Dealing with Personal Offenses vs. Criminal Acts
There’s a huge difference between dealing with personal offenses as opposed to dealing with severe criminal acts. The former is a matter of peace between people in the Church, as well as society (relatives, co-workers, neighbors, etc.), whereas the latter is a matter of acquiring justice and protecting the populace from wicked thugs.
In this article we’re going to first address how the New Testament instructs us to handle personal offenses committed by (1) fellow believers and (2) unbelievers, which will include a look at (3) the principle of overcoming evil with good; then we’ll address (4) how to handle serious criminal acts committed by whomever/wherever.
This article is vital to the health of modern believers because, generally speaking, we’ve been fed an unbalanced diet on the topic and this facilitates the “doormat syndrome,” which is a weakly submissive response to abuse and crime. Here’s an example: A relative of mine dated a woman who, unbeknownst to him, fraudulently purchased items with his credit card that accumulated to a total of $17,000. They broke up during this period and her crime was eventually uncovered. Incredibly, my relative passively responded, “I’m not going to protest it; I’m just a doormat.” Yes, he literally said this! Instead of righteously holding this woman accountable to her criminal behavior he just let the issue go with the intent of slowly paying off her selfish materialism.
This is not what the Bible teaches! The LORD loves justice and hates crime (Isaiah 61:8). In fact, justice and righteousness are the very foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 89:14). Yes, God is love, but “love does not delight in evil” (1 Corinthians 13:6). This woman — supposedly a Christian — should’ve been held accountable for her crime and paid the consequences. Instead she’s off scot-free while my relative is still paying for her criminal indulgences.
This is absurd. The New Testament does not instruct believers to be passive doormats to abuse and crime like this. Rather, it provides brilliant tactics on how to overcome evil with good, including tough love when fitting, like confrontation and open rebuke; as well as utilizing the governing authorities & the corresponding legal system to acquire justice in criminal situations. Even in cases where the believer is called to “suffer according to God’s will” — like Spirit-led martyrdom — praying for one’s persecutors is anything but passive since it releases God & his kingdom into the situation.
Let’s start with…
New Testament Instructions on Handling Personal Offenses
Observe the Messiah’s instructions for dealing with an offending believer:
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4 Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
Jesus was not talking about a serious crime here, like rape, assault, robbery or the murder of a loved one. If someone commits a crime like this you need to take it to the governing authorities, which are established by God to punish criminals and hold the power to execute when appropriate: “they are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-6). We are instructed to submit to these authorities, which means we report the crime and seek justice when a serious CRIME is committed. If someone broke into your house and raped/killed your loved one would you just automatically dismiss the offense – that is, forgive the thug – or would you first contact the police and do everything in your power to apprehend justice? Obviously the latter. We’ll look at dealing with criminal acts in more detail later.
So Christ was talking about personal offenses here, like snubbing, malicious gossip (backbiting), insults, lying, minor theft and so forth. When fellow believers offend in this manner they should first be confronted and, then, forgiven when they repent. ‘Forgive’ literally means to “cancel the debt” or “dismiss the charge.” When the offender is stubbornly unrepentant we are not to dismiss the offense. Jesus specified this condition in more detail here:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
When a fellow believer sins against us we’re not to gossip about it to others, but rather go to the offending person in private and share with them what they did to offend us. As far as is possible, we should do this with a humble, compassionate spirit, which sometimes isn’t possible because the offense in question is so offensive. If the offender refuses to repent then we are to get one or two spiritual believers and confront the person again. These additional people will naturally help make sure the charge is authentic. If the offender is still not repentant then we’re to tell it to the church in general so that the person is socially pressured to ’fess up and make a turnaround. If the offender continues to be stubborn and unrepentant then we’re to regard him/her as a pagan or tax-collector. A pagan is an unbeliever, which means you stop treating the person as if they were a brother or sister in the Lord because his/her actions have proven otherwise.
Please notice that Jesus Christ himself said that we are NOT to dismiss the offense—that is, forgive the person’s transgression—when s/he is stubbornly unrepentant, but rather excommunicate him/her from the fellowship. If the offender doesn’t go to your assembly, which is often the case today, then you excommunicate him/her from your personal fellowship; meaning you cut relational ties. The offense in question is only to be dismissed—forgiven—if the offender REPENTS. Only then should he or she be forgiven and welcomed back into the church or personal fellowship.
The apostle Paul taught the same thing when there was an unrepentant fornicator in the Corinth church; he instructed the believers in no uncertain terms to EXPEL HIM from the assembly (1 Corinthians 5:1-5,12-13). Thankfully, the guy later repented and so Paul encouraged the Corinthians to forgive him and warmly welcome him back into the fellowship (2 Corinthians 2:6-11).
Please notice that Paul only instructed the Corinthians to forgive this man when he was willing to humbly repent. The reason for this is obvious: It holds offenders accountable to their negative behavior and encourages repentance, i.e. positive change.
This is further backed up by Paul when he instructed believers to “Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13) and “forgive each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). We are to forgive just as the LORD forgave us, which is followed up in the very next verse with an exhortation to be imitators of God as dearly loved children (Ephesians 5:1). If we’re to imitate the LORD by forgiving just as he forgives, the question is naturally raised: When specifically does God grant us his forgiveness after we’ve missed it? Answer: When we humbly confess (1 John 1:8-9 & Psalm 32:5). Since confessing sin would be a completely useless gesture if we intended on continuing in the transgression the phrase is synonymous with repentance. To ‘repent’ means to change one’s mind in response to truth (Isaiah 55:7). Without humble repentance, God forgives nothing (Acts 20:21), which explains why repentance is the first basic doctrine of Christianity (Hebrews 6:1-2) and why “repent” was the first word of John the Baptist & Jesus’ first sermons (Matthew 3:2 & 4:17).
So the most important personages of the New Testament plainly taught believers to NOT dismiss the offense — to not forgive — on occasions where the offending believer is stubbornly unrepentant. When this happens we should of course intercede for him/her in the hope that they’ll turn around and fellowship will be restored.
