10:30 Saturday evening and Susan’s phone rings. Wanting to
ignore it, she lets it ring four times, then out of guilt
picks it up. “Hi, how are you? This is Pat,” a woman’s
voice announces. Before Susan can respond, Pat continues,
“Hon, I know this is asking a lot, but could you pick me up
at the bus station and drive me home? I’ve just gotten in
from San Diego.”
you have the money for a taxi?” Susan asks. “If I have
to,” Pat responds. “But you know, Christmas is only a
month away, and I really need to conserve . . .”
already worn out, still has work to do on a Sunday school
lesson she has to teach. The bus station is twenty minutes
away and Pat’s home on the other side of town. By the time
she’d get back she’d have no energy left to prepare.
Besides, Pat has taken advantage of her more times than Susan
would like to tell Pat she has neither the time nor the energy
to come for her. And, when she can collect herself, she would
like to speak honestly with Pat about her presumptuousness.
Yet Susan remembers Jesus’ admonition to go the second mile.
“Isn’t this clearly a situation where I need to bend for
someone else?” she wonders. “Wouldn’t confronting Pat
violate Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek? Doesn’t
God require me to deny myself for Pat’s sake?”
assert yourself or not to do so? To stand up for yourself or
to go along with someone else’s wishes? We struggle with
this issue often as Christians. For Susan, the question is
whether to cave in to a friend’s unreasonable expectations.
Like her, we each face situations where people try to take
advantage of us—occasions when friends expect too much of
us, for instance, or when someone in business tries to exploit
us. The sensitive Christian wonders, “Should I stand up for
my rights--or is it more Godly to give in?”
other cases our concern isn’t with standing up for our
rights but with whether to express ourselves
straightforwardly. Should I speak up and say what I’m
thinking in this class? Should I tell her how much I care for
her? Should I share my faith with him? Should I state my
qualifications confidently in this job interview?
of us are uncomfortable asserting ourselves in some
situations, and some of us are uneasy doing so in any setting.
One problem may be that we are shy or feel awkward with
people. We fear we’ll fail in our attempt to be outspoken
and experience unbearable embarrassment. Learning how to
confront and manage our fears is a major step forward in
becoming more assertive. We need to strive, too, for greater
optimism about our possibilities for success.
we’re often hindered as well by misconceptions about
biblical teaching. We assume that being assertive implies
behavior that is patently un-Christian: demanding our rights,
trampling over the needs of others and feeling the freedom to
blow our lid whenever we feel like it.
writers and teachers who promote assertiveness have two goals.
One is to help individuals “own” their own lives--to break
free of the control of others’ expectations and to stay in
control their emotions when they speak. If I ventilate anger
at others, for example, it suggests that I’m not being
freely assertive but am letting their expectations control me,
for I’ve allowed them to upset me. Owning my own life is
more likely reflected in my responding calmly, even politely
to them. Thus the feisty Manuel J. Smith, author of a
best-selling book on assertiveness, devotes a surprising
portion to helping readers learn to accept criticism
graciously and nondefensively.*
other aim of assertiveness training is to encourage
individuals to take initiative to express their convictions
and concerns honestly to others. Such self-expression
shouldn’t be at the wholesale expense of others’ feelings,
it’s stressed; indeed, assertiveness is most effective when
exercised with empathy and compassion. Still, expressing
yourself is important. It contributes not only to your own
well-being and productivity but to the quality of your
relationships as well.
defined this way, assertiveness is not incompatible with
Paul’s instruction to speak the truth in love to each other
in Ephesians 4:15. There, he clearly admonishes Christians to
be assertive, at least within certain boundaries.
we may be more inclined to think of the boundaries than of the
freedom or mandate implied in any biblical teaching on
assertiveness. And the notion of owning our life, at the heart
of assertiveness training, seems to fly in the face of what
we’ve long been taught--that we must sacrifice our interests
for others’ needs. Can such unselfishness possibly reconcile
with owning our life?
Your Own Life
fact it can, and the two concepts go hand in hand in
Scripture. In the biblical understanding, I am called to give
myself to another’s needs as an act of free will.
