From the September/October 2020 issue of Discern Magazine

What Does It Mean to Turn the Other Cheek?

One of the hardest things Christians are called to do is turn the other cheek. Yet it’s what God expects us to learn to do in our interactions with others.

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In the Old Testament, God gave this principle of judgment: “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him” (Leviticus 24:19-20, English Standard Version).

Commentators explain that this instruction set an upper limit on punishment, ensuring that no one had to pay a harsher penalty than he or she deserved. Other verses (like Exodus 21:29-30) suggest that judges could choose to enforce a monetary penalty instead of extracting a literal tooth.

Unfortunately, over time, this instruction appears to have morphed from a legal protection into a perceived right. “Eye for an eye” began to mean that if someone wronged you, it was your responsibility to make sure you extracted every bit of compensation—every metaphorical tooth—you were entitled to.

Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek

Centuries later, when Jesus gave His famous Sermon on the Mount, He gave His listeners a higher standard.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away” (Matthew 5:38-42).

The obvious question here is, Does Jesus expect us to be doormats?

What did Jesus mean when He said “not to resist an evil person”?

Jesus gave examples of what it looks like to not “resist an evil person” in three different contexts.

The first is physical. A slap across the face would be a clear and often public act of humiliation. Instead of retaliating, Jesus said to turn the other cheek and brace for another (verse 39).

The second is financial. The lawsuit here is an attempt to legally claim something in the possession of another person. Instead of fighting it, Jesus said to accept the loss before the suit even begins, handing over more than was requested (verse 40).

The third is a matter of freedom. Roman officials and soldiers could legally “compel” people to perform tasks for the government (verse 41)—to immediately stop whatever they were doing and deliver a message, act as a local guide or help transport equipment. (This is what happened to Simon of Cyrene in Matthew 27:32.) Instead of resisting, Jesus said to go above and beyond what was expected.

Was Jesus handing anyone who hates us a blank check to take advantage of us? Are we bad Christians if we make any effort to protect ourselves from the abuse of evil-intentioned people?

Jesus used hyperbole for emphasis

More than once, Jesus used hyperbole—exaggeration for emphasis—to drive home a point. Just verses earlier, Jesus advised His audience to cut off their own hands and gouge out their own eyes if they proved to be a source of sin (Matthew 5:29-30).

If Jesus had meant this as a literal instruction, the entire early Church would have been handless and blind. The point of that particular hyperbole was that we should remove from our lives things that lead us to make sinful decisions.

What about Christ’s examples of what it looks like to not resist an evil person? Were these meant to always be obeyed literally, regardless of the context?

When an officer slapped Jesus across the face prior to His crucifixion, Jesus challenged the officer to justify the attack (John 18:19-23). When Paul was about to be beaten for preaching the gospel, he was quick to invoke his legal rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:23-29).

Though Jesus and Paul did literally experience beatings they took patiently, examples like these make it clear that turning the other cheek is a principle for Christians to live by instead of a commandment to always be obeyed literally.

So the real question is, How does God expect us to live by that principle?

When to turn the other cheek

Strangers aren’t likely to smack you or sue you without any kind of warning. Those moments are climaxes, and climaxes don’t just happen without some kind of a buildup.

Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that peacemakers “shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Paul elaborated, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:17-18, ESV).

We should never repay evil for evil. But to truly live peaceably with all requires all parties involved to make an effort to find peace. Of course, that won’t always be the case. As peacemakers, our job is to try to de-escalate conflicts before they boil over into something worse—but sometimes our best efforts to talk things out and reach an understanding will come to nothing.

When situations escalate to the point where reconciliation is impossible, God expects us to put the brakes on our human nature and not entrench ourselves in an ugly fight. This is where turning the other cheek comes into play, relying on the principles laid out for us by Christ:

If the other side is angry enough to try to humiliate you, accept the fallout instead of responding in kind. If the other side is ready to take you to court over something that belongs to you, give even more than what’s being demanded. If the other side is infringing on your freedom, go farther and do more than the bare minimum.

Exceptions to the rule

That said, if we’re consistently finding ourselves having to use these principles, it might be time to consider changing our environment or avoiding certain people. Turning the other cheek and sticking our face where it’s likely to get slapped are two different things.

Our job is to focus on doing what’s right, what’s good, remembering that God is in charge and He has a plan.Proverbs 22:3 tells us about the wisdom of foreseeing troubles, such as situations that might lead to conflict, and proactively avoiding them.

When we have actually wronged someone—or even when it can be perceived that we’ve wronged someone—we should be eager to make things right, even at our own loss.

But there are times, especially in the case of lawsuits, when we are justified in defending ourselves.

If, for example, a lawsuit is built on outright lies and would plunge us into financial ruin, or if an abusive spouse is fighting us for child custody rights—these are not scenarios where Christ asks us to stay quiet and let it happen. Paul’s willingness to use his legal protections (Acts 22:23-29) makes it clear that there are times when Christians can and should do the same.

Why we turn the other cheek

Where’s the dividing line? It’s not always as clear as we might like it to be. In a complicated situation, we might need to pray (and even fast!) and seek wise counsel before we understand how to proceed. But the principle Jesus gave us is clear:

Turning the other cheek isn’t about rolling over and playing dead at the first sign of conflict. It’s about choosing not to extract an eye for an eye, even when we believe we’re entitled to it. It’s about letting go of what we think we deserve so that others can see what it means to be a Christian in progress.

Taking an undeserved blow (real or metaphorical) might help resolve the issue. If it’s clear that we’re not trying to pick a fight—that we’re willing to let go of more than we need to—the other side might soften and relent.

Or maybe not. There’s no way to be sure. But it doesn’t matter. While resolving the conflict can be a wonderful byproduct of turning the other cheek, it’s not the reason we do it.

Peter said that Jesus Christ set an example for us when He died for our sins: “When you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: … who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:20-21, 23).

Jesus had every right to call down “more than twelve legions of angels” (Matthew 26:53) to rescue Himself from the people who wanted to kill Him. Instead, He left His fate in the hands of God the Father.

Christians must leave vengeance in God’s hands

Turning the other cheek can definitely feel like becoming a doormat—but what it really means is trusting God to take care of a situation that’s much bigger than we can handle. Paul reminded the Romans, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

Whether it solves the problem or not, the principle of turning the other cheek—of being more generous than we’re required to be, of doing more than is demanded of us—places the ultimate outcome in the hands of Him who judges righteously. “Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator” (1 Peter 4:19).

Will others try to take advantage of us when we turn the other cheek? Of course. But that’s not what matters. Our job is to focus on doing what’s right, what’s good, remembering that God is in charge and that He has a plan.

“And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Galatians 6:9).

Discover more about God’s plan for humanity in our seven-day Journey God’s Plan.

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Note: Thanks to the many ministers with years of counseling experience who gave their input!

About the Author

Jeremy Lallier

Jeremy Lallier

Jeremy Lallier is a full-time writer working at the Life, Hope & Truth offices in McKinney, Texas. He has a degree in information technology, three years’ experience in the electrical field and even spent a few months upfitting police vehicles—but his passion has always been writing (a hobby he has had as long as he can remember). Now he gets to do it full-time for Life, Hope & Truth and loves it. He particularly enjoys writing on Christian living themes—especially exploring what it looks like when God’s Word is applied to day-to-day life. In addition to writing blog posts, he is also the producer of the Life, Hope & Truth Discover video series and regularly writes for Discern magazine.

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