Unfortunately, most Christian ministers and sects ignore these crystal-clear scriptural instructions. They wrongly teach that believers are obligated to forgive everyone for everything all the time, no conditions whatsoever, but the New Testament teaches otherwise. This idea—that we are to constantly offer immediate and universal forgiveness, no conditions—is a grossly false doctrine. It’s dangerous to believers’ spiritual health and can even cause people to reject Christianity altogether because it is so absurd and totally misrepresents Christianity. It foolishly fails to hold people accountable to their offenses and therefore perpetuates the negative behavior in question.
The New Testament teaches no such thing.
‘What about Matthew 6:14-15 and Mark 11:25?’
These are great passages with great truths, but they have to be balanced out by the above verses since they provide necessary detail that these two passages lack. This is the hermeneutical rule “Scripture interprets Scripture,” which means that passages with more exposition naturally help interpret verses that lack detail. With this understanding, Matthew 6:14-15 and Mark 11:25 emphasize that it’s imperative that we forgive on all occasions where we’re obligated to forgive; that is, when an offending believer humbly repents (e.g. Luke 17:3-4 & 2 Corinthians 2:6-11).
It might help to understand that this is the only way the LORD forgives us when we miss it: He forgives us when we humbly confess, meaning repent (1 John 1:8-9). And we are instructed to imitate God in this regard:
32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
1 Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children
There were no chapter divisions in the original epistles: Hence, verse 1 immediately follows verse 32. In light of this, we’re to imitate God—that is, follow God’s example—in regards to forgiveness. And we know God doesn’t forgive apart from humble penitence (1 John 1:8-9), which explains why repentance is the first basic doctrine of Christianity (Hebrews 6:1-2) and why the first word of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ’s sermons was ‘Repent’ (Matthew 3:2 & 4:17).
When we fail to “rightly divide” the Scriptures by considering all relevant passages we inevitably fall into error; and error doesn’t set free. It can’t. It won’t. Only the truth sets free.
‘But Jesus Forgave his Murderers on the Cross’
Actually Christ didn’t forgive anyone when he was on the cross. Read the text closely:
When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
As you can see, Christ prayed to the Father for HIM to forgive his murderers, which means Jesus was praying for his persecutors to come to repentance because THIS IS THE ONLY WAY GOD FORGIVES SIN (Acts 20:21). God doesn’t forgive the arrogant unrepentant; He only forgives the humbly repentant (1 John 1:8-9). It’s an axiom. For now, God is patiently extending mercy to the unsaved in the hope that they’ll eventually be moved to repentance & reconciliation. Those who refuse will be judged and discarded into the lake of fire where they’ll suffer the “second death,” which means they won’t be forgiven by the LORD (Revelation 20:11-15, Matthew 10:28 & Hebrews 10:26-27,31).
So what Jesus was doing on the cross was precisely what he instructed believers to do when we are mistreated for his name: Pray for our persecutors. Stephen did the same thing when he was martyred (Acts 7:60). We’ll look at praying for offenders in a moment; let’s first address…
Casting Your Cares on the LORD (aka Venting)
Those who support the idea that Christians must immediately forgive everyone for everything all the time, no conditions whatsoever, claim that not forgiving an offender will automatically result in bitterness and hate. But they’re confusing forgiving with venting. To vent to God means to cast your cares/burdens/offenses on to the Lord in prayer, as observed in Psalm 55:22, 1 Peter 5:7, Psalm 62:8 and 142:1-3.
Casting your cares like this should be done across the board including situations where you are seriously offended and the offender is unrepentant. Discarding such burdens on the Lord will keep you free of bitterness and hatred. But venting to God is not forgiving. ‘Forgive’ literally means to “cancel the debt” or “dismiss the offense” and the Bible gives us precise instructions on when to do this and when not to do it. To forgive someone of a severe offense prematurely is folly. However, we are instructed to cast (vent) all our cares unto the LORD, which includes the hurt, violation and frustration we experience due to various offenses. When we do this, the LORD bears our burdens and we free ourselves from bitterness or hatred taking root.
Why cast our cares/burdens/offenses on to the LORD? Because we can’t handle them. Just as we must remove physical waste from our bodies so we must remove emotional waste. Venting is as vital to your spiritual-mental health as the large intestine is to your physical health – the waste must be removed.
There are several examples of casting cares on to God in the Bible. You can read details here.
Those who argue that not forgiving someone of an offense will naturally result in bitterness & hate also argue that unforgiveness itself is a sin. But how can it be if both Christ and Paul gave clear instructions to not forgive transgressors when they’re stubbornly unrepentant? Furthermore, if unforgiveness itself is a sin than God is guilty of sin since (1) he kicked Satan & his filthy angels out of heaven after they rebelled — in other words, he held their transgressions against them and treated them accordingly — and (2) millions of unrepentant souls will be discarded in the lake of fire on Judgment Day to suffer the “second death” (Revelation 20:11-15 & Hebrews 10:26-27,31).
Praying for Offenders
So when someone offends us we need to cast the care/burden/anger/frustration on to the LORD in prayer, but we also need to intercede for the individual in question. The Lord instructed:
“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Whether someone is a literal enemy or a carnal believer who is mistreating you in some capacity, praying for the person is vital. Why pray for those who mistreat us? Because prayer is the catalyst that releases the Living God into people’s lives – it releases his will, which is done in heaven, to be done in the person’s life on earth; it also releases God’s kingdom to reign. Let me explain…
When you intercede for a person you “release” the LORD into his/her life and situation. You see, although God is Sovereign and reigns supreme, the devil and his demonic forces have authority on earth, at least as far as the kingdom of darkness goes. This is why Satan is called “the god of this age” or “the prince of this world” and that the “whole world” is under his control to some measure and, in fact, he “leads the whole world astray” (2 Corinthians 4:4, John 14:30, 1 John 5:19 & Revelation 12:9).*
* How did the devil acquire this authority? See this article.
Yet, notice that the Enemy only has power over those designated as “the world.” The good news is that believers have been called out of this world and, indeed, ‘church’ literally means “called out of,” which is ekklesia (ek-KLAY-see-ah) in the Greek. Since Christians are no longer of this world and are in covenant with the Living God and therefore of another kingdom, we have the right and authority to loose God’s will on this earth.
