Jesus rocked the Jewish world (and the world of every reader for the last two thousand years) in His unsettling commandments about loving and serving our enemies. God Himself is just and His written Law originally stated “An eye for an eye” which is still the current objective of modern judicial systems (Ex 21.24). Jesus, however, came to pay the punishment for our sins and thus introduced the before unheard of notion of unmerited grace. God was always merciful and forgiving, but it was through Jesus that we could be forgiven without retribution or sacrifices of atonement looking forward to His redemption.
Because God offers us such complete forgiveness and grace, He expects us to turn around and offer the same to others.
“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
– Eph 4.32
In the same measure we have been forgiven we should forgive others. That means every single offense, every single time we are asked, no matter the gravity. Jesus goes so far to say, in fact, that if we do not forgive in that manner we prove ourselves to not be forgiven by God. It is by receiving God’s grace through forgiveness that we are completely changed and cannot help but love and forgive one another in the same way. If we cannot forgive someone, it is because we have not yet been forgiven. These words of Jesus are poignant and convicting:
“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.
– Matt 6.14-15
And if this expectation of forgiveness weren’t enough, Jesus sets the bar even higher! We are commanded to love and pray for our enemies (Matt 5.44), bless those who persecute us (Rom 12.14), to offer the other cheek when the first has been hit (Matt 5.39), give more to the person who steals from you (Matt 5.40), and if someone forces you into slavery of any sort, we are supposed to serve them and even do more than they demand of us (Matt 5.41)!
Jesus, of course, gave us the highest example of all of this by submitting Himself to the will of God by going to the cross. He never argued against His accusers, He never fought back when He was beaten, He never even tried to defend Himself but rather healed one of the men who sought his life when Peter cut off his ear (Luke 22.50-51).
Does all of this mean that Christians should be pacifist door mats who let people trample them and take advantage of them? Should we ever stand up for ourselves?
I would argue no, Jesus is not teaching blanket pacifism, and that each situation depends primarily on obedience to Scripture, guidance of the Spirit and wisdom.
What do I mean? Consider Jesus. On at least one occasion (many scholars believe twice), Jesus became angry against the sin of sales within the temple, threw over the tables, made a whip and chased the vendors out of the temple – to defend the house of God and righteousness. He had holy anger that was exemplified through authority and aggression.
Jesus also was hated and pursued many times throughout His earthly ministry by people seeking to kill Him, and instead of allowing them to kill, harm or harass Him, Jesus “slipped away”, often noting the fact that His “hour had not yet come” (John 7.30). Only once, in fact, did Jesus submit Himself to the wickedness and abuse of man – which ultimately led to His death.
The Apostle Paul also regularly and consistently was chased out of town by people who hated His teachings. Paul did suffer much persecution, including beatings, stonings and other tribulations, but he regularly fled town when he could no longer continue the work of the Gospel. It was only when the Spirit directed him to go Jerusalem and prepared him that he would suffer intense persecution and death there that Paul gave that ultimate pacifistic response. Even so, Paul defended himself in court for the purpose of preaching the Gospel all the more!
Ok, so what does all of this mean? The key is understanding the heart and intention of the commands of Jesus. Why do we turn the other cheek?
“But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”
– Matt 5.39
The implication is that we will all encounter evil people – people who will hit us, who will use their authority to take advantage of us, people who will steal from us. And we should not resist them – we should never return evil for evil, but always return good for evil.
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
– Rom 12.21
It is a godly response to feel anger towards sin and unrighteousness. God Himself is angry at unpunished sin, and this is why Jesus was not only justified but right to respond to the desecration of the temple vocally and even by chasing the vendors out. Jesus, therefore, also rightly responded to those who sought to trick, tempt and deceive Him with seemingly harsh words calling them names like “brood of vipers” and stating that they were of the devil (Matt 12.34, John 8.44).
It is also imperative that we remember it is God’s place alone to exact vengeance, and He will. All sin is primarily against Him and He alone is fully righteous. He, therefore, will exact perfect and right vengeance and we would only dishonor it by trying. It is by remembering this promise that we can endure wickedness.
“Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
– Rom 12.19
If our goal, therefore, is to overcome evil with good and to do so by loving our enemies, we can make better decisions in the moment of suffering. If someone is persecuting, hating or offending us, can we impact the kingdom by loving them with the response of turning the other cheek? By going the extra mile? Or by knowingly letting ourselves be taken advantage of? Or will we more rightly overcome evil with good by exiting the situation, like Jesus and Paul did so often?
Unfortunately there is no cut and dry, “always do this” answer, because that is not how life works. Even if we look at the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount, we cannot apply the instructions as exclusive and normative. For example, we do not always pray when we are alone in our closet (Matt 6.6). We are instructed to pray when we gather corporately, and the elders are commanded to pray over a sick person for his healing (Matt 18.19-20, James 5.14-15).
Therefore, as in all decision making, we should stop and pray. We should seek first the Holy Spirit and ask for wisdom. God promises always to give wisdom to those who ask (James 1.5). We should seek godly council and weigh our response against Scripture. If our choice is in line with Scripture and by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, then we can always act confidently – whether that be to give more money to someone who has stolen from you, or to escape the situation, or to demand that someone work in order to earn his wages and food (2 Thess 3.10).