We are called to turn the other cheek; to love and forgive people who hurt us, no matter what. No matter what? Does the Bible actually say that? Did Jesus actually say that? Are we actually supposed to live that way?
How many times?
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven).
Matthew 18:21-22 (NIV)
The point isn’t to provide an exact number, Jesus was addressing Peter’s cultural question. At that time, Jews were taught to forgive someone up to seven times. Jesus says that, seven is nowhere near enough! However, it does not mean we allow people to mistreat us. It can be appropriate to create clear boundaries – stating that a particular behavior is not acceptable. This means simply being clear about acceptable behavior. Something like this:
“I love you, and when you behave in this manner, I cannot be part of it.”
This requires tremendous discipline to continuously reach out to the other person and confirm your love for them through your actions as well as your words, all while maintaining an appropriate distance to keep yourself safe from physical or emotional abuse if that’s what’s going on.
Not a Doormat and Not Striking Back
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
Matthew 5:38-41 (NIV)
In these verses, we read about someone being struck on the right cheek. This is an insult – not just getting hit. The right cheek is struck with a backhand – it’s telling someone they are lower than you are. Offering someone your left cheek means that you demand to be treated properly. Striking someone on the left with a forehand is something done between equals. You don’t strike back, you simply say, your insult is not acceptable behavior.
Coat and Shirt
People in the time of Jesus wore two articles of clothing – the coat – outer garment, and the tunic (shirt) – inner garment. To a Jew at the time of Christ, it was a worse sin to see someone naked than to be naked. So, when you give someone your shirt after they take your coat, you’re saying, “if you’re going to take that from me, you’re going to be in a worse situation than I am.”
The Extra Mile
Also, at the time Christ spoke these words, a Roman soldier could give his pack to someone and make them carry it one mile out of the city or town. Each mile was marked on the road – just like our highways today. This is where we get the expression about going the extra mile. It’s not just being good to someone you like, it’s about being good to someone who treats you poorly.
A Different Standard
This appears similarly in Luke:
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.
Luke 6:27-33 (NIV)
Finally – note how those verses show we, Christians, are called to a higher standard of love than other people. We are supposed to act in loving ways toward people even when they are cruel to us. However, we are not called to be the doormats of the world. It’s not just our behavior of course, it’s our hearts and minds that God wants.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:2 (NIV)
After all, that’s our focus – to please God.