You see, the Bible properly describes this current era we live in as “the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). Why? Because Satan & his dark angels possess legal control over the kingdom of darkness that invisibly enshrouds the earth. This control extends to all unbelievers. The good news is that the LORD has ingeniously worked out a way for his good will to be manifested on earth – rather than his righteous wrath – via the prayers and service of his church, his called-out ones. In other words, God’s kingdom can reign on earth through the intercession and service of his saints. If you’re a believer, this means YOU.
Do you see why praying for those who mistreat you is so strategic? How do you get the darkness out of a room? By simply turning on the lights. It’s the same principle with praying for people and situations. By praying for them you’re releasing God & his will to be done, and when the light of the Most High enters the picture darkness flees. Maybe the people attacking you are unbelievers; by praying for them and loosing God into their lives they may be enlightened and humbly turn to the LORD. Be patient because this could take years. Or perhaps it’s a case of believers walking in the flesh; praying for them can bring awareness of carnality and provoke them to repentance and spiritual growth. Or maybe it’s wolves or goats masquerading as sheep; again, intercession can lead them to the Lord, repentance and salvation.
It’s true that, in all these cases, the individual may stubbornly choose to reject God’s grace, which will sooner or later result in judgment, but his grace will at least manifest for your deliverance. The LORD may even utilize you as a vessel of audacious righteousness, like when Paul openly rebuked a hostile sorcerer and pronounced temporary blindness to humble him and spur repentance (Acts 13:8-12). This is an example of tough love. Whatever the case, releasing God into the situation through intercession is the immediate answer while confronting offenders is secondary. You can be sure that the LORD will most certainly deliver you as long as you persevere in love and faith.
We observe this in the early Church in the account of Herod Agrippa, who unjustly arrested many Christians and even had James the son of Zebedee executed (Acts 12:1-5). The believers prayed for their persecutor, of course, just as the Christ instructed. God graciously gave Herod much time to wise up and repent, but he remained pompous and stubborn. When Herod accepted praise that’s only due the Almighty during a political speech “an angel of the Lord struck him down” (Acts 12:21-23). What happened? Herod’s pomp and unjust acts reached the limit of God’s tolerance since he refused to wise up and thus judgment fell. When God’s mercy ends, judgment begins. Thus the believers were delivered from their heinous persecutor.
For anyone who mistakenly thinks that God reserves all judgment until the end of the age, see this article.
Martyrdom, God’s Will, and Resisting Thugs
James’ execution by Herod was an example of martyrdom, as was Stephen’s stoning and Christ’s crucifixion. In all three cases it was God’s will for them to be martyred, which was strategic in the LORD’s plan for one reason or another. For instance, the Messiah’s death brought about salvation to anyone on Earth who repents & believes ever since (Acts 20:21) while Stephen’s martyrdom widely dispersed the Church at the time and therefore advanced God’s kingdom in the world (Acts 7:54-8:4).
However, you should only submit to martyrdom if you discern the Holy Spirit leading you in this direction. In other words, don’t be a submissive doormat to thugs who want to murder you. We are to follow the example of the Mighty Christ and he plainly resisted being murdered by wicked people on several occasions in the Scriptures. For instance, when he was arrested in Gethsemane he stated that he could have called down twelve legions of angels, but he didn’t since his arrest was according to God’s plan of salvation (Matthew 26:53). Yet even in this situation of seeming defeat Jesus revealed the incredible divine power that was at his disposal: When he acknowledged who he was – “I AM” – the detachment fell back to the ground (John 18:4-6).
Other examples include:
- Luke 4:28-30 where the incensed people of Nazareth attempted to throw Jesus off a cliff but he escaped by mysteriously walking “right through the crowd”
- John 7:30,44 where those who wanted to seize the Messiah couldn’t lay a hand on him “because his time had not yet come”
- John 8:59 where the offended religionists picked up stones to slay Yeshua but he miraculously hid himself and slipped by them
- And John 10:31,39 where a group tried to murder him in Solomon’s Colonnade and he “escaped their wrath.”
You see? Christ did not submit to the wicked will of every thug who happened down the pike. In fact, he only did so when he was apprehended to be crucified, which is an example of “suffering according to God’s will” (1 Peter 4:12-13,19).
The Messiah’s example corresponds to his instruction to his disciples in Matthew 10:23 to “flee” if they were persecuted in one place and go where they might be better received. If the Lord wanted believers to be doormats for abuse he would have told them to stay and suffer the mistreatment. If he wanted us to be rash brawlers he would have told them to stay and duke it out. Of course “fleeing” has a negative connotation so it would be better to describe it as escaping. The point is that Jesus doesn’t want us to be passive doormats in such situations.
Needless to say, unless the Spirit moves you to martyrdom, do everything in your power to escape the murderous wrath of people with criminal intent.
Summing Up Casting Your Cares and Praying for Your Enemies
Casting your cares on to God and praying for your transgressors plays a vital role in cases of offense and potential forgiveness. After all, you can’t very well forgive offending believers if they’re not first enlightened and moved to repentance. Besides, in cases of severe offenses, is it even possible to genuinely forgive – dismiss the charge and regard the offender as innocent – if you haven’t vented and interceded for the person?
Of course, casting cares and intercessory prayer are just as important in situations where we are not required to forgive. Say a close Christian brother severely sins against you but stubbornly refuses to repent when confronted. Although you are under no obligation to forgive him – since he refuses to humbly repent (Luke 17:3-4 & Matthew 18:15-17) – you are instructed to cast the care on the LORD and pray for him. If you don’t, the offense will weigh on you and may likely provoke hostility (hatred) and eventually bitterness. In such a case, someone who erroneously believes that Christians are obligated to automatically forgive everyone for everything all the time would contend that your problem is unforgiveness when, in fact, your problem is that you failed to pour out your soul to God – venting your negative emotions – and intercede for the offender. In this case unforgiveness is not the problem, but rather failing to cast your cares and pray. It’s important to distinguish this.
Let’s sum up venting, intercessory prayer and forgiveness:
- Casting your cares on the Lord – venting – is for your own well-being
- Intercessory prayer is for the benefit of the offender
- Forgiveness is for the health of the relationship and is contingent on the repentance of the offender
We live in a fallen world where people are unique and imperfect. As such, there’s bound to be offenses and misunderstandings in every relationship, how much more so in close relationships that are prone to life’s pressures, like family, work or ministry-related associations? How can these relationships survive the many inevitable failings and offenses? Through the power of prayer, venting to the LORD, confrontation, repentance and forgiveness. In other words, the prayer / vent / confrontation / repentance / forgiveness dynamic keeps relationships alive. It keeps marriages, friendships and every other type of relationship functioning and healthy. Without the operation of these powerful principles very few, if any, relationships would last.
