David L. Goetsch
For Christians—Turn About Is Not Fair Play (Matthew 5:39)
We have all had the experience of being hurt by someone we care about, embarrassed by a rude person, inconvenienced by an inconsiderate friend, condescended to by a know-it-all, stabbed in the back by a co-worker, or even betrayed by a loved one. In these kinds of situations, the urge to respond in-kind can be powerful. It is in our fallen nature to want to hurt those who hurt us—to get even.
Christians who respond in-kind when someone hurts them often cite Leviticus 24:17-22 as their justification claiming “…eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” But there is a problem with this justification. The laws set forth in Leviticus are old covenant laws. They applied before we had the new covenant as set forth in the New Testament.
To be clear, some of the old covenant laws carried over into the new covenant, but not all. The key is knowing which did and which didn’t. The simplest explanation of which old covenant laws still apply is this: If they are repeated in the New Testament, they still apply. If not, they don’t. The eye-for-an-eye clause in Leviticus 24:17-22 is an example of an old covenant law that did not carry over into the new covenant.
The New Testament contains numerous verses providing guidance for believers who are mistreated by a friend, loved one, co-worker, or even a stranger. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:39), Jesus uses the image of turning the other cheek to reject revenge and retaliation. From this passage it is clear that, for Christians, the maxim that turn-about is fair play does not apply. This is not to say, however, that Christians must meekly allow themselves to be abused by others. Unfortunately, Matthew 5:39 is sometimes misconstrued in this way.
In Matthew 5:39, Jesus is warning against responding in-kind to those who mistreat you. He isn’t requiring Christians to be door mats for thoughtless, inconsiderate, rude, or vindictive people. Some Christians who are averse to conflict use this verse from Matthew as an excuse for letting others run over them. This is not what Jesus intended. Christians are to stand up for themselves, for others who need help, and for what is right. The key to getting this right is in how we go about it.
When you are mistreated, it is important to stand your ground, but it is even more important to do so without becoming like those who abuse you. When someone treats you poorly, think of the message in Ephesians 4:15: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Speaking the truth in love when someone mistreats you means approaching them with the intent of showing them the face of Jesus in how you handle conflict.
When people mistreat you, begin by praying for them. Then let them know honestly and frankly you did not appreciate what they did. In the process, show them how to disagree without being disagreeable. As a Christian, you have the right to stand up for yourself but you have an even higher calling in these situations. That calling is the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20): “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Because we are called to carry out the Great Commission, being mistreated by someone doesn’t mean you have a chance to get even. Rather, it means you have an opportunity to introduce someone to Christ by how you handle the situation.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press and Christians on the Job: Winning at Work Without Compromising Your Faith, Salem Books, an imprint of Regnery Publishing, 2019: www.david-goetsch.com