"But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."
-- Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:39
It is sometimes astonishing how many people either bypass these words from Jesus' Sermon On The Mount, or just try to explain them away entirely.
Now, I understand the problem in its essence, of course... these words from the very mouth of Our Lord seem to imply that we are to allow people to just beat the tar out of us and not resist physical violence and injury. So, when confronted by such a radical teaching, we defensively jump into an "interpretive" mode of Bible study where we try to find "a sense of what Jesus really means" instead of taking it as a literal command. This is a subtle temptation, I think, and it is amazing how easily we can deceive ourselves in one of two directions: Either 1. We will explain the statement completely away; or 2. We will convince ourselves that it means something hyperbolic or figurative... and is thus impossible to truly obey.
Personally, I simply have to reject both paths.
First, I am not a very smart man, but in my own life I can tell of you of a certainty that I have learned [often the hard way] that it always safest to take Jesus at His plain word.
Second, I do not believe God has ever given us commands that are impossible to obey. He certainly gives us ones that are difficult... ones that challenge all the faith we possess... but never ones that are impossible.
In order to ever understand what God wants of us, it is important to catch certain key details when we study His written Word. Anytime the Bible gives a particularly vivid or striking detail we need to pay that much more attention.
The imagery here is nothing if not striking [pardon the pun.] Think if you will of the visual picture. Jesus said, if someone “smites you on the right cheek” then you are to turn your face to him in such a way as to present your left cheek. The implication being that he may... is even welcome to... hit you again!
Now, what is the significance of the “right” cheek? Why not the left cheek? I heard it explained this way once:
Picture someone getting hit on the right cheek. What is the most likely way for that to happen? Since most people are right handed and would hit someone with their right hand, then the only way for them to hit someone on the right cheek is to do it as a backhanded slap. [I don't think this interpretation is "over thinking" it either, by the way. I think Jesus' original hearers may have even pictured it this way immediately, as they were an oppressed people who actually lived with Roman "police state" violence as a common reality.]
What Jesus was addressing here is therefore not just mindlessly letting someone pummel you into a pile of broken bones. I rather truly believe He may have been broadly addressing the taking of an insult... which could be verbal OR physical.
A backhanded slap is an insult, either literally or figuratively. It is, in its deepest essence, a challenge to retaliate... a mean-spirited attempt to shame you and get you to either back down in utter humiliation or lash out and escalate the conflict.
To turn the other cheek is a bold statement! It neither humiliates one's self nor retaliates against the aggressor. It is a response of of strength [and faith!]that says, “I will not seek revenge because I trust a friend who is infinitely stronger than us both!” It allows us a response that carries NO SHAME because we are resting in the very dignity in Christ. Think of it this way. There is not only no dignity in fighting back and hurting the other person, but that course has effective denied Christ Himself a chance to work in and through us!
If our own, personal dignity is found in Christ, we will be empowered to respond in just the way He would respond.
[DISCLAIMER: Since at this point someone will probably bring up the topic of domestic abuse I should probably say that if you are being beaten physically there is, of course, nothing wrong with seeking help or defending yourself... I might here quote a preacher I heard once years ago who said that while Jesus may have implored us to turn the other cheek, God created us with only 2 cheeks! The implication of this was that God may desire you to seek non-violence but wouldn't want you to allow yourself to be conquered endlessly. I like that, actually-- it seems like a valid point... but honestly? Even standing up to an abuser can be most effective when done non-violently and in a Christ-like spirit. Before you hate me on this one, let me just say I actually knew a woman who had an amazing testimony of using the authorities and still not "fighting back" in a very violent and dysfunctional situation. That abuser came to a glorious repentance. Say what you will, but amazing things can happen when we simply obey Jesus as well as we can.]
In actual social practice, though, there really are very few times in our lives [at least here in America] when another person would actually give us a backhanded slap. I know it happens, but honestly, I think we can all agree it is rare in our daily social existence. But oh, Brother... there are times-- and then more times-- when they might give us a verbal one, or show great disrespect for us in one way or another. Interestingly, I think it is precisely those verbal, non-physical things that get people most worked up and excited anyway! Think of how often you see people arguing and fighting and literally screaming because someone “disrespected” them.
Well, at the heart of it, what they are looking for is dignity.
They want an acknowledgement that they are a person of substance and importance.
If someone does not give them that respect then they feel somehow violated. The means to get that respect and dignity is to exert power over the other person and show that you are stronger, better, more significant than they are. So instead of turning the other cheek, you strike back, preferably with even more cutting force. Well, frankly... if that is what you need to do to get respect and dignity then you will never have it, regardless of whatever satisfaction is gained by your bold reaction in the flesh.
The dignity possessed by every saved, blood-bought child of God comes from our knowledge we were made in His image, with the purpose of glorifying Him with our lives. Our significance comes because we are called by Jesus to be "world changers." Our power and strength comes because we are filled with His Holy Spirit who gives us an ability to receive the insults of others and respond as Christ responded to those who hurled insults at Him... and eventually killed Him brutally.
One writer said: "Some men entertain crowds. Some men are changed by the crowd. Jackie changed the crowd!" AMEN!
It is no different for any other Christian.
When we respond to insults and abuse with a like kind of vindictiveness, we simply affirm to this old, nasty world that Christianity is a sham and a joke. But when we respond in quiet humility and dignity, drawing on the power of Christ Jesus Himself, we just might provoke a response of respect and wonder and even compel people to want to learn more about Our Lord. will it always work that way? Probably not... but isn't it interesting that Jesus doesn't promise success every time? And really... aren't most of God's commands like that?
HMMMM.... Maybe we're suppose'ta just do it and let God plant the seed of it where and when he chooses to!
In short.... turning the other cheek is NOT impossible. Not at all. I think we actually know that, deep down.
But, of course, it IS difficult. I, for one, find it VERY, in fact endlessly, challenging. [This explains how often I fail to do it. :( ]
But I know one thing, Brothers and Sisters. No matter what... when we DO actually respond with the gentle dignity of Jesus, we will certainly bring Glory to HIM.