Dealing with Personal Offenses from Unbelievers
While we’ve already flirted with this issue a bit, let’s address it more directly: Should we use these same instructions (above) in dealing with personal offenses from unbelievers? These Scriptural directives on praying for offenders, venting, confrontation and potential repentance/forgiveness are applicable to any relationship, like marriage, friendships, co-workers and neighbors. They’re universal. They keep relationships alive and functioning; without them, associations inevitably fall apart and walls develop, separating the individuals.
Let’s say you work with an unbeliever who starts offending you in certain ways, like snubbing you, calling you names or badmouths you to co-workers and higher-ups. The first thing you’ll want to do is cast your cares on to the LORD and intercede for this person. This is “turning the cheek” wherein you graciously overlook the offense and you give the transgressor time to repent. If s/he stubbornly refuses you’ll have to eventually confront him/her as led of the Spirit. If s/he still refuses then you can get Human Resources involved (or the supervisor or whoever), which would be the secular equivalence of getting mature believers involved in cases where the transgressor is a believer.
If the offender remains stubborn then you are free to cut all relational ties while keeping him/her in prayer and continuing to cast your cares on to God. Your “relationship” with the co-worker becomes strictly business since they’ve rejected your grace. You can be sure that the LORD will address the situation, one way or another, and deliver you (assuming you’re actually walking with the Lord and the offenses are legitimate). With these kinds of situations the “turn away principle” is in order.
It helps to understand that unbelievers are in spiritual darkness and lack the moral foundation of the Word of God, the reborn spirit and the indwelling Holy Spirit, although they do have a spirit and grasp universal morality deep down inside, whether they care to admit it or not (Romans 2:14-16). In light of this, relationships with unbelievers require greater patience and mercy than those with the average Christian. Each case is dependent on (1) you, (2) your level of spiritual maturity and (3) the leading of the Holy Spirit, which explains Paul’s carefully worded instructions:
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Here Paul is encouraging believers to live lives of peace, which means being peaceable—avoiding strife and striving for peace with all people in every situation, which includes unbelievers. This is also encouraged in Hebrews 12:14. Yet Paul adds a condition: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you.” Why does he phrase it like this? Obviously because peace is not possible in some situations since it depends on the antagonist’s attitude and response. Every situation is unique and you have to be led of the Holy Spirit, but sometimes you may have to make a bold stand and radically correct or break all ties, which are examples of tough love. In cases of severe offenses—and I’m talking about criminal acts—you may even have to defend yourself and your loved ones or enlist the help of authorities, which we’ll address momentarily.
What does “as far as it depends on you” mean? Every believer is on a lifelong journey of spiritual development. The apostle Paul was spiritually mature and therefore far more able to walk in patient peaceableness in trying circumstances than a new believer fresh out of the world. In other words, your peace walk is dependent upon your level of spiritual growth. Whether you’re a half pint or a gallon, live up to that level, as far as it is possible.
The passage – Romans 12:18 – could be viewed as somewhat of a “safety valve.” When you face unjust offenses from an unbeliever and respond by implementing the principle of overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21) any reasonable person will be diffused and react positively to your graciousness & the Spirit’s moving. However, when an antagonist stubbornly refuses to respond in a positive manner – particularly after generous longsuffering on your part – you can be sure that s/he is a calloused fool of the lowest order. Such a person disqualifies himself or herself from any further merciful patience and you are released to completely cut ties or move toward righteous radicalness with God’s blessing. A good example of the former is when Paul cut ties with hardened Jews at the synagogue in Ephesus after three months of ministry (Acts 19:8-9); a good example of the latter would be his radical dealings with a hostile magician on Cyprus (Acts 13:8-12). Peter did something similar with another sorcerer (Acts 8:18-24).
Understanding the Principle of Overcoming Evil with Good
At this point we need to look more fully at the New Testament’s general rule in dealing with offenses:
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
This is the biblical principle of overcoming evil with good. If an unbeliever is offending you when you’ve done nothing to deserve, it’s very possible that they won’t be open to correction based upon what the Bible says; although you can certainly confront them based on universal principles of morality without quoting the Bible, as noted earlier. Those who reject correction are too far in the flesh; their understanding is darkened and their hearts too calloused (Ephesians 4:17-19). Dealing with them based on Scriptural morality – which is universal morality – will most likely be futile (although you can certainly try).
How about “fighting fire with fire”? In other words, they cuss you out and you cuss back; they slap, you slap; they yell, you yell, etc. Although such a reaction is tempting, since the flesh naturally wants to react this way, the Bible teaches that this is not the way we should deal with mistreatment, at least not initially. All it does is feed the strife and escalate the antagonism, not to mention tie up the hands of God, so to speak. If this is what you want then, by all means, go ahead and react in this manner.
The Bible advocates a better, more effective way, which is the principle of overcoming evil with good. Those lacking insight will naturally think this is a disempowering instruction and some will even scoff at it as absurd, yet nothing could be further from the truth. This principle doesn’t weaken you and make you out to be a wuss; on the contrary, it’s completely empowering; in fact, it’s utterly brilliant! Let me explain…
As a Christian, you are called to live out of your regenerated spirit by the Holy Spirit and not out of the flesh. This is known as putting on the new man (Ephesians 4:22-24). When you do this you’ll be spirit-ruled and therefore spiritual; hence, you’ll produce fruit of the spirit like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, humility and self-control (Galatians 5:19-23). The more you sow to the spirit the more good fruit you’ll bear, and the higher quality.
If people attack you when you’ve done nothing wrong they’re actually trying to victimize you by pulling you down into their carnal hostility and, consequently, into the realm of the flesh. If they succeed and you start “fighting fire with fire” it will break your focus and involve you in unnecessary and draining conflicts. When this happens you’ve allowed yourself to be victimized and overcome. In other words, you’ve lost.
