Exodus 21:24 of the Old Testament proposes a legal guideline for punishments, which is “an eye for an eye.” The purpose of this guideline was to ensure that no person endured a sentence more severe than the crime itself. The principle remains today in modern legal codes under the name Lex Talionis, meaning Law of Retaliation.
While many people even today abide by the “eye for an eye” rule, Jesus, in his infinite wisdom, knew that two wrongs do not make a right. Though in Matthew 5:38-39, he encourages followers to “not resist evil,” he implores them to “turn the other cheek.” But what does that mean?
The Real Meaning of “Turn the Other Cheek”
Before you can break down the meaning of this curious phrase, first really pay attention to how it is worded. In the passage, Jesus encourages disciples to not resist evil persons. “Resist,” as it is used throughout the New Testament and Greek writings, referred to legal disputes. In context, Jesus is encouraging followers to not engage in legal disputes with adversaries, even if the other party is in the wrong.
He then goes on to say, “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” The key words here are “slaps” and “right cheek.” In Jesus’s time, a slap was considered an insult and a sign of disrespect. More insulting than a slap, however, was a backhanded slap. Considering most people are right-handed, the type of slap to which Jesus is likely referring is of the backhanded variety. If he is referring to a left-handed slap, he is referring to weakness or impurity.
In essence, what he is saying in this passage is that if anyone metaphorically slaps you — whether out of disrespect, shame, hatred or misguidance — it is not advisable to retaliate. When someone lashes out without justification, retaliation would only increase conflict and neither right nor mitigate it.
How To Turn the Other Cheek
You may come face-to-face with many people in your life who wrong you, and you may feel tempted to inflict similar harm on them, but before you do, really consider Jesus’s words. Would retaliation help your situation? If the answer is no (which it is more often than not), use Jesus’s advice and turn the other cheek. If your pride makes it difficult for you to do so, try the following:
- Show Grace: No one is perfect, and that includes you. When another person shows an error in judgement, commentary or behavior, reflect back on times when you made mistakes. Consider how others reacted to your errors, and reflect and learn from them.
- Rely on Prayer: If you find it difficult to show grace, turn to prayer. Prayer allows you to take your grievances to God while at the same time show concern for others. It can also calm you and offer you guidance when you need it the most.
- Love Others: The first and second commandments have to do with loving your Lord with all your heart and loving your neighbor as you would yourself. Oftentimes, loving others means showing self-restraint, seeking common ground and going above and beyond the call of duty to foster peace with them.
- Walk Away: Unfortunately, there will be some actions or behaviors that are so hurtful or intense that grace, prayer or love cannot overcome them. When this is the case, choose to walk away. You may not resolve the situation with the other party in doing so, but you can prevent causing further emotional harm to yourself and further damage to your relationship.
Turning the other cheek does not mean you must take verbal, physical or emotional abuse. It simply means you must be the bigger person to preserve peace and, ultimately, your emotional health.