In his book Simple Faith, Charles Swindoll told the following story…
A successful Irish boxer was converted and became a preacher. He happened to be in a new town setting up his evangelistic tent when a couple of tough thugs noticed what he was doing. Knowing nothing of his background, they made a few insulting remarks. The Irishman merely turned and looked at them. Pressing his luck, one of the bullies took a swing and struck a glancing blow on one side of the ex-boxer’s face. He shook it off and said nothing as he stuck out his jaw. The fellow took another glancing blow on the other side. At that point the preacher swiftly took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, and announced, “The Lord gave me no further instructions.” Whop!
Although I certainly believe that one has the right to defend himself or herself, I do not necessarily believe this is what Jesus meant when He instructed us to turn the other cheek. Instead, I believe Jesus was providing us with initial instructions regarding how we should respond when we have been wronged.
Often times, our immediate response to being wronged is to enforce the conflict resolution process Jesus provided in Matthew 18:15-17. To be fair, this strategy is biblical and useful in many situations; however, it may not always be the right starting point for dealing with an offense. Matthew 18 is not the only place in Scripture where Jesus provided instructions regarding conflict resolution. So, before we begin employing that process, we first need to consider whether or not the issue can be overlooked because the first option we have when it comes to how we respond to being wronged is to “turn the other cheek.”
In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus addressed whether or not one should retaliate when wronged. Mosaic Law permitted equal retribution but Jesus said,
“Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
Before we go any further, we should clarify what Jesus was NOT saying when He instructed us to turn the other cheek, give the shirt off our back, and go the extra mile.
- Jesus was not saying that we should be silent when unrighteousness or social injustice persists. In fact, one of God’s expectations of the children of Israel was that they “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice” (Amos 5:15). Remember, Jesus took action in the temple when He witnessed the infringement of the greedy vendors on the religious rites of the Gentile worshippers in the temple complex (John 2:13-16).
- Additionally, Jesus was not saying that we should allow ourselves to be unconditionally “walked on” and mistreated, nor is He approving of physical, emotional, or psychological abuse. Remember, Paul used his Roman citizenship to protect his rights when necessary (Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:8-12).
So, what is Jesus saying? The instructions to turn the other cheek, give the shirt off our back, and go the extra mile are Jesus’ way of teaching us to be merciful. His objective is for His disciples to be willing and prepared to react to some offenses with mercy and forgiveness rather than justice and fairness.
Just a few verses later, Jesus presented the model prayer, which included the phrase “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Immediately after He concluded the model prayer, Jesus decided to elaborate on this portion of the prayer. He did not elaborate on the part where He said “Your kingdom come, Your will be done,” and He did not elaborate on the part where He said, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Instead, He chose to elaborate on the part where He spoke about forgiveness. The fact that Jesus pinpointed this particular subject as needing further commentary is an indication of how important forgiveness is. In His own commentary on His own prayer Jesus said in Matthew 6:14-15,
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
It is worth noting that in this passage Jesus did not qualify conditions that must be met in order for forgiveness to be offered. He did not indicate that forgiveness must be preceded by an apology, penitent activity, or restitution. That is not to say that such actions on the part of the offender should not occur (Matthew 5:23-24) nor is that to say that sins can be forgiven apart from repentance (Luke 17:3). Instead, the lack of this information should serve as an indicator of the fact that, when Jesus addressed this subject, He was focused on the reaction of the offended rather than the offender, and He was focused on how one responds to being hurt or mistreated rather than how one responds to the presence of sin.
Why was Jesus focused on these things? I think it is because He wanted to ensure that His disciples modeled their reactions to offenses after His reaction to offenses. Throughout the New Testament we are instructed to “be merciful,…as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) and to “forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). Remember, God initiated forgiveness toward us “while we were still sinners” and “while we were enemies” (Romans 5:8, 10). Therefore, Jesus is implementing an expectation that as bearers of His name we should extend the same mercy and forgiveness that was extended toward us by God to those who offend us whenever it is possible.
So, here is the point, if you can assume the offense, the issue, or the problem was a mistake, then forgive it immediately and, thereby, overlook it. Before you jump to conclusions and initiate a conflict resolution process, ask yourself the following questions. Was the offense out of character based on your knowledge of and relationship with the other person? Is it possible that you misunderstood what was said or done by the other person? Are there any other factors that could have contributed to the offender’s behavior? Take a moment to explore the possibility of immediate forgiveness, realizing that overlooking an offense is not a mark of weakness or naiveté but is an indicator of spiritual maturity. As Solomon said in Proverbs 19:11, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”