Yet you can refuse to be victimized by simply overcoming the evil with good. Bless and pray for those unbelievers who curse you and mistreat you. Learn to overlook such offenses, at least the first couple of times, which is being “slow to anger” (James 1:19). Please notice that the instruction is to be slow to anger, which is different than saying righteous anger is never appropriate to express (e.g. Acts 13:8-12, Acts 8:18-24, and Mark 11:15-18). Resist rash words and actions. By doing this you are refusing to be drawn into the realm of the flesh and are, in essence, regarding the offender as an irritating gnat that’s trying to fly into your ear. Why resort to quarreling, cussing or brawling when you don’t have to? Give the high road a generous chance—cast your cares on to the Lord and pray for the offender—and the Holy Spirit will direct you from there. This is “turning the cheek.”
“Bless Those Who Curse You”
In addition to praying for people who mistreat us, Jesus also instructed in Luke 6:27-28: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.” Loving your enemies is part of the principle of overcoming evil with good. We’ll focus here on the notion of blessing people who curse us.
Let’s first define cursing. Cursing means to speak evil or speak negatively against a person or thing. Cursing is not cussing, although it can include cussing; cussing is foul language.
Cursing can be overt or subtle but its effects are the same: generally speaking, it saps life and discourages (I say “generally speaking” because there are examples of righteous cursing in the Bible, which we’ll look at momentarily). Here are some examples of cursing in the modern day: “You’re never going to amount to anything,” “You can’t do anything right,” “You’re gonna turn to $#!%,” “Drop dead,” “Go to hell,” “**** you,” “What an idiot,” “You’re a moron,” “Boy, you’re looking old,” “That’s a nice gut you have there,” “You can’t do it,” “He’ll never be successful at that,” “Hey girly man,” “You’re gay,” etc.
Yes, there are times when people are just kidding and you have to discern the heart’s intent, but it’s obvious that if someone regularly hurls curses at you, even though the curses may be subtle or given under the guise of jest, the foundation of the cursing is hostility or malice, which is rooted in fleshly traits like arrogance, envy, jealousy and rivalry.
The Bible instructs us to confront and correct fellow believers when they offend us, which would include them cursing you, but why go that route if you don’t have to? Consider simply blessing the offender.
Say a fellow believer is insulting your body, insulting your musical talent, insulting your choice of apparel or calling you names, is it really necessary to get all heavy by confronting and rebuking, particularly if it’s unlikely the person will receive correction from you (which is often the case when the individual is significantly older)? In such situations don’t fight fire with fire since that will only stir-up the hostility and lead to unnecessary strife. Instead, counteract the curse with a blessing. For instance, say someone rips on you for being out of shape, reply with something like, “You’re looking really good.” Or say a guy criticizes your singing; tell him how good he is at his talent, e.g. “You’re an awesome guitar player (or drummer or singer, etc.).”
These types of people usually desire an audience and therefore prefer to deliver their insults while others are present. Since the root of their hostility is pride, which is a superiority complex, the purpose of their cursing is to bring you down and embarrass you in order to elevate their selves. Depending on the crowd, it’s likely that some people present understand what’s really going on. They see the arrogance and sense the jealousy and rivalry of the attacker. They realize how sad and pathetic he or she really is. Issuing a blessing in response to a curse in such cases speaks volumes. Another option is to smile and say nothing, which is in accordance with Proverbs 12:16: “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.” This is “turning the cheek.” It takes more strength to do this than fly off the handle because any fool can blow up at the drop of a hat and speak rashly, but it takes true character to overlook an insult. Either way, such a response diffuses the curse and is a beaming testimony to your spirituality.
You may have to repeat this a few times before s/he ‘gets’ it. Down the road the abuser may regress and you’ll have to repeat as necessary until he or she gets it again. If s/he doesn’t change, it may then be necessary to confront and correct. When this occurs shoot for subtleness rather than overkill, such as “I see you’re still jealous of me after all these years.” This shows the abuser that you’re aware s/he is attacking you, that you know the root reason for the attack – s/he is threatened by you – and that you’re not going to get all bent out of shape by it; you’re just waving it off like an irritating fly.
My point is that blessing people who curse you is the initial route to go because it’s such an effective principle. Again, why get all worked up with confronting and rebuking if you don’t have to? Save the heavy artillery for the truly serious situations.
If this applies to dealing with believers who curse you – and it does – how much more so unbelievers?
Righteous Cursing (as Led of the Spirit)
Of course we need to be balanced with the Scriptures and so it’s important to realize that this tactic of blessing those who curse you is not an absolute rule. On certain occasions you might have to curse someone in righteous anger, led of the Spirit.
Let’s first consider Paul’s instruction:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
While this sounds like an absolute instruction, it’s not. It’s a general directive and therefore there are exceptions. For proof, Paul openly rebuked Elymas the sorcerer and cursed him with (temporary) blindness as led of the Spirit:
But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9 Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10 “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? 11 Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.”
Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12 When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.
This is an example of Spirit-led cursing. Elymas (eh-LOOM-as) was trying to hinder the governor of Cyprus from receiving the message of Christ and so Paul, in righteous anger, cursed the sorcerer in order to put a stop to his satanic hindrances and, hopefully, humble his arrogant behind, spurring repentance and faith.
Peter did something similar with another sorcerer:
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money 19 and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
20 Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. 23 For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
24 Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”
Peter opened his severe rebuke with a curse: “May your money perish with you.”
First Corinthians 16:22 is another example of righteous cursing: “If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed! Come, Lord!”
Righteous cursing in the form of corrective name-calling is also glaring in the New Testament — and practiced by the Lord Christ — which you can read about here.
In all these cases the righteous cursing is a form of tough love, which is not emphasized enough in most Christian circles today. While blessing those who curse you is the general rule, righteous cursing is sometimes in order. You have to be led of the Spirit. This ignored truth helps keep believers balanced and healthy.
Up to this point in this article we’ve been talking about how to handle personal offenses from believers and unbelievers. Let’s now look at…
How to Handle Serious CRIMES
There’s a huge difference between experiencing a personal offense and suffering a severe CRIME. It’s the difference between (1) someone gossiping about you or insulting you and (2) someone committing robbery, assault, rape or murder. Scripture shows that people guilty of criminal offenses like the latter are subject to the governing authorities who are ordained by God to punish evildoers for the protection of citizens:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.
