Turning the Other Cheek

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. –Matthew 5:39

A recent post reminded me of an experience I had my first couple years in graduate school. It was a difficult, painful experience that taught me a lot about anger, forgiveness, and what it means to be Christlike when another person is trying to manipulate you.

Without going into too many details, I had some difficulties with a roommate that turned quite painful. To make a long story short, she decided to resolve the situation on her own (without discussing things with me), and then demanded that I accept her decided course of action. While I don’t think she realized what she was doing, she attempted to emotionally manipulate me into accepting her proposed solution by telling me how awful of a roommate I was and how it was my fault we were in the situation in the first place.

I spent a large chunk of the 3-4 months the situation was at a head either on the phone crying or on my knees trying to understand what God would have me do. I wanted to be compassionate, because this roommate had been a friend and I knew she was extremely stressed by the situation, but at the same time, the roommate’s solution would solve things for her but make things much worse for me, and I didn’t feel right about ignoring my needs. The main thing I struggled with was the Savior’s command in Matthew 5:39 to “turn the other cheek”: that when someone wrongs us, we should respond with meekness, submission, and forgiveness, rather than anger or revenge. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what this really meant, and how this applied to my dilemma (admittedly, it was on my mind partially because the roommate was regularly asking me why I was refusing to act more Christlike, and I am pretty easily manipulated into feelings of guilt).

Eventually, after much prayer, I decided on a solution that was a compromise and wouldn’t give either my roommate or I everything each of us wanted: I acceded to some of her requests, but I also set conditions that took my own needs into account. To this day, I feel like this was the solution that God wanted me to pursue, and things were resolved, but because of the emotional fall-out from this situation, I was angry and upset for months, and I ended up switching wards. It took quite awhile for me to be able to forgive this person, but eventually, forgiveness came and I moved on with my life.

The lessons I learned:

*”Turning the other cheek” does not mean allowing others to take advantage of one’s kindness. Yes, it is best to not retaliate when others have wronged us, but it also doesn’t mean allowing oneself to be emotionally manipulated, abused, etc. Taking care of one’s own needs is important.

*If someone is manipulating you (even unintentionally), it is best to minimize contact with that person.

*Forgiveness is sometimes slow in coming, especially when others do not realize they have wronged you, or do not apologize for their wrongs. This is okay as long as we are searching for forgiveness.

*Anger is a natural response to being wronged. While we should not dwell on our anger, we shouldn’t ignore it either. It is important to work through anger with God’s help so that we can reach a place of forgiveness.

*Working through anger directed at a person with whom you cannot discuss this anger (see above comment re: emotionally manipulative people), often means sharing your experiences with others who are not involved. While it is important to not share one’s experience for the purposes of dwelling on bitterness or engaging in gossip as a form of retaliation, the empathy and understanding that can come from sharing can be healing.


  1. Seraphine, I completely agree with what you have to say. I have a random little story to go along with it. My family was having a discussion on these verses a few years ago when my dad was in his Game Theory Phase (fortunately he grew out of that one somewhat). As you recall Christ pointing out, the law used to be “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” or effectively, “tit for tat.”

    We then read about going two miles with someone instead of just one, turning the other cheek (you only have two cheeks, unless you want to get cheeky* with your interpretations), and giving someone your coat AND your cloak (not necessarily your poncho and your boots as well). Christ does not seem to be saying we should let someone walk all over us. Looking at each example literally, it is interesting that each one only requires us to do twice of what is asked of us, i.e. we ought to allow the person two “tat”s, and that’s it.

    Forgiveness is a different story though (as it says, we ought to forgive seventy times seven times… essentially infinitely).

    *Sorry. I couldn’t pass up the pun! 😀

  2. Katie B, I’ve never heard that reading of that particular scripture. While I don’t know that we should have a set number of offenses we allow (which I don’t necessarily think you’re arguing for), I do think it’s important for all of us to set boundaries after a certain point and say “this is enough.” So, thanks for reiterating that.

  3. Nice post, Seraphine.

    But there are a lot of assumptions here. Must forgiveness be slow in coming? Why? I know of nothing that says it must be so.

    “Anger is a natural response to being wronged.”

    It may be common, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. We don’t have to feel angry. Neither our bodies nor the other person is forcing anger upon us.


