How Serious Was Jesus About Turning the Other Cheek?

“Turn the other cheek.” Such a nice little cliché these days. Of course, these words come from the very mouth of God in Jesus Christ, so we should take them as having the utmost importance. Do we take them that way?

In modern American culture, we really act as though “turning the other cheek” were a joke. We would never laugh at or degrade the command, but our attitudes and advice betray us. What do I mean? For an example, let’s take a trip to Nickelodeon.

On Nickelodeon shows (think iCarly or Victorious), there is a recurring theme. The “good guys” (i.e. some of the main characters) are often wronged by the “bad guys” (random other characters, usually slightly less likable). So what do the main characters, who serve more or less as examples to the kids watching the shows, do in response? They get payback. Often with silly and elaborate plans, they avenge themselves and make fools of their enemies. And are they punished, reprimanded, or in any way shown as wrong for doing so? Never. Instead they are displayed as gloriously vindicated. Sweet revenge, on Nickelodeon, is a perfectly acceptable response to being wronged.

This is, of course, not limited to Nick. The same idea is present in mainstream TV for more grown up audiences, in their sitcoms and dramas. Even Disney has been picking up this revenge plot in recent years. And these shows are not setting the standard which the culture is prone to follow (unlike in certain other social issues like, to an extent, homosexuality), but instead reflect with at least some degree of accuracy the values of the people. Only a quick perusal of Facebook or a few minutes of eavesdropping (on people almost any age) is enough to see how ready and willing people are to stick up for their honor and hurt others. When people insult you, respond with a worse insult. If someone does you wrong, don’t let them get away unpunished. There is no thought to turning the other cheek.

You can even see this among Christians in ways just like the world, or sometimes in unique ways that are particularly detestable since they bear the name of our Lord Jesus. Consider the obnoxious, rude, and sinful bumper sticker with a cross which says, “If this offends you now, what until you see it at final judgment!” That attitude is nothing less than fleshly revenge against a world Jesus already told us would ridicule His people.

Of course, Jesus refuses to let us do any of this. Defending your own honor, getting revenge, or responding to people with insult are all clearly a violation of what Jesus said here:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.

Matthew 5:38-39

Remember that being slapped on the cheek isn’t really as much of a physical attack as an insult. Slapping someone in the face is a way to spite them. And what does Jesus say? When our reputation, honor, skills, or character are insulted or ridiculed, how should we respond? Turn the other cheek. Getting even, insult for insult and humiliation for humiliation, is explicitly forbidden. Instead, we are commanded to let them be. Do not retaliate. Don’t even bother sticking up for yourself. And why should we, anyway? There is no reason but pride. If an insult is true, we should simply listen and graciously acknowledge our fault. But if an insult is false, why bother responding? God will vindicate His people on His own time in His own way.

Despite the “amens” this might receive, Jesus’ command here is a completely countercultural idea. Our culture (along with most cultures throughout history) demands that we stick up for ourselves, defend our honor, and pay back those who wrong us. But Jesus calls us higher, to a better culture of love. In this culture, we do not get even, because vengeance is the Lord’s. Nothing we can do to a person compares to the judgment they receive from God for their sin, a judgment Jesus Himself took on the Cross. Indeed, responding to an insult with anything but kindness is an insult to God, which says to Him, “You didn’t do a good enough job judging their sin. Jesus didn’t suffer enough to cover an insult to me! In fact, I am more important than You are, since Jesus did not retaliate to those who insulted Him but remained silent.” That attitude is messed up.

So let’s review the calling: don’t bother defending yourself from people who insult you. Do not pay back anyone who wrongs you. Basically, don’t put any effort into showing that you are in the right, because if you are in the right, you have this word from God:

Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: “’Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay’, says the Lord.”

Romans 12:19

Instead, pray this prayer:

Vindicate me, LORD my God, in keeping with Your righteousness, and do not my enemies rejoice over me.

Psalm 35:24

(Heads up: “How Serious Was Jesus About…” will be an ongoing series.)

I'm 22. I'm married with a toddler and a newborn. love Jesus Christ. I grew up a Southern Baptist and now situate myself within Evangelical Calvinism (which isn't TULIP!). I also draw substantially from N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, and Alastair Roberts. I go to the Baptist College of Florida. I'm also a bit nerdy.