Have you ever been in a relationship with someone that you could not get through to? They just don’t seem to have understand? You try. You explain. You think this is really simple. You try again. They’re actions are hurting themselves and others. You just want what is good for them, but they won’t stop. You try again. Unfortunately, they want what they want when they want it and nothing will stop them from getting what they want. This is called addiction and it always leads to some form of abuse of themselves and others. They will stop at no lengths and destroy wealth, health and relationships. In essence, evil is winning the day. This could be a relationship of a parent with an addicted child who steals from them, a wife with an abusive husband who hurts her, or even a business partner who sues. Anytime there is a relationship that you truly care for and you don’t want to have simply end there is a tendency to beg and plead in order to make change happen.
In response to these situations some have pointed to Matt. 5:39 as a means of dealing with such evil, which reads, “But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” They state this with the idea that there is nothing we can do but sit and take it. But, are we to just let evil flourish and do nothing? Are there no other options but to be beat up? How is that helpful to anyone involved? As with all Scripture, there can be a variety of applications and we need to look for wisdom so that we don’t apply a single scripture to all situations.
The law in most Eastern cultures at the time was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Jesus is saying here, “don’t stoop down to their level by doing evil back to them. The law will take care of that. You do good back to them.” It’s important to note that there is a distinction between the government, the church, and the individual. In this context Jesus is speaking to individuals. The government can and should execute just punishment, so that individuals are free to forgive and not execute punishment themselves. The Bible speaks a lot about loving our enemies and doing good to them expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:35). It also talks about resisting the devil so that he flees (James 4:7) and standing firm by taking up the armor of God (Eph. 6). In not resisting evil, it’s not that we don’t do anything. By faith, we war with weapons that are unseen. 1 Peter 3 says, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.”
The first step in this spiritual war is to not enter into evil myself by acting like my enemy. This means that we don’t retaliate, yell back, or coerce. You already know that when you fight back or defend yourself you don’t get your desired response. They are better at evil and will usually win anyway. Two people doing the wrong thing doesn’t make a bad situation better. In my experience, this is one of the hardest things I have ever done. This takes every bit of trusting in the Lord and spiritual fortitude I can muster. And I haven’t always done this well. To not enter into evil by repaying evil is a great spiritual battle, especially in smaller matters where the law doesn’t preside. So then the question becomes, what does it mean to do good back to them?
The second step is to bless. Sometimes blessing someone is to overlook an offense (1 Cor. 13, Prov. 19:11). Sometimes it is not participating, but exposing evil (Eph. 5:11). It’s also allowing the consequences to happen (2 Thess. 3:10), letting the authorities execute judgment (Rom. 13:1-4). This can come even after tears and talk of sorrow, especially if there is a repetitive nature to the offense. Repentance of the evil and forgiving them does not necessitate the removal of consequences. In fact, consequences can play an important part of the repentance. It can actually help the offender, as he willingly accepts the consequences of his actions, to not ever want to participate in the evil ever again! These things take wisdom and discernment. You can resist evil with hatred in your heart and become just like them (Matt. 5:39). Or you can overcome evil with goodwill in your heart toward them by allowing them to bear the natural consequences of their actions. This is what is good for them as well as everyone else (Eph. 5:11, 1 Peter 3:17). There are a variety of responses we can have, including we simply don’t participate in what they are doing, leave the room or home, cut up bank cards, widen the circle of those who know about what is really going on, break relationship with them, call the police, or press charges.
I submit that allowing a person to bear the consequences of their actions can be doing good for them. Matt. 5:39 has more to do with heart intent than a specific action. As Leslie Vernick says, “we are never called to suffer to allow evil to flourish. We are sometimes called to suffer in order to stop evil (1 Peter 3:17).” It is in these times that we don’t want to act like the evildoer by returning evil. We are called to bless them and that can happen through a variety of options.