    Look, I think, between this post and the last, there are two different but similar ideas going back and forth that are getting mixed up. A number of you smart daughters have been essentially saying what I will call law #1: You can’t tell someone to stop feeling hurt or angry. I agree. You can’t. It doesn’t work, at least, 9 times out of 10 it doesn’t. Therefore, all that’s left is just to show sympathy. That’s the only option available. Lynette said in the other post that it should be our first response, but realistically, it’s our only response.

    However, in spite of the above, there is another truth I will call law #2: You CAN tell yourself to stop feeling hurt and angry and succeed in doing so. Most people don’t believe this, usually because they felt they have tried and then failed. But you can. It’s not that complex but it is a little difficult to explain. What multiplies the difficulty of explaining it is the pure linguistic problem of one person having to explain it to another at all. Because we are all hurt or angry at times, in order to explain law #2, you have to go through law #1. And that ends it the discussion.

    Seraphine, as I interpret the argument at the end of your post, your conclusion seems to fall in line with law #1, which I will say again that I agree with. And I think most people do. But within your premises are ideas that appear to conflict with law #2. However, in this scenario, the very act of refuting those premises is itself a violation of the (true) conclusion. And we get nowhere. Does this make any sense?

    I think most normal human beings believe in at least of portion of these two laws. And due to the gospel, I think Mormons have a somewhat more acute understanding of both laws than others. But because of the seemingly paradoxical nature of these two laws, we usually just end up with massive communication problems within our wards, marriages and families. And unfortunately, these miscommunications generally just lead to further hurt feelings and misunderstandings.

    I think I know a solution to these problems, but I’m afraid I can’t tell.

  4. Eric, I said that “forgiveness is *sometimes* slow in coming” not that it *must* be.

    I think I’m going to have to disagree with your premise #2, though. And I’m going to do what m&m often does and quote a GA (this is Elder Faust in the Nov. 2001 General Conference). Basically, the point of his story is that sometimes when the hurts are deep, we do not have complete control of our pain and anger and healing can only come through the Atonement (which it eventually will if we seek it, though sometimes it is slow in coming):


    A sister who had been through a painful divorce wrote of her experience in drawing from the Atonement. She said: “Our divorce . . . did not release me from the obligation to forgive. I truly wanted to do it, but it was as if I had been commanded to do something of which I was simply incapable.” Her bishop gave her some sound advice: “Keep a place in your heart for forgiveness, and when it comes, welcome it in.” Many months passed as this struggle to forgive continued. She recalled: “During those long, prayerful moments . . . I tapped into a life-giving source of comfort from my loving Heavenly Father. I sense that he was not standing by glaring at me for not having accomplished forgiveness yet; rather he was sorrowing with me as I wept.”

    “In the final analysis, what happened in my heart is for me an amazing and miraculous evidence of the Atonement of Christ. I had always viewed the Atonement as a means of making repentance work for the sinner. I had not realized that it also makes it possible for the one sinned against to receive into his or her heart the sweet peace of forgiving.” 33

    The injured should do what they can to work through their trials, and the Savior will “succor his people according to their infirmities.” 34 He will help us carry our burdens. Some injuries are so hurtful and deep that they cannot be healed without help from a higher power and hope for perfect justice and restitution in the next life. Since the Savior has suffered anything and everything that we could ever feel or experience, 35 He can help the weak to become stronger. He has personally experienced all of it. He understands our pain and will walk with us even in our darkest hours.

  5. Seraphine, I see nothing in this story that disproves my statement #2. It takes some people time because of their own hearts, but it does not have to be that way. I agree that healing comes through the Atonement. But it is always there and available to us if we will reach out to it. We can reach out right now.

  6. I think you are totally on track. I’ve been reading some books on forgiveness. And one of the things I learned was I had to quit being the victim. I had to put up barriers to that someone else couldn’t sin against me. When I allow someone to sin against me, I then let myself feel justified in being angry at them. I need to protect myself, so I can protect my relationship with my Heavenly Father.

  7. Unfortunately, Eric, your #2 almost always infringes on your #1. That is, being of the opinion that people are only angry if they choose to be and that they just aren’t doing it “right” effectively eliminates the assