“Turn the other cheek,” Jesus taught. “If someone takes your shirt give him your coat. Bless those who curse you.” (Matthew 5:39, Luke 6:29). Was Jesus crazy? Was he telling us to let ourselves be abused? To live in shame and in fear with no boundaries of self-protection? No!
For most people the “Love your enemy” teachings of Jesus’ are painfully misunderstood or seem impossible. And yet every week, if not every day, you and I are insulted, criticized, or mistreated by someone. It’s important that we learn how to deal with these situations in the way of Jesus.
I’ve learned about turning the other cheek in my work as a Psychologist, from my mentor Dallas Willard, and, most of all, from practicing obedience to Jesus by relying on the Holy Spirit. (In “Jesus’ Greatest Teaching: Living the Sermon on the Mount Today” I offer fresh insights and applications from Matthew 5 to 7.)
When Jesus says, “Love your enemies” he is teachings us how to deal with people who have been mean to us! Contrary to what people think, he is empowering us! He is training us to deal with conflict by using a form of spiritual Jujitsu or martial arts. Learning to obey Jesus’ teachings is good for us and our relationships!
In the Gospels we read Jesus’ teachings on anger and we see him live it out when he is mistreated many, many times. Jesus is peaceful and strong. He has good internal boundaries of self-protection that enable him to remain secure and confident when he is criticized, rejected, or even abused. Again and again Jesus shows us how to speak the truth in love.
In tense and angry situations, when Jesus was being judged, baited, or hit look at how he responds: He tells a story, asks a question, calmly explains, heals people, wiggles out of traps, walks away, prays, or silently accepts the mistreatment. In all cases he holds his ground, de-escalates the conflict, and speaks the truth in love.
Jesus practiced what he preached! “Make the first move to resolve a conflict. Turn the other cheek. Bless those who curse you. Pray for your enemies. Take the log out of your own eye before you remove the speck in another’s eye.”
Jesus’ way of dealing with aggression revolutionary! It’s so wise, so beautiful, so strong, and so different from what is normally done. If someone hits you on the cheek and you strike him back then they know what to do next: hit you harder! But if, in strength and love, you turn your other cheek then he doesn’t know what to do! He’s never seen that response. It confuses him. It may frighten him. It may convict him. You’ve turned the tables on your offender.
Can You Live without Angry Retaliations?
Blessing those who curse you does not mean having no boundaries. It doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be wounded in ways that frighten you or leave you feeling bad about yourself. The power to bless those who curse you comes from having the strong boundaries that are part of a mature, godly character. Boundaries have to do with self-definition and the capacity to say yes and no. Jesus Set Boundaries and we need to also.
The problem here is that our anger and pride get in the way of us seeing that the person who has offended us does not need a cursing back, but a blessing from God. Are you willing to let go of your anger? Do you want to live without using anger to fight back or get your way? You might be afraid to face mean people or conflicts without aggression. It doesn’t feel safe. It doesn’t seem right. Sometimes we just need to fight back, don’t we?
Time and again I have encountered this in my therapist’s office when working with couples. I see what Jesus is talking about right in front of my eyes: criticism and counterattack — the hurt spouse hurts back or gets defensive to ward off guilt. I can sympathize. Before I learned how to implement Jesus’ way I usually responded to criticism in the same way.
Trying Hard won’t Work
Some of us do want to be like Jesus and so we try hard. But when we’re mistreated sometimes we still lose our temper, get emotionally beat up, or become tongue-tied. Is it even possible for us to live these teachings of Jesus? Afterall, Jesus was the Son of God and we’re just human beings.
If we understand teachings like “Bless those who curse you” as a legalism – a standard we have to measure up to by trying hard – then the answer is no, it’s not possible. This was the approach the Pharisees took. They mustered up all their moral muscle to keep the law. They were religious perfectionists, devoted legalists. But they failed to live the law because their hearts were wrong. God’s law wasn’t in their hearts. They didn’t rely on his strength; they didn’t depend on him to make them righteous people on the inside.
But turning the other cheek is not a legalism — it’s a teaching. To turn the other cheek is not something we do directly by trying hard to do it; we do it indirectly.
When someone insults you the way you are able to turn the other cheek in love is if you first step into the kingdom of God, rather than taking matters into your own hands (which is what we normally do in response to our problems). To step into the kingdom of the heavens is to appreciate that you are living in a world in which God loves you and Jesus is at your side to help you, your identity is in being the Father’s beloved son or daughter. From this God-blessed and God-empowered position you can readily offer a blessing to someone who curses you instead of a retaliation or getting defensive.
Dallas Willard uses “jujitsu” to illustrate the way that Jesus is teaching us for dealing with mistreatment. Jujitsu is a Japanese method for defending yourself without weapons by using the force of your adversary to disable him. Jesus jujitsu upsets the dynamics of a situation.
If someone curses you and you curse him back then he knows exactly what to do. But if you bless him then he doesn’t know what to do! Jesus is teaching us a kind of spiritual martial arts for those who put their faith in him and live within the reality of the invisible Kingdom of the Heavens in their midst.
Martial arts is about more than physical techniques for self-defense. True, martial artists develop physical strength and learn skills for disarming and restraining others. They learn to fight and even become able to inflict serious harm on another person. But true Martial Artists do not want to injure others! They want to perfect their own character and their way of reacting to life situations. Through disciplined training from a master then learn things like focus, timing, balance, composure, self-control, responsibility, and respect. Experts in martial arts develop mastery over their bodies and minds and are prepared when conflicts or dangers arise.
I Learned to Bless those who Cursed Me
Let me share with you a simple, concrete example from my life. Some time ago I started trying to implement the teachings of Jesus in how I drive. This might seem like a trivial thing, but it’s something I do everyday and it gives me a specific situation to practice trusting Jesus to transform me. Besides when I’m driving I’m praying anyway. For me, driving to and from work is an opportunity either for silence and solitude or for listening to Christian teaching on CD.
My temptation in the car has been to use the power of my engine to race ahead and to assert my rights that people not cut in front of me. And when people do cut me off or ride my bumper or do something else rude my typical response was to get irritated and perhaps angry. You know how it goes: “You’re not going to get ahead of me!… No, you can’t squeeze in there – I’ll make sure of it!… That was rude and dangerous! What a jerk. Oh, you cut me off. That’s not right. I’ll show you and I’ll get ahead and cut you off.”
Do Jesus’ teachings apply here? “Turn the other cheek. If someone asks for your shirt give him your coat. Bless those who curse you and pray for those who persecute you.” Yes, they do. Through prayer and trusting Jesus I can respond differently:
“Don’t get mad, Bill. Look to Jesus. Let the person cut in. Smile. Pray for him, he might be having a hard day. ‘Yes, Lord I pray that you would keep him safe for his family and help him to rest in your love and to honor the name of Jesus.”
The most wonderful part of this is that God by trusting Jesus in my driving I’m progressing in trusting him in other areas of my day-to-day life when people are rude, cut in front of me, or just get angry with me.
Please don’t be impressed with me — admire Jesus who is driving with me and is having greater influence in me. I still haven’t put a fish on my car! I still have so much to learn as Jesus’ apprentice. I share this story because if God can help a Type A, competitive, irritable man like me to be more at peace and considerate of others then he can do the same with you when you’re mistreated.
Apprentice Yourself to Jesus
By apprenticing ourselves to Jesus and learning to obey his teachings on loving our enemies we’re not just implementing new behaviors or skills: we’re become a different kind of person, an agape-infused person. When we develop the character of love then new and positive behaviors will naturally emerge from this when we’re mistreated. In other words, we need to do our training and personal growth prior to the conflict or crisis.
Here are some of the healthy and holy characteristics of those who discipline themselves in the way of Jesus jujitsu:
- aware of danger, not idealizing
- peaceable, not angry
- assertive, not aggressive
- self-controlled, not impulsive
- confident in God’s power in us, not afraid
- secure in God’s acceptance, not ashamed
- relying emotionally on God and Christ’s Ambassadors, not on unsafe people
- willing to look foolish for Jesus’ sake, not wanting to impress
A Peace Training Program
What might it look like to train with Jesus and learn to deal with conflicts in his way? How do you and I learn to deal with anger in the strong and loving way that Jesus did? Here are some examples of lessons that you may need to learn in order to become the kind of person who can turn the other cheek and love your enemy:
Ask for what you need
“Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (John 16:24). To be of help to others we need to be getting our needs met by God and the Body of Christ. This way we can give out of fullness and not out of compulsion or emptiness.
“Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13)
Work through repressed anger. If you have unresolved anger over past hurts or disappointments and someone gets angry at you look out! This is an example of someone “pushing your button.”
Strengthen your Boundaries
You can’t really say yes if you can’t say no. To strengthen your boundaries means to increase self-awareness, establish self-identity, admit limitations, and exercise your “no” muscle.
“Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No'” (Matthew 5:37).
Practice the “Think-Feel-Do Triangle”
Think and feel about what happens (think about your feelings and feel about your thoughts, back and forth) before you speak or act. Reflect and make a wise choice.
“O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:1, 23-24).
Self-denial is not self-negation nor is it self-shaming. To practice self-denial you need to have a sense of self or soulfulness that you’re aware of and see the value of. When you have “self” then you can deny what you want in order to love God and others.
“Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?'” (Luke 9:23-25).
There are many spiritual disciplines that are ways to practice self-denial:
- Fasting: going without food or some pleasure for a period of time
- Silence: listening to others, not defending or promoting your self or otherwise managing what others think about you
- Secrecy: not telling others of your achievements
- Service: putting the welfare of others ahead of your own. Take the position of the last, lowest, and least. Let others be first, highest, and best.
Abandon outcomes to God
I learned this concept from Dallas Willard and it’s been so helpful to me. Don’t try to control how situations go for you or what people think. Trust that the Lord is sovereign and that he is working all things for your good (Romans 8:28).
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition present your requests to God and the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). Anxiety is a control problem of trying to manage the outcomes of dreams, projects, people, situations. It’s usurping the Lord’s Sovereignty; it’s lack of trust.
Anticipate and welcome trials as growth opportunities
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe” (James 1:2-6).
Practice being Assertive (Instead of Being Passive or Aggressive)
“Speak the truth in love. In your anger do not sin” is Paul’s wise counsel in Ephesians 4:15, 26). This is being assertive. Jesus was very assertive. Even in becoming our sacrificial lamb and embracing the cross he was strong and confronted people with love.
Avoid passivity. This is going into the “depressive position,” internalizing anger and feeling bad about yourself. This is taking a victim role of “I’m bad.” It’s an implosion against the self that God loves.
Avoid aggressiveness. Don’t react in anger by fighting back or seeking revenge. This puts you in the abuser role: “You’re bad.” Exploding with blame doesn’t help you and it hurts the other person.
Be assertive. Speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15): Instead of the extremes of imploding or exploding you’re responding (thinking and feeling before you say or do). Your attitude is, “I matter and you matter. I care about you and me.”
Appeal to “the light of Christ” in others
As I read earlier, Jesus said that we’re to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us because our Heavenly Father causes the sun to rise not just for good people, but also for the evil (Matthew 5:44-45).
Years ago George Fox practiced this. He was the founder of the Quaker movement. His teachings to his followers were very profound. They were persecuted and often killed in England. He taught his people to address that of Christ in every man. So when someone is attacking you then you address that of Christ in him. That doesn’t mean that all people have trusted in Christ for salvation. He is simply referring to the fact Jesus Christ is the one that lights every human being. There is in every human being a sense of God.
When you are caught in a conflict with someone who is mistreating you remember that the other person is not totally unconnected with God. God is bearing a witness in that person. Appeal to that – not to the power of your fist to strike back!
Learn to accept persecution but not abuse
This is a very important clarification! I don’t want you to think that I’m throwing you out at sea in shark infested waters! Peter teaches us that some suffering is according to God’s will and some is not (1 Peter 4:19), some is persecution that brings honor to the name of Jesus and some is evil that promotes sin (1 Peter 4:14-16). If someone is abusive you it’s important that you have the boundaries and inner strength not to be hurt, shamed, or scared by it. And you may need to stand up to it in the love of Jesus to protect yourself. Love is a power.
If someone is raging or swearing at you then you may need to calmly and firmly say, “It’s not okay for to talk to me that way.”
If a neighbor keeps talking and talking even after you’ve said you need to wind down the conversation then offer empathic words and reinforce your limit. You might say, “I understand you have more you want to say but I do need to get going. Would you like me to pray for you first?”
If a co-worker mistreats you “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). If you can stay out a posture of shame or being frozen by fear then you can endure persecution for Christ’s sake.
If you’re not strong enough internally to deal with a certain instance of abuse (you’re overwhelmed or trembling) or if doing so would harm you or the other person then you can walk away. As we saw Jesus did that when angry mobs came at him.
Do all these things prayerfully and with the support of a spiritual friend
Jesus said that when two or three of us gather to pray in his name that he is there with us (Matthew 18:20). There is power in praying together, in supporting one another as apprentices of Jesus. We need one another. We are “Christ’s Ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20) to help one another to trust in God’s grace.
Living the Sermon on the Mount
“Jesus’ Greatest Teaching” offers a fresh reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and a tool to apply it to your daily life. It’s based on insights from Matthew 5 to 7 and The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.
You’ll discover how apprenticing yourself to Christ can help you overcome problems with anger, lust, deceit, and relational conflict. You’ll learn to find your security and peace in the Father’s world in the midst of your daily life stressors.
This resource is great for personal devotions or small groups. It features a four-week guide with inspiring readings, spiritual experiments, and soul talk questions.
You can download this 42-page PDF booklet here.
Look How Jesus Loves Blesses His Enemies
Jesus’ lifetime of spiritual training and trust in God his Father is what enabled him to bleed out his love for us and for all people, even his enemies. The ancient Stations of the Cross use Gospel passages to bring us the passion of the Christ, the forgiveness of our sins and new life in his name.
I invite you to join me in this blessed crosswalk. It’ll shape you to be more peaceful, loving, and powerful like Jesus himself. It’ll show you how you can live your daily life with Jesus in the Kingdom of God.
It’s here in my 68-page booklet, Unforsaken: With Jesus on the Stations of the Cross.