Its one of the most quoted verses in the entire Bible. But what does it look like in real life? Should Christians never stand up for themselves? Should we allow others to harm us and take advantage of us? Should we let people cut us in line, cheat off of us at school, and bully us? Is it ever OK for a Christian to fight back with words or fists? Must we always be pushovers? What does the Bible say about this?
Well, the Bible tells us that one of the chief goals for us in God's eyes is that we would be conformed to the image of Christ. So let's look at Jesus. Was Jesus passive with His words and actions or was He aggressive with His words and actions?
- Isaiah 53:7 tells us that Jesus was silent before His accusers. Accounts from places like Luke 22 and 23 show us that when Jesus is presented with an opportunity to defend Himself in trial, He doesn't even try. He just says things like, "It is as you say."
- Luke 23:34 tells us that Jesus spoke some incredible words from the cross. While people were mocking Him and torturing Him, He prayed, "Forgive them Father, they know not what they do."
- On several occasions, Jesus says some things that cause the crowd to begin to riot against Him. On those occasions He slips away quietly. The King of Kings with all power and authority runs away. One such occasion is seen in Luke 4:28-29 when the crowd is getting ready to toss Jesus off a cliff. Instead of using His might as God to wipe them out, He simply leaves.
- On a similar vein of thought, Jesus doesn't summon angels to defend Him or unleash His omnipotence when He is beaten and crucified. He allows it. He doesn't defend Himself. He turns the other cheek to the point of death.
- In John 13, Jesus washes the feet of His disciples. Judas was there. The one about to betray Him to terrible death. Instead of fighting Him, Jesus served Him.
- On the other hand, Jesus was no stranger to using harsh words and arguments. We see this all throughout the gospel when Jesus attacks the Pharisees and other religious leaders for their pride, vanity, false leadership, and rejection of the truth. In Luke 11:29-54 alone, we see Jesus call them a wicked generation, say they will be judged by Gentiles (a huge insult in that culture), and pronounces woe on them 6 times (woe was a word of judgment and condemnation).
- In John 8:3-11, we see Jesus come to the defense of a woman caught in adultery. While there is nothing innately aggressive in his words or actions, what Jesus did took courage. A mob of people were ready to stone a woman to death and Jesus stood up for her and spoke in her defense.
- All throughout Jesus' ministry, we see Him casting out demons. This was no timid task! Jesus would stand before powerful demonic forces and order them to leave people alone and command them to shut up. Even approaching a demon possessed person must have been terrifying. Luke 8 records the story of a man who had been possessed for years by a whole legion of demons that had caused him to be incredibly violent, strong enough to break metal chains, and even made him cut himself with sharp rocks. Jesus walks right up to that guy and orders around the legion of demons within him.
- In John 2:13-17, we see perhaps the most aggressive thing Jesus ever did. Jesus goes to the temple and sees all of the salesmen ripping off the believers who were coming to worship God. He yells at them and flips over their tables. What we tend to miss is that verse 15 says that Jesus made a whip and physically attacked these men until they left.
Jesus Commanding Passiveness
- The famous Beatitudes are found in Matthew 5. There Jesus tells us that the meek and the peacemakers are blessed. He wants us to be the kind of people that are gentle and seek peace.
- In Matthew 5:39, Jesus tells us if someone strikes us, we should turn the other cheek rather than fight back. He wants us to respond with love rather than violence.
- In Luke 10:3-4, Jesus sends out his disciples and tells them to bring nothing with them. He specifically tells them not to bring weapons and says that they are to go out as lambs among wolves.
- Yet 12 chapters after Jesus told them to go out as lambs with nothing and no weapons, Jesus says something different in Luke 22:35-38. This time, He sends them out again and tells them to stock up and bring their swords with them. In fact, He tells them to go pawn their cloaks off to buy a sword if they don't have one!
So what do we make of all of this? Sometimes Jesus is passive and sometimes He is aggressive. Sometimes He runs away and other times He lashes people with a whip. Sometimes He stays silent and other times He yells at people calling them things like hypocrites and fools. Sometimes He tells us to be peacemakers and lambs and other times He tells us to go buy a sword and get ready to rumble. What should we do? Should we be passive or aggressive? Should we be peaceful or ready for a fight?
The answer is yes. We should be passive and aggressive. We should be peaceful and ready for a fight. It is not an either-or kind of thing. Its both. We have to be careful to discern what God wants us to do in each situation. We have to keep our mission in mind as we consider the options. We have to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. Luke 10 and 22 show this very clearly. Different situations demand different actions.
There are some trends in Jesus that I've noticed. When He Himself is at stake, when He is being mocked, or when He is being attacked, He tends to respond passively. On the other hand, when it is someone else in danger, He gets aggressive. When His Father's house is being made a mockery and when worshipers are being swindled out of their hard earned money, He gets violently upset. When a defenseless and broken woman is threatened by a mob, He stands in her defense. When religious leaders are leading people away from God and forgiveness, He lashes out at them in full force. It seems that Jesus tended to be passive when His neck was on the line and aggressive when others were in danger.
Every situation is different, but I think we ought to follow that same trend. It requires humility to let insults slide and allow others to treat us poorly without retaliating. But it shows the love and forgiveness of God. It requires courage to stand up for someone else and speak out against those who would oppress others. And that courage demonstrates the love and protection of God.
At the end of the day, there is no cookie cutter answer. Instead, we need to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to discern how we should react to bring the most glory to God. Sometimes you should defend yourself. Other times, you shouldn't. Sometimes, you will need to stand up and fight for a cause. Other times, it may be better to let some things slide. Ultimately, our goal should not be to defend our own ego or pride. We need to act out of love, humility, and zeal for what is right.
I was blown away about six months ago by a piece of the Jim Elliot story that I learned. Jim Elliot was a missionary who went to Ecuador to reach the native Waodani people with five other men in the 1950's. The Waodani were a very violent tribe who had never been reached with the gospel. They killed several westerners who had tried to make contact with them before Jim and his crew went to them with the Gospel. After a few initial meetings with some of the women and children, the Waodani men surrounded Jim and his friends with spears in their hands. The Waodani warriors savagely murdered all six of the missionaries who had come to share Christ with them.
I have known that part of the story for years. What I didn't know was that because the tribe was so violent, Jim and some of the men with him had brought guns for their protection. When they were about to be attacked, they took out their guns and shot them in the air to scare the natives away. They refused to actually fire at one of the natives. Even as the warriors ran them through with spears, they would only fire into the air. All they had to do to save their lives was lower the guns and shoot the natives. But none of these men did. They had decided beforehand that they were ready to die because they had believed the gospel while the natives were not. Shortly after, the wives of these missionaries came to the Waodani people and lived with them and shared the gospel. The tribe believed and is worshiping Jesus to this day.
Did they have the right to defend themselves? Almost all of us would say yes. But they believed God was calling them to peace. Because of their sacrifice, the Waodani received salvation.
May we be the kind of Christians who are willing to humbly suffer in order to show the love of Christ. May we be the kind of Christians who are willing to bravely stand for what is right and for those who can't stand for themselves in order to honor God. May we be the kind of Christians who have the discernment to see when it is time for humility and when it is time for bravery.
- What things cause you to respond aggressively? Is that a Christlike response?
- What things are you responding to passively? Is that a Christlike response?
- In what areas is God calling you to be more humble and passive?
- In what areas is God calling you to be more brave and aggressive?