The passage conveys four important points:
- Human governments are established by God for societal order, which includes protecting the populace from thugs, foreign & domestic. Therefore, those who rebel against them are rebelling against what the Almighty has instituted, consequently bringing judgment on themselves, not from God directly but from the civil authorities he has established. Paul was not addressing Christian persecution but rather Christian obedience to the laws of the land. His point is that human government – “God’s servant” – is established for the good of the people, to restrain evil and protect life and property; if any believers break the law, “God’s servant” will punish them. Why? Because, as Isaiah 61:8 plainly points out, the LORD loves justice and hates crime. In fact, justice and righteousness are the very foundation of his throne (Psalm 89:14).
- Human governments bear “the sword,” which is a figure of speech for the authority to execute wrongdoers for severe crimes, as well as the right to punish lawbreakers in general. Even in our increasingly ‘progressive’ societies today we execute the most heinous criminals.
- Since civil authorities are ordained by God we should submit to them, which is clearly stated in verses 1 and 5. Submitting to the governing authorities does not mean blind obedience, but rather respecting and abiding by its laws. We must recognize this authority over us even if we don’t always agree with it. It also means we should financially support them, i.e. pay taxes, as shown in verse 6, which was something Jesus advocated as well (Matthew 22:15-22).The only exception to this rule is if government oversteps its bounds by intruding upon the realm of God and universal morality, e.g. Exodus 1:15-21, Daniel 3, Daniel 6 and Acts 4:18-20. How do we reconcile this with the fact that God established the existing authorities? Simple: Although God’s authority stands behind the governing authorities, right or wrong, it also stands over them; hence, Christians who belong to this higher authority are permitted to supersede the human authorities if there’s no other recourse.
- Since God ordains government as his servants to promote good (verse 4) we should take advantage of this divine commission by exercising our rights to obtain justice. A good example of this is found in Acts 16:16-40 where Paul and Silas were unjustly flogged and thrown in prison after exorcizing a demon from a girl. They maintained a worshipful spirit despite their tribulations and were miraculously released whereupon they evangelized the jailer & his family. The next day the civil authorities wanted Paul and Silas to quietly leave Philippi but Paul insisted: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly. No! Let them come themselves and escort us out” (verse 37). Although Paul maintained a faithful, spiritual attitude while enduring the mistreatment he was understandably angry at the injustice. And, yes, a person can be angry and not sin, it’s called righteous anger (Ephesians 4:26, Mark 3:5 & John 2:13-17). Notice that Paul didn’t just automatically forgive the Philippian authorities for their humiliating abuses. He didn’t just sweep the matter under the rug, so to speak. No, he appealed to his and Silas’ rights as Roman citizens and insisted that the magistrates come and personally escort them from the prison. How did the magistrates respond? They were “alarmed” to learn that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens with legal rights that protected them from such abuses; these believers could potentially protest to Rome and justly remove them from power, ruining their political careers. They had no choice but to humbly go to Paul & Silas and “appease” them; other translations say “apologize,” which corresponds to humble repentance (verse 39). The next time Paul was wrongly apprehended and threatened to be whipped he insisted upon his rights and evaded the flogging altogether (Acts 22:22-29). You see, Paul didn’t have a martyr complex like some Christians today. He refused to allow himself to be abused if it was within his power to evade it. You could say he refused to be a doormat. Another example can be found in Acts 25:11 where Paul appealed to Caesar.
What can we derive from these four points? Christians are clearly mandated by Scripture to submit to the civil authorities, which are ordained by God to punish wrongdoers. Since this is so, it naturally follows that we should do everything in our power to see to it that criminals are apprehended and penalized by “God’s servants,” the governing authorities. If criminals commit crimes and we’re prone to just automatically forgive them, that is, dismiss the charges, we’re obviously not submitting to these authorities because we’re not respecting their laws enough to seek justice and press charges. I’m of course talking about real crimes here, not trivial infractions.
‘Isn’t the Idea of Retributive Punishment Rejected throughout the New Testament?’
Certainly not in regards to the governing authorities who are established by God for the purpose of apprehending & punishing criminals and hold the power to execute when appropriate: “they are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Believers are instructed to submit to these authorities, which means we report the crime and seek justice when a serious CRIME is committed. If someone broke into your house and raped/killed your loved one would you just automatically dismiss the offense — that is, forgive the crime — or would you swiftly contact the police and do everything in your power to apprehend justice?
You see, we are to obtain justice in cases of criminal offense by submitting to the legal system of the governing authorities who are God’s servants, agents of righteous wrath to punish the criminal. Of course we also rely upon God’s ultimate justice, both in this temporal age and the eternal age to come.
Again, there’s a huge difference between piddly offenses and severe crimes. In the Church individual believers are to handle the personal offenses, and Church authorities when necessary, as Paul did in Corinth. As far as personal offenses from unbelievers go, the individual believer can handle it with the help of the Holy Spirit and, in certain cases, others linked to the situation (supervisors, Human Resources, relatives, friends, etc.). But governing authorities are to handle criminal offenses for the sake of societal justice. No legal justice system is perfect, of course, but without it we’d fall into a state of lawlessness and personal retribution characterized by rash lynchings, literal or figurative.
Should Christians be ‘Doormats’ to Criminal Attacks?
Absolutely not. The Torah permitted Hebrew citizens to kill criminals if necessary (Exodus 22:2-3); and Christ pointed out the obvious right of protecting oneself from thugs (Matthew 24:43 & Luke 12:39). Those who work for the state as police officers, executioners and soldiers have the authority to execute, which is what the “sword” represents in Romans 13:4 (believers who work for the state possess this authority as well). But such personnel are usually not around when wicked criminals attack their innocent prey, which means citizens have to protect themselves & their loves ones in such cases.
This explains Christ’s instructions to the disciples just prior to leaving for Gethsemane and his subsequent arrest: “and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:35-38). This instruction was in contrast to previous occasions where the disciples ministered without such an item in their travels. Possessing swords obviously pertained to protection, not aggression, as the threat of criminal persecution would increase after Christ’s crucifixion. This is backed up later in the same chapter when the disciples asked, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” (verse 49). The point is that Jesus clearly authorized his disciples to carry instruments of protection, which was wise when they were out traveling & ministering from town-to-town. Keep in mind that they had a money box full of donations that would attract thieves (John 12:6). Why did they have swords after walking with Christ for over three years? Because the Lord authorized it.
Of course Christ told Peter in Gethsemane “Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword,” but his initial instruction was for Peter to “put the sword back in its place,” NOT throw it away (Matthew 26:52). There’s a difference between living by the sword and utilizing it when necessary. For instance, when the returning Jews restored the walls of Jerusalem they posted armed guards for protection from deadly enemies (Nehemiah 4:7-9). Simply put, in a wicked world arms are sometimes necessary, such as any life-threatening situation (see this article for details).
An Example from My Own Life
Many years ago I was solitary camping at a state park in Tennessee where I was held-up by three guys with guns while hiking in the woods. They verbally assaulted me and threatened to kill me, not to mention they kept asking where my wife or girlfriend was with clear intentions of rape, but I was thankfully alone. Since we were fairly close to the trailhead where my car was parked they stole everything of value in it. They even took my car, although it was later discovered abandoned a mile or so away. Even though I was grateful that they didn’t kill me or abuse me in some manner they committed a severe crime against me. Should I have just automatically forgiven these hoods? Of course not, that would be absurd. I went straight to the authorities and did everything in my power to see that they were apprehended and punished. I also sought the LORD in prayer, vented, and interceded for the criminals, but I certainly didn’t just dismiss the charges, that is, forgive them.
If I automatically forgave them I wouldn’t have sought justice via their apprehension and punishment. Why? Because I forgave them, which would mean that I dismissed the offense, and they would be free to prey on others.
As it turned out, unfortunately, they were never caught, at least not for this crime. Late that night the police pulled over three men in the area who fit the descriptions I gave but they weren’t the same men. I was a traveler who lived a couple of states away and that was the last I ever heard of it. Regardless, I did everything in my power at the time to see that these criminals were apprehended and punished by the God-ordained authorities. I did this because of my God-given sense of justice, my concern for other potential victims and my submission to “God’s servants.” To automatically forgive in such cases is clearly wrong and we are under no Scriptural mandate to do so. The only exception would be if the Holy Spirit directs the victim to immediately forgive and not press charges, usually because there’s evidence of repentance and the crime is not severe enough to pursue justice further. This is a matter between the victim and God. Yet this isn’t what Scripture generally encourages in cases of criminal offense and it wasn’t how the LORD directed me in this incident (I had just finished praying in the forest for about 90 minutes right before being assaulted and was therefore quite spiritually sensitive, so I know I didn’t miss it).
The bottom line is that I didn’t forgive these criminals and I was under no Biblical mandate to do so. Those who teach that Christians should automatically forgive in such circumstances don’t even know what forgiveness means, nor do they understand that Yahweh is a God of justice who establishes civil authorities to maintain peace and order by apprehending and punishing evildoers. These are “God’s servants” to whom believers are required to submit.
However, whereas I wasn’t obligated to forgive these hooligans I was obliged to overcome evil with good, as detailed above. If I failed to do this, the evil done to me would have harmed me one way or another. It could have caused me to become embittered; it could have caused me to become fearful of hiking in the woods or even stepping out of my house; it could have caused me to become paranoid of strangers for the rest of my life; it could have even caused me to become racist since I’m white and the three assailants were black. The incident occurred over 20 years ago but none of these things happened because, although I didn’t forgive these perpetrators, I did overcome evil with good by implementing the Scriptural techniques covered in this article. Specifically, I prayed for these men for several weeks after the incident and a number of times since. Who knows? Some of them may be saved and serving the LORD today, hopefully all three. If not, they’re likely either destitute, dead or rotting away in prison. In addition, I refused to allow the crime to burden me in any way. Such a severe offense will definitely weigh on you if you allow it. So I vented by casting it on the LORD. I cast my anger, frustration and sense of violation on him and God faithfully filled me with life, peace, joy and faith, and continues to do so. Even when the crime was taking place I refused to allow it to embitter me; I literally thanked the thugs for not killing me and extended goodwill to them. I overcame their evil with good.
But none of this canceled out my God-given drive for justice, my concern for other potential victims and my submission to the God-ordained governing authorities. When it comes to criminal acts we are called to (1) seek justice and (2) overcome evil with good.
If you find yourself in similar situation I encourage you to do the same: Don’t automatically forgive the criminals by pardoning the offense (which is what forgiveness is) unless of course the Holy Spirit specifically directs you to do so. Seek justice by doing everything in your power to see to it that the thugs are apprehended and penalized by the authorities, which are instituted by God to protect lives & property and penalize wrongdoers. In addition, be careful to not allow the crime to ruin you in any way. Always refuse the victim mentality, no matter what. Instead be intent on overcoming the evil with good, as I did. Pray for the criminals. Pray for justice. Cast your anxieties on the LORD and he will sustain you. You’ll be blessed.
‘But Christ Instructed Us to Love Our Enemies!’
Yes, Christ instructs us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us and pray for those who abuse us. This releases God on the scene to hopefully move the adversary to repentance and salvation. The Greek word for ‘love’ in that passage is agape, which refers to practical love and not warm feelings or respect. If there’s any doubt, read the definition of agape in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. On the other hand, the other Greek word translated as “love,” philia (noun) /phileo (verb), refers to warm feelings/respect, like the love of friends and spiritual family. My point is that the Bible doesn’t instruct us to have warm fuzzies for wickedly abusive enemies, but rather to love them in a practical sense, which includes praying for them since they desperately need it. Yet this also includes reporting crimes to authorities so the criminal can get the discipline they require and society gets justice. This is a form of tough love whereas enabling someone to continue as a wicked thug is not love. The problem here is that modern people have a one-dimensional understanding of love. You can read more about the different kinds of love here.
As far as blessing our enemies and not cursing them goes, we saw earlier that this is a general instruction and not absolute (Romans 12:14). For instance, Paul openly rebuked Elymas the sorcerer and cursed him with (temporary) blindness as led of the Spirit (Acts 13:8-12). Peter did something similar with another sorcerer (Acts 8:18-24).
