Christians frequently have to deal with the contention that walking in love is opening the door to be a victim. We’re told “to be loving all the time is to be a doormat, walked all over by everyone,” and that Christians need to stand up for our “rights.”
But this isn’t quite what scripture says, and the verses that cause most of the confusion are Matthew 5:39-45:
“But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also. Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you. You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust.”
What’s interesting about this is that it takes a situation where you were a victim and turns it into one where you’re empowered. Instead of having something taken, you are in the position of giving. You are regaining agency, the power to choose and do something, even while in the very circumstances that would try to deny you that power. You are living out Jesus’ words that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The first “doormat scenario” is one you couldn’t avoid—you were sued, you were struck, you were made to walk a mile. But the second is an opportunity and a choice, and when you choose to follow God’s direction and be generous, even to your enemy, you are trusting that God will take care of your needs and provide for you.
We can see this attitude in practice in Acts, when Paul and Silas were in the town of Philippi in Acts 16. They were accused of agitating the city and setting forth customs that were against Roman law. Then, they were beaten and thrown into prison. Instead of getting bitter against the magistrates and their jailer, though, and instead of looking for the first opportunity to escape, they sang in their jail cell until an earthquake took place.
“The jailer, being roused out of sleep and seeing the prison doors open, drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Don’t harm yourself, for we are all here!” (verse 27-28)
Instead of being bitter or hoping the jailer would come to an evil end for putting them in prison, Paul stopped the jailer from harming himself. This moved the jailer to come into their cell and fall down trembling, asking “What must I do to be saved?” They answered him, and he took them to his own house to have their wounds ministered to, so that, in the end, the jailer and all his household were baptized.
They could’ve had a very different reaction. There they were, just starting their ministry efforts in Macedonia in response to a dream Paul had, and the first thing that happens is imprisonment. They could’ve seen it as a sign from God that they weren’t supposed to be there. They could’ve decided they misinterpreted the dream or gotten depressed, and been eager to get out of town as soon as possible, without helping anyone else. But instead of plotting how they’d shake the dust from their feet and move on, they remained engaged in the situation, ready to minister while they were there, and thus they were able to share the gospel with the jailer and his family.
But the story doesn’t end there. The next morning, the magistrates sent for Paul and Silas and told the jailer to let them go. “The jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, ‘The magistrates have sent to let you go; now therefore come out, and go in peace.’ But Paul said to them, ‘They have beaten us publicly, without a trial, men who are Romans, and have cast us into prison! Do they now release us secretly? No, most assuredly, but let them come themselves and bring us out!” The sergeants reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Romans, and they came and begged them. When they had brought them out, they asked them to depart from the city. They went out of the prison, and entered into Lydia’s house. When they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them, and departed.” (verses 36-40)
This is a prime opportunity for “turning the other cheek” as Paul and Silas had already done with the jailer…of showing love and a lack of bitterness. And to an extent, they are still generous and giving. They don’t press charges and they don’t report the magistrates to the Roman officials, but they do insist on some of their rights. They don’t turn into a doormat, and I think part of their decision here is because of the reputation they would leave behind. If they were secretly dismissed, the new believers in the city might face further trouble, but by having the public see that the magistrates came and begged Paul and Silas to leave casts the situation in an entirely new perspective. It allows them to leave Philippi on a better footing with the government and with the townspeople, and it gives them time to encourage the new believers before they departed.
So clearly, following Jesus’ teaching about “turning the other cheek” doesn’t mean “let anyone do whatever they want with you and your stuff.” Instead, it is all about changing how you see persecution and refusing to allow troubles to turn you into “just a victim.” There is always a way to be generous, even in prison (as Paul demonstrated) and that act of obedience and giving can be what God uses to bring victory and turn the entire thing around.
Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren