If you grew up with one or more siblings or you have raised multiple children, then you know how it goes. One child comes crying to his mother because his brother hit him. Mom goes to the other boy and tells him he shouldn’t hit his brother. The boy responds, “But he hit me first.” After this goes back and forth a few times, Mom finally announces that nobody is to hit anyone — it doesn’t matter who did it first. And she reminds them that she and Dad are the ones in charge of giving out punishments — none of the children should take matters into their own hands.
Sadly, the above type of scenario is not limited to children. Many people go about seeking revenge against others who they feel have wronged them in some way. Perhaps their thinking is “Nobody does this to me and gets away with it” or “I’m going to teach them a lesson.” In reality, acts of revenge generally lead to further retaliation back and forth, continually escalating until everyone involved has been injured in some way, and they may even forget how the whole thing even got started.
Even if you could somehow strike back and have it end there, the whole concept of carrying around bad feelings toward another person and seeking an opportunity to hurt them — whether physically, emotionally, financially, or in any way — is clearly not a way for a follower of Christ to be living. Imagine other people hearing that you methodically planned and executed actions to hurt another person — would it make everything OK to say, “Well, he hit me first”?
Sometimes, people who are bent on revenge will quote from the Old Testament where it says, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (see Exodus 21:24). They mistakenly think this means that if someone hurts you in some way, then you get to hurt them back in the same way. If you read the entire chapter of Exodus 21, you see that this section of the Law of Moses was actually intended to guide the judges of the time in how to assess punishment for various incidents.
At the time of Jesus, there were likely also people who thought themselves entitled to seek revenge under the “eye for an eye” concept. So, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lets the people know that revenge is wrong on every level. It’s not condoned by the Law of Moses and it’s especially wrong for a follower of Christ. The way He puts it is:
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39)
The advice of Jesus to “turn the other cheek” is a phrase that is quoted quite often. However, it’s usually quoted in such a way as to make it sound like you would have to either be idealistic to think you could do this or you would have to be crazy. After all, who in their right mind would react to someone hitting them in the face by inviting them to hit them again on the other cheek?
Jesus is not really saying that we should let people continue to hurt us. What He is saying is that carrying a desire for revenge in your heart is so abhorrent that it would be better to let the other person hit you again than to seek revenge against them. There are, of course, other options — you can walk away, take steps to protect yourself, etc. But if the only two options are to seek revenge or turn the other cheek, the second option is the preferred way to go.
Jesus so wants to drive home this point that He gives additional examples in the verses that follow, saying if someone sues you and takes away your coat, then give him your cloak too, or if someone forces you to go a mile, go two miles. In each case, the recommended action — though it adds to the pain inflicted — is still better than carrying a desire for revenge in your heart.
So, are we just supposed to let people get away with doing whatever they want to us? Well, let’s let the Apostle Paul answer that question:
“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:19,21)
Just like Mom and Dad are in charge of giving out the punishments to the children, let God be in charge of dealing with those who hurt us. It’s OK to protect yourself from being hurt further, but the most important thing to protect is your heart. Don’t let someone else’s evil actions turn you into someone who is equally evil, seeking to hurt someone else. Imagine being in prayer at such a time and telling the Lord, “Well, he hit me first.”
This article has undergone ministry review and approval.