‘But Jesus Exemplified Graciousness’
Yes, he did, but let’s not be one-dimensional; he also exemplified several other things that characterize the Mighty Christ. Here’s one: The Messiah cleansed the temple of selfish, greedy riff-raff, which he did twice – once at the beginning of his ministry (John 2:13-17) and later near the end (Matthew 21:12-13). Although it wasn’t his normal every-day manner, Jesus threw over tables, scattered coins, cracked a whip, yelled and chased people & animals out, hardly the actions of a nice-guy doormat. And no one dared challenge him; he was a holy terror, pure and simple, provoking the religious leaders to fear him and plot to murder him (Mark 11:15-18). How do we explain these nigh shocking accounts? Doesn’t the Bible say God is love? Isn’t Christ one with the Father? Absolutely, but some situations call for the softer side of love and some the hard side. We have to be led of the Spirit realizing that sometimes doing the good thing may not be the nice thing.
You want more examples? Christ astonished and silenced his enemies (Luke 20:26) to the point that “no one dared ask him anymore questions” (Mark 12:34). He was incredibly bold, outspoken and had no qualms about offending arrogant people who were deserving of correction (Luke 11:37-53). He was forthright and honest when necessary – he got straight to the point without beating around the bush with overly diplomatic language.
All over the gospel accounts we see evidence of Christ being courageous, astonishing, amazing, authoritative and even frightening! Just look up these passages: Matthew 7:28-29, 14:26, Mark 1:27, 2:10-12, 4:37-43, 7:37, Luke 5:8-11, 7:14-16, 20:40 and the aforementioned John 2:13-17. People who insinuate that Jesus was some effeminate luvvy-wuvvy milksop obviously don’t know how to read!
“If Someone Takes Your Cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic”
This is something Christ instructed and it needs to be addressed because it seems to suggest permitting people to get away with criminal acts. Let’s read the full passage:
“If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”
The issue of turning the cheek is addressed here; let’s focus on the rest of the passage.
Years ago there was a woman at work who would leave her purse lying around. Sometimes money could be seen at the opening, usually just dollar bills. I informed her that she shouldn’t leave bills hanging out for all to see and she shrugged, “If someone takes it they need it more than I do.” She wasn’t even a Christian, but this is the general thought Jesus was conveying here. I am reminded of the many times over the years my wife and I allowed people to borrow books, cds, dvds, apparel & tools and never getting them back; we usually concluded, “They must need it more than we do” and let it go. (And, no, I’m not saying you shouldn’t get your stuff back from borrowers, particularly expensive items). Here’s how Jesus put it in Matthew’s gospel:
“And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well… 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
Back in those days there wasn’t a Walmart or Goodwill nearby to purchase inexpensive clothing; decent apparel was worth more, which explains why Jesus’ executioners cast lots for his soiled garments (John 19:23-24). This helps make sense of Jesus’ statement: “if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic…” If people are in such dire need that they’ll resort to legal measures to acquire clothing, give them another item as well; that is, as long as it’s within your power to do so. After all, there’s a limit to how much you can give. Bill Rudge was ministering in Haiti years ago and he noticed some needy people while going back to the mission compound. He gave away his shoes, shirt, tank top and socks. All he had left were his shorts and that’s as far as he would go, otherwise he’d have to streak naked to the compound! He had more clothes back with his luggage, of course, which is why he was able and willing to give away everything but his shorts.
Yet, Christ’s teaching goes deeper than this. The Lord was advocating being in control of the situation: If a man takes your jacket he’s in control, but if you respond by willingly giving him something else you’re in control. You just usurped control of the situation. We could put it like this: Don’t be a passive victim and don’t be a rash brawler; but be assertive and led of the Spirit. Maintain an attitude of love, wisdom and self-control in all circumstances, just like the Mighty Messiah.
I think it’s also important to stress that Christ was referring more to people in genuine need rather than hardcore thieves, which is substantiated by verse 42: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” The motive for giving on such occasions is generosity and compassion. You sympathize with the needy person just as you would want others to sympathize with you if it were your plight. This is the golden rule or “royal law” noted in Matthew 7:12 and James 2:8. But there’s a huge difference between needy people wanting to borrow from you, or taking things and never giving them back, and hardcore criminals who routinely commit crimes, whether stealing, murder or otherwise. The latter should not be tolerated.
For instance, why did some of Jesus’ disciples have swords in their possession as shown in Luke 22:49-50? They had ministered with Jesus for over three years by this point, which indicates they carried swords because Jesus permitted it. Why did he permit it? Because they traveled with a money box that contained all their ministry earnings as they journeyed from town to town. The swords were obviously for protection from potential thieves, particularly in the many desolate regions they had to travel.
Furthermore, if Jesus meant we should be doormats to every thief and criminal that comes down the pike why did he radically chase the “robbers” from the temple twice during his three-and-a-half-year ministry, as depicted in John 2:13-17 and Mark 11:15-18? Why did he refuse to allow murderers to apprehend and kill him on multiple occasions, as illustrated in Luke 4:28-30, John 7:30,44, 8:59 and 10:31,39? As pointed out earlier, the only time he submitted his life to the hands of thieves and murderers was when he was arrested in Gethsemane because it was God’s will that he suffer and die for the salvation of humanity. It goes without saying that we have to be balanced with Christ’s teachings and example in the Bible, otherwise we’ll fall into error and embrace ideas he never actually taught.
As you can see, the New Testament is far from one-dimensional when it comes to dealing with offenses, whether personal or criminal. Believers are not called to be passive doormats to abuse. Rather we have spiritual weapons and wise strategies for overcoming evil with good, including tough love. This comprises prayer (intercession), casting cares on to the Lord (venting), confrontation (rebuke) and forgiveness when repentance is evident.
As far as criminal acts go, we are to go to the God-ordained governing authorities to apprehend justice in the hope that the perpetrator will be caught & punished for the sake of justice and the protection of others in our communities. Of course we each have a responsibility to protect ourselves from bitterness, hate and fear by venting to the Lord and interceding for the criminal(s) in question, not to mention being active in our Christian service, which keeps us productively occupied.
For an excellent biblical example of dealing with criminal offense and overcoming evil with good — including tough love — check out the amazing story of Joseph here. His example is significant since he was a type of Christ and believers are Christ-followers/learners.
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