It’s this free-choice aspect of my decision to help another
that makes it a true response of Christian compassion. Yet I
can only give myself freely if I own my life in the first
in this spirit that Paul declares, “Though I am free and
belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as
many as possible” (1 Cor 9:19 NIV). Here and elsewhere Paul
emphasizes equally his cherished liberty as a child of Christ
and his deliberate decision to invest his life for the sake of
others. Because he is free to begin with, he can make the
choice to sacrifice for others from compassion and healthy
the Scriptures instruct us to give ourselves to others’
needs, in fact, the assumption that we must first own our life
is implicit. We see it in various descriptions of Jesus
himself. He was able to wash his disciples’ feet, for
instance, because of his strong sense of identity (Jn 13:4-5).
find it, too, where we might least expect--in Jesus’
teaching about turning the other cheek in his Sermon on the
Mount. There he cautions against a retributive spirit and
mentions three occasions when we should give double compliance
to an aggressor:
“You have heard that it was
said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you,
Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the
right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants
to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as
well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two
miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from
the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Mt 5:38-42 NIV)
It might seem that Jesus was
exhorting us to be a doormat to others’ aggression and
abuse, and many Christians have taken his teaching in exactly
this way. I’m certain this is the last thing Jesus meant.
Rather, by urging double compliance, he was telling us to take
control of an unjust situation.
By choosing to walk a second
mile with someone, instead of the single mile they demand, I
demonstrate that I am deciding for myself what my response
will be. From this angle, going the second mile and turning
the other cheek are profoundly assertive acts. Such double
compliance also aims to have two redemptive effects on the
other person. It shows him I will not let him manipulate me,
and perhaps erases his desire to do so. It also shames him for
his decision to take advantage of me.
Considering the Outcome
This perspective is truly
liberating, for it suggests that if turning the other cheek
will not affect another redemptively, or will result in
someone’s harm, I’m not expected to respond in this way.
The Mennonite men during the Russian revolution who stood by
and allowed soldiers to rape their wives, seriously
misunderstood Jesus’ teaching on passivity.
Numerous unjust situations
occur where we benefit no one by complying with the injury or
by rolling over and playing dead. A woman whose husband abuses
her helps neither him nor herself by allowing him to treat her
In the same way, I am usually
kidding myself if I think that any positive Christian witness
results from allowing someone in a modern business situation
to cheat me financially. An impersonal climate exists in most
business transactions today that renders turning the other
If a car dealership performs
shoddy repairs on my car, for instance, I help no one in their
spiritual journey by choosing not to complain. Employees
won’t likely connect my silence with my Christian
convictions. The proper Christian response in this case is to
point out the problem to them and to calmly but persistently
insist that they make the proper repair--for by doing so,
I’m denting their conviction that they can take advantage of
Does the Shoe Fit?
I also doubt that Jesus meant
to lay the mandate of turning the other cheek upon all
believers at all stages in their spiritual development. He
gave this instruction to his “disciples” (Mt 5:1)—that
is, to those who were at a stage of growth where they were
ready to respond to others at this level.
Not once in the Gospels, for
instance, did Jesus preach self-denial or the need for noble
sacrifice to someone who was physically or emotionally ill.
Instead--and without exception--he healed that person and did
not immediately lay the burden of moving mountains upon him or
her. It was to those who were well, in body and mind, that
Jesus urged self-denial. They were able to give themselves to
others for his sake because they had a self to give.
There is, in short, a
developmental process in becoming assertive that accords fully
with biblical teaching. Turning the other cheek is the ideal.
Yet we must be honest with ourselves about whether we’re
ready to do it in a healthy manner. If you’re shy, you’ve
probably found it difficult to stand up for yourself and to
make independent decisions. Allow yourself time to grow and to
learn to own your life more fully. Then, when you can truly do
it freely, be open to those special instances when Christ may
call you to turn the other cheek. Focus first upon becoming
more assertive, as part of taking responsible stewardship of
your life as a Christian.
One other point is helpful to
keep in mind in turning-the-other-cheek situations. As my
friend Omar Omland points out in his inspiring book The
Third Mile, Jesus spoke of double compliance in certain
situations, but never of triple compliance.*
While he encouraged the second mile, he didn’t necessarily
recommend a third. There may be limits, then, to how fully he
expects us to sacrifice in order to help someone. In every
case the vital matter is that we give ourselves freely.
We’re called first to own our life, then to respond to
others’ needs in light of the energy God gives us and the
priorities he lays upon us.