What Does It Mean to Turn the Other Cheek?

Of all of Jesus’ teachings, the one at the end of Matthew 5 challenges me as much as any. This is where Jesus teaches how to navigate conflict. He tells us that we are to love our enemies; that we are to pray for those who persecute us; that we are to “turn the other cheek”.

Is it just me, or is this incredibly confusing? What exactly is God asking us to do?

turn cheek

Here’s what Jesus is NOT teaching in this passage: He is not commanding us to become perpetual martyrs or spiritual punching bags. He is not telling us to roll over and allow others to step on us while we do nothing. Also, He is NOT condemning anger. Jesus got angry, even to the point of lashing out at the people in the temple. And remember, He never sinned – not even once.

So what is Jesus saying? What does He mean when He tells us to love our enemies? And more importantly, how does this apply to the personal conflicts in my life?

The Problem

It is tough to navigate anger without sinning. So often, we heat up quickly and lash out at others, not for righteous purposes, but for selfish ones.

And once we get angry, pride enters the picture. This complicates everything, because once in the heat of battle, pride demands that I win. It demands that I stand my ground. It demands justice. I need to be proven right, publically, and I need the person who has offended me to be punished in some way.

Think about it another way: Pride says, “I have rights, and my rights have been violated. I demand justice.”

Now, compare that to Matthew 5. In essence, Jesus says, “In order to keep peace and love your neighbor, sometimes you must be willing to give up your rights.

What rights? Here are three:

1. The right to be angry – That is usually the first battle. When my wife and I have a disagreement and things start to feel a little tense, there is always a moment that I know I can make things right by backing down, or by at least reaching out in compromise.

The funny thing is, I don’t want to back down. I don’t want to apologize. Instead, I want to be angry. I want to just float in my anger for a while – to get all pruney in it. I have a right to be mad, and I cling to my anger.

In Matthew 5: 23-24, Jesus tells us that we need to settle things quickly. Don’t let them escalate. Anger acts like “spiritual cholesterol.” It clogs our spiritual arteries, hindering our prayers and our relationship with God and other people.

I don’t know another way to settle matters quickly than to give up your right to be angry and seek peace.

2. Your right to see justice. We are born with a desire for fairness. We want people to play by the rules. And when someone has personally wronged us, we want what is coming to us.

But Jesus doesn’t support that attitude. Instead, look again at verses 38-39. Jesus isn’t telling us that we have to let ourselves get beaten up. He is saying that justice for ourselves isn’t nearly as important as showing others the love of Jesus Christ. Neither is your “honor”. Neither is your property. Neither is your concept of fairness.

Nothing is more important than loving your Lord and loving your neighbor. Ultimately, God is just . . . but we are generally not called to administer justice for Him. Allow Him to take care of that in His on time.

3. Your right for revenge. Revenge, in this case, means more than justice. Justice means I get my due. Revenge means they get theirs.

You almost can’t watch a movie that doesn’t have an element of revenge in it. The good guy gets rich. The bad guy dies. And if it is a really good ending, the good guy has the privilege of pulling the trigger.

Somewhere inside of us, we all want that I think. We want our enemies to be shown up, to be fired or arrested or publically ridiculed. We want them to be exposed somehow.

But Jesus reminds us that God calls on us to love our enemies; that we are called to be kind and compassionate even to those who have offended us.

After all, anyone can love people who love them. But showing love to someone who hates you – that is Godly.

Finally, remember that Jesus modeled this principle.

  • He said, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other one also.” I wonder if He thought of those words as he was beaten by Roman guards.
  • He said, “If someone wants your tunic, give him your cloak as well.” He must have pondered that as the Guards cast lots for his clothes.
  • He said, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” And then, hanging in agony on the cross, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus didn’t just teach this. He lived it. He showed us a better way. Now it is up to us to follow His lead and remember that some things are bigger than us. Often, loving others means learning to give up our rights.

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