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Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:38) probably strikes many of us as odd, at least at first. At best, it seems that Jesus is advocating neutrality from the victimized, and at worst it seems that He would have them welcome more harm. A closer look will show a Christ-centered understanding of the believer’s call to be free from a heart of revenge when wronged by others.

“Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” is a popular verse in movies, books, and songs concerned with revenge. That, however, misreads the law’s intent. This law was not designed as a means to seek private vengeance or vigilante justice fueled with hatred. It was a legal principle in the civil courts. It was intended as a means of making restitution equivalent to a loss, of making sure that the punishment fit the crime and that justice did not devolve into ongoing feuds between clans. It was not given as a means of addressing personal conflicts over minor issues or insults. Leviticus 19:18 states plainly that the Israelites were not to “take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” In Jesus’ day, people were applying “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” to retaliate against minor offenses and insults. Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek is a call for us to use the principle only as it was intended, not for everyday retaliation.

Is a desire for justice wrong? Certainly not, for justice flows from God’s character. He is the Judge of all the earth who will do right (Gen. 18:25). He is the God who will in no wise clear the guilty (Ex. 34:7). There is no sin in seeking legal remedies when we have been grievously harmed, provided that our hearts are in the right place. Love is the goal, even toward enemies, but loving our enemies and defending ourselves from legitimate harm are not at odds. Nevertheless, we must be careful. We fallen human beings often employ hateful revenge veiled as godly justice, which results in retaliation that exceeds the initial transgression. Lamech, Cain’s sixth-generation descendant, boasted of killing a man for striking him, claiming that his vengeance exceeded that of his forbear seventy-seven to seven (Gen. 4:23–24). We can pursue justice, but not with a Lamechian heart.

Still, let us recognize that while there is no sin in pursuing justice, not taking advantage of our right to justice can have a redemptive impact. Joseph’s story illustrates powerfully how God works through His people when they refuse to let bitterness and revenge rule their hearts (Gen. 37–50). Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, falsely accused of rape, and abandoned by people whom he helped in prison. He was later elevated to commander of Egypt under Pharaoh and used by God to preserve Egypt and the tribes of Israel during a time of famine. Joseph’s reunion with his brothers was fraught with pain from their transgression. Yet, with a vision of God’s sovereignty over evil, he opted to forgive his brothers. The result was his brothers’ repentance.

Love is the goal, even toward enemies, but loving our enemies and defending ourselves from legitimate harm are not at odds.

My grandparents have set an example of godly forbearance for me. Their experience as immigrants to America has involved physical, social, and economic mistreatment. They have had more than enough reasons to be angry, plenty of opportunities for personal revenge, and a multitude of just grounds for legal recourse. Often, I’ve been puzzled and amazed by their simple refrain in response to these indecencies. “You cannot fight fire with fire; you must love even your enemies.” They have never minimized their own pain or the unrighteousness of the deeds committed against them, but they have frequently chosen to suffer without seeking recompense.

When we are wronged, we often feel helpless. Being cruelly maligned, falsely accused, or cynically exploited can incite the desire to reclaim a sense of power. I have seen couples deeply wound each other and continue blasting away all the way to the dissolution of their marriage. Misinformed individuals circulate information about people who depend on good reputations for their livelihood. Power-hungry employers coerce their employees into extra hours and tasks upon threat of being replaced.

Jesus’ words show us a radical and often more powerful response. For when we turn the other cheek, give away our cloak, or keep walking (Matt. 5:38–42), we are undermining the offender’s power over us by acting with a willing attitude. Moreover, we are not allowing the burden of vengeance or bitterness to rule us. Above all, we are displaying the power of God at work in us, for He is patient with the unjust.

Examples of God’s people living out this pattern abound throughout history even to the present day. On June 17, 2015, members of the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., welcomed Dylann Roof into their Bible study only for nine of them to lose their lives when Roof opened fire. Roof was rightly brought to justice, yet the response of the victims’ family members to him in court forty-eight hours after the shooting was unbelievable—they forgave him. The pain he caused was real and indescribable, yet they refused to let bitterness and revenge rule their hearts.

Several New Testament examples assist us in making sense of such radical love. In Acts 7, Stephen gave an earth-shattering defense of the gospel, which angered the religious leaders, who stoned him to death. Upon seeing a vision of Christ standing at the right hand of God, Stephen cried, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (v. 60). Standing there approving of his execution was Saul, who became notorious for persecuting the church before being blinded by the glory of Christ on the Damascus road and then converted. As Paul, he became a major vessel for the expansion of the gospel and suffered greatly for the name of Christ. Later, in prison, abandoned by many friends, he wrote, “May it not be charged against them!” (2 Tim. 4:16). Finally, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the only man in history innocent of all sin, was unjustly sentenced to death. Yet, He cried out, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34).

If we would be people who turn the other cheek, we must begin by remembering that Christ turned the wrath of God from us and by living with a vision of the glorious forgiving Christ before us.

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From the May 2020 Issue
May 2020 Issue