“But I tell you, do not resist the person who is evil.” Matthew 5:39a
Jesus continues his formula of “you have heard it was said…But I tell you…” to get to the topic of retribution. You might call this category sticking up for yourself, pay back, or watching your back.
It’s important to notice what these verses are not saying. Jesus isn’t saying you don’t stand up for the poor, vulnerable, or weak. He doesn’t say that you don’t resist evil systems that are doing real harm to society or church. This is highly personal—this is about when something is happening to you. The implication in each verse is that someone wrongs you, and your instinct would be to get them back.
There might not be a lot of slap fights on campus, but there are plenty of personal offenses. Perhaps someone on your floor starts spreading unwarranted gossip about you. Maybe a lab mate steals an idea of yours and claims it as his own. Sometimes you get blindsided by blame for a problem you didn’t cause. Your natural instinct in these situations will probably be to pay them back: gossip about them, denounce them, blame them instead. It gets down to our instinct to defend our name, and to punish anyone who messes with us. It can bring out our aggression, sometimes physical but more often in our contexts social.
However, the person aligned with Jesus no longer has to make sure that she watches out for herself first, because she knows that the all powerful and loving God is watching out for her. She trusts, because of God’s promises, that he will make things right, that justice will be served. The person aligned with Jesus also knows that the people committing the wrongs are also made in God’s image, and that he loves them. He knows that even if a person is acting out of evil, that that doesn’t put them out of reach of God’s grace and forgiveness—and he knows that without the power and forgiveness of God, he’d be practicing the same kinds of evil. There’s a leveling that happens, an understanding that at our core we’re not better than others, and that God is our protector when we are truly wronged.
As we internalize this more and more, we begin to be able to choose gentleness instead of violence. As Scripture elsewhere says, this returning kindness for evil is actually a more searing kind of rebuke, because it gives the perpetrator an opportunity to recognize that their actions are all on them, they can’t hide behind everyone just doing the selfish thing if you opt out.
A word needs to be said in the other direction, however. Sometimes we suffer physical or other abuse, and our instinct isn’t to defend ourselves, but out of fear of some worse fate, to continue to let ourselves suffer. This is equally not what Jesus calls you to; systematic wickedness should be fled from and reported. The principle in this passage is trusting God to act so that you don’t violently defend yourself—not that you are doomed to a pattern of victimhood. If you are suffering from physical, sexual, or emotional abuse from someone in your life, bring in an older Christian to help you, such as your pastor, campus minister, or trusted friend. Bring in the proper authorities. Seek help and freedom through God’s people and other means, and don’t let a misapplication of these words keep you in danger!