“But he hit me first!”
Anybody who grew up with siblings has tried this line before. I’m not sure where we all get it from, but this idea of “You hurt me so I can hurt you” seems to be one that every kid needs to unlearn at some point. Some catch on quicker than others.
Today’s question focuses on boundaries, retaliation and turning the other cheek: When Jesus says Christians are called to turn the other cheek, how is that reconciled with setting healthy boundaries in relationships? (i.e. not staying in an abusive relationship)
For starters, context is everything
As with any part of the Bible, it’s important for us to look at these verses with an awareness of what’s going on around them. When we look at all the topics covered in Matthew 5, we see that most of them have to with either love or the lack of it. Anger. Lust. Retaliation. Loving your enemies. They all fall under that umbrella. Noticing that theme helps us interpret the bigger picture of each section.
With that framework, we can get at the heart of verses 38-42:
Simply put, this passage challenges us not to retaliate against the people who wrong us. The verses that follow challenge us to love and pray for our enemies. In Jesus’ day, slapping somebody was viewed as more of an insult than a physical attack. And so, the call to turn the other cheek is ultimately a call to choose love over our own pride. This kind of humility surprises your enemy with a glimpse into Christ’s mercy. I’m reminded of Paul’s words in Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
While forming my response to this question, I came across several articles that touched on the provided example about turning the other cheek to an abuser. There are many people who choose to isolate this verse and point to it as a commandment to stay in an abusive relationship. That’s a very harmful and narrow misinterpretation of this passage. The aim in turning the other cheek is to effect change and repentance in the person committing violence against you. Silently and repeatedly allowing yourself to be abused won’t break the cycle of evil. In that situation, turning the other cheek might look like choosing not to hurt the person back or seek revenge once you’ve escaped to safety.
Jesus Himself spoke out when the high priest struck Him while He was being questioned (John 18:23). He wasn’t silent to abuse in the name of turning the other cheek—and you shouldn’t be either.
Laying your life down is not the same as somebody taking it from you
When I came across this point in my research, I heard the light switch flip in my head. It showed up in a Gospel Coalition article (link in “Resources”) written by Bay area pastor Chris Nye. Here’s what he had to say on this point about turning the other cheek(Nye, pars. 4-5):
To me, this was a much-needed reminder of Jesus’ intentionality in staying true to His mission. Every decision He made during His earthly ministry was made with Calvary and resurrection in mind. Whenever we see Jesus turning the other cheek (Matt. 26:49-50, 63, 27:24), we know He’s not doing it in a spirit of passivity. It’s an active sacrifice and surrendering of Himself with the goal of accomplishing the greater mission of reconciling us to God. He was always acting out of His known purpose, which included actively giving of Himself to others rather than passively being taken from by other.
We need to draw healthy boundaries...just like Jesus did
As we think through how to reconcile turning the other cheek with setting healthy boundaries, Jesus’ example gives us a great benchmark. After being arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was silent in His pain, knowing that the suffering to come was the fulfillment of His mission on earth. But whenever Jesus was faced with a task outside of the scope His known purpose, He drew boundaries in service to His ultimate mission.
One example of this can be found in Luke 12, when a person in the crowd calls upon Jesus to settle a dispute between him and his brother. He says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (12:13). First off, bold move telling Jesus what to do—just sayin’. But He responds by saying, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” (12:14). Nye comments on this moment as well, saying that, “Jesus understood when he was being asked to do things outside of the focus of his ministry. He knew his calling, he knew his ministry, and he protected these things while remaining remarkably compassionate” (Nye, par 8).
Jesus pushed back when confronted with distractions from His mission. I believe that we as Christians need to do the same. We know the callings that He has given us (Matt. 28:19-20; Matt. 22:37-40) and if there are people or commitments that are preventing us from fulfilling them, we honor Him by drawing healthy boundaries.
So now what?
We focused a lot on extremes in this response. Abuse. “Life-sucking individuals.” Drawing boundaries. We’ve acknowledged that turning the other cheek is not synonymous with allowing manipulative people to rule your life. All of that is true and biblical and important.
Now, after addressing the extremes, I want to challenge you to turn the other cheek more often than you want to. More often than your pride tells you to. I promise you this: You do not need to be right all the time. You don’t need to have the final word and win every argument. You don’t need to take revenge or enact justice when you’ve been wronged. And you don’t need to make your enemies “pay” because Jesus has already paid for them—and for you.
Call me a broken record, but every question that we’ve explored so far has boiled down to one action: love. This question is no different. The love of Christ has fully reconciled us to God, which compels us to love one another in selfless and uncomfortable ways that often defy our hunger for justice. And so, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).