One of the most humiliating things I’ve ever agreed to was allowing people to line up and “pie” me in the face. When I was a student pastor, someone “dreamed-up” the idea to host a fundraiser with our students that would include my wife and I getting pie pans smashed on our faces if the kids met a certain financial goal. They not only met it, they tripled it. On the evening of the event, I was excited for the fun and silliness of the idea and expected it to be short and sweet and savory (who doesn’t love pie??). What ensued was worse than a political smear campaign. The kids were slow and methodical, even diabolical. The pies weren’t merely slapped on; they were slowly rubbed and forcefully applied. My wife and I found ourselves in tears before the night was over—humiliated and demeaned.
If you are serving in ministry, you may have never received a pie in the face. But if you’ve been doing ministry for any number of years, you’ve certainly been embarrassed, dishonored or disgraced. In ministry we may find ourselves being shamed publicly. There may have been a group that banded against us or people who spoke things that were frankly untrue and unfounded. Rather than shake off these accusations, we may be tempted to answer the rhetoric to our own dishonor. All of us would rather take a quick pie to the face than to be spiritually written off.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus admonishes us with a clear alternative to answering our critics.
In Matthew 5:39, speaking of the law and the “eye for an eye” command, Jesus narrows justice to exclude personal retaliation. He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.’” Slapping someone in the face in Jesus’ day would be the modern equivalent of spitting in someone’s face. It was not only demeaning, it was a scathing act of contempt. And yet what does Jesus suggest we do when slapped? Not to retaliate. The concept of Lex Talionis stated that retaliation, resembling the offense in kind/degree, would be acceptable to exact against someone who did this to you. If you were struck, simply strike back with the same force. If someone stole one of your goats, you get one of their goats. So when people leave your church rudely or speak publicly against you, the natural response would be to strike back.
Jesus says don’t retaliate when struck—but rather absorb it.
Leo Tolstoy misunderstood this concept and interpreted Jesus as saying we should never defend or stand up when being fought against, a concept known as pacifism. Obviously that’s a topic for another blog, but what then was Jesus’ command to His followers: to turn the other cheek. In our lives that means when we are struck with criticism, we follow Paul’s example to not revile when reviled against, but bless (1 Corinthians 4:12). To not answer fools according to their folly (Proverbs 26:4). To not speak evil of others ignorantly (Jude 8-10), but speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). As Spurgeon puts it into proper perspective:
“Brother, if any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be. If he charges you falsely on some point, yet be satisfied, for if he knew you better he might change the accusation, and you would be no gainer by the correction. If you have your moral portrait painted, and it is ugly, be satisfied; for it only needs a few blacker touches, and it would be still nearer the truth.”
You and I have the Holy Spirit’s ability to follow Jesus in this impossible command.
We can leave room for the Lord to convict the other party of their critical spirit and to speak truth to them in the inmost place. When Jesus was actually struck in the face, Matthew 26:67-68 tells us that He practiced what He preached: “Then they spat in His face and beat Him; and others struck Him with the palms of their hands, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, Christ! Who is the one who struck You?’” In that moment, Jesus didn’t strike back. He didn’t retaliate; He absorbed. “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). May we demonstrate the same behavior when unfair, unjust and untrue evil is spoken against us.
If we choose to believe that God is sovereign and just, we can leave room knowing that He will avenge and repay (Romans 12:19). We can pray for those who mistreat us and entrust them to the Lord (Luke 6:28; Romans 12:14). We may even see a change of heart and reconciliation, which will be for God’s glory and our good. The only pie that tastes bitter is the one on your face—but in the end, like me, you’ll see the joy and Gospel resolve that springs up from criticism. “So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” (Acts 5:41).