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.