Turning the Other Cheek

Turning the Other Cheek

Many, many thanks for all the birthday wishes, cards and gifts. Your generosity in all forms is beyond kind and very humbling — much more a reflection of your character than mine.

Also, it’s late notice, but tomorrow at 3:00 during (unfortunately) the CPC picnic, a memorial for Marge Hanon will be held at the church. Though in recent years she wasn’t out and about much, Marge had been our neighbor much of her life (the white house at the church entrance). You are welcome to join us.

Relative to the recent sermons on loving enemies, a friend wrote with questions about whether we should turn the other cheek in cases of battery, bullying, abuse and so on. It’s an important question and touches on what are infamously difficult nuances in the study of biblical ethics. I won’t do justice to it here, and I’m away on vacation for a couple weeks, but here are some thoughts. Two things to begin: on one hand, scripture does not envision pointless suffering (a battered wife, a bullied child, an abused worker); on the other, it proposes a degree of trust in God that leaves most of us very uncomfortable. [My last point/quote may be the most useful for most of us.]

On the notion of trust, think of Heb. 10:32ff — “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.”

There’s no avoiding that this is about enduring great injustice. Insult, persecution, confiscation of property. The events being described would have been similar to those endured by Jews in Germany in the late 1930s. What sustains believers — or what is supposed to sustain us and give us hope — is the vision of receiving “what he has promised.” Much of the NT commentary on suffering is about preparing us for the difficult, or excruciating, moment when it is required of us.

But notice the unspoken sub-text in most NT discussions of suffering is witness-bearing. This is not suffering for suffering’s sake, but suffering as an expression of faithfulness. So 1 Peter 2:21: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

I won’t go on, but suffering in Scripture almost always has this kind of purpose. When we are commanded to turn the other cheek, the purpose is witness-bearing or, say it another way, conducting ourselves in a way that outsiders would recognize as Christ-like. If this purpose cannot be said to exist in the daily verbal abuse you receive from your boss, then it may be time to get a new job. If the abuse is coming from your spouse the answer is more complicated, but you are not required to simply endure. There is no godly fruit or purpose in it. Seek wise counsel and, if necessary, refuge. In the Reformed tradition, in some cases, abuse may be understood as abandonment of the marriage covenant.

All that being true, the persecution and suffering likely to come to most of us will be more confusing. T.S. Eliot, speaking in the UK 70 years ago, said it this way:

Thus the profession of Christianity might become, if not exactly dangerous, at least disadvantageous; and it is sometimes harder to endure disadvantage than to face danger; harder to live meanly than to die as a martyr. Already, we say, we are a minority. We cannot impose our standards upon that majority when it explicitly rejects them; too often, mingling with that majority, we fail to observe them ourselves. Like every minority, we compound with necessity, learning to speak the language of the dominant culture because those whose language it is will not speak ours; and in speaking their language, we are always in danger of thinking their thoughts and behaving according to their code. In this perpetual compromise, we are seldom in a position to pass judgment on other Christians, in their peculiar individual temptations: it is hard enough, reviewing our own behavior, to be sure when we have done the right or the wrong thing. But we can and should be severe in our judgment of ourselves. For most of us the occasion of the great betrayal on the clear issue will never come: what I fear for myself is the constant, daily, lack of courage in lesser things.