, and the grace of God that enables a believer to deny himself and not to respond in kind is put on display.