I had a job in seminary working at an apartment building. It was a great job, and I loved the people there, but I had a particularly salty coworker who would scream and yell whenever he was frustrated about something. Since we worked on weekends, and because I was the only one around, I was often on the receiving end of his frustrated tirades. The volume of his voice was not the issue, I’m a loud talker by nature, so I don’t mind it when others talk loudly as well. The issue was that when he was frustrated, his go to action was to communicate that I was stupid, incompetent, or worthless, even if the source of his frustration was one of his own mistakes. I am not the only person who has ever been in this situation. Many of us have coworkers, family members, friends, or even random strangers who react out of anger and seek to tear us down verbally. Their verbal attacks could be loud and overt like what I experienced with my coworkers, or they can be subtle and said with a smile. Whatever the method, we need to remember that conflict between individuals is a guarantee in this life. After all, we all live with and are tempted by our own sinful hearts. As Christians, how should we respond in such tense and stressful situations? On one hand, we as humans do not enjoy or relish being hurt by others, and we can be motivated to make the hurting stop by any means necessary. On the other hand, we are also called to live like Jesus and promote peace, loving our enemies even if we have been hurt by them. So, what are we left with? When faced with this kind of conflict our choices are retaliation, self-defense, and turning the other cheek.
Retaliation against other image bearers: What this looks like is revenge. The Bible says that we are never to repay evil for evil. Why is that? God is the author and creator of all things, including life. As its creator, God values the things which he has made. Chief among his creation is human life, because humans uniquely bear God’s own image. If God values all life, mine included, then why can’t I make someone else pay for what they have done to me, and feel the same hurt that they have caused me? Romans 12:19 makes it clear that vengeance is God’s and God’s alone. It is God’s place to make things right, and when we seek vengeance, we usurp God’s authority as Judge, and rebel against his created order. This rebellion is sin, and it just contributes to the brokenness of the world. If your goal is to make someone else feel the same pain that they have caused you, then you have gone too far and become an attacker yourself, a rebel subject to God’s justice. Therefore, retaliation must never be the course of action chosen by a Christian. Instead, we must trust that God is just and that he disciplines those he loves, even when it seems like there is brokenness everywhere.
Self-defense as image bearers: Not only are others who are made in God’s image valuable and worthy of defense but so are you. There are times when one must respond to an attack, particularly if that attack harms more than just your pride, but your reputation and witness. In 2 Corinthians 10:1-11, Paul’s rivals accused him of being disingenuous: humble in their presence, but bold when at a safe distance. Paul takes the gossip and words of his accusers and he meets head on, showing them how their characterization of him was wrong in each instance. This served as a defense of his ministry and witness to them. We may also face emotional abuse, repeated attacks that cut at our identity as image-bearers. God does not just care about how you treat others, but he also cares about how you allow yourself to be treated. If you are in a position where you are repeatedly manipulated, criticized, and put down, then you must respond. No one can withstand such long-term abuse without having their identity as an image bearer and person destroyed in the process. In such instances as these, where we have been so verbally abused that it becomes impossible to see how anyone could love us, much less God, then self-defense becomes necessary, not only for our own good but also for the good of the one who has attacked you. Matthew 18 shows us that defending yourself properly (i.e. not seeking to hurt another for the sake of revenge) can lead to the restoration of your reputation, the repentance of your attacker, and the restoration of the relationship.
Turn the other cheek like the ultimate image bearer: This is the best option because we are not just called to protect others and ourselves, we are also called to look more like Christ. R.C. Sproul once wrote, “[Jonathan] Edwards helped me see that I had allowed my soul to become distressed, and that was sin. Instead of seeing the attack on me as an occasion to imitate Christ and to grow in my sanctification, I had resisted God’s Spirit, who had brought this painful event into my life for my edification, that I might remember where my treasure is.” Insults can often feel like a storm, knocking around objects not firmly rooted and anchored into the ground. However, even though insults communicate that we are unworthy, worthless, and not enough, insults do not have to define us. They did not define Jesus, even though his suffering weighed on him because his value and focus was on his Father. If our identity is firmly planted in Christ, in how God has made and gifted us, in who God has called us to be, and in the simple fact that God loves us and cares for us, then insults will not have the sting that they might have had before. Instead, when insults come, turn the other cheek. We live in a broken world where even Jesus, the perfect God incarnate, was insulted, mocked, and attacked. If the only perfect person who ever lived was attacked in such a way, then how much more should we expect to face similar trials? When insults come, look at it as an opportunity to grasp more tightly on our hope in Christ: that God defines you as someone who is valuable, who has been made intentionally and with a purpose, and that his love for you can never be diminished.
This conflict with my coworker was not constant. His outbursts started off very intermittently, and the infrequent nature of his tirades made if easy to swallow my pride and to turn the other cheek. In my head, I would tell myself that I am a sinner just like he is, and Jesus has forgiven me for my sins. Therefore, I should turn the other cheek and show him the love of Jesus. Maybe he would see that his actions towards me are wrong and stop on his own. However, over the course of the next year, his outbursts happened more frequently, and his verbal attacks intensified. He was not just having a bad day, he had settled into a pattern where he felt that it was acceptable to tear me down. I had a choice, either let this continue until I graduated from school and moved onto another job, or I could confront him. I decided that if he attempted to tear me down again, then I would speak up. Coincidentally, the next time I saw him he decided to try and tear me down. I won’t sugar coat it, our conversation was loud and intense, but I made sure not to try and make him feel the way I had felt. My goal was to let him know that I would not tolerate being spoken to in the manner he had been accustomed to. Standing up to my coworker put an end to his pattern of verbal attacks towards me, and our relationship improved. We never became best friends, but our working relationship was healthy, and it would not have been that way unless I stood up for myself. Personal attacks are some of the most difficult things we can endure. In Psalm 109, when faced with verbal attacks, King David found comfort in the fact that God was aware of what was happening, and that he is sovereign. No matter what happens, we have hope that our Lord stands at our right hand, ready to save us, even amid conflict. Trust him, and remember that we have all been made in his image. Never lose sight of his love for us and the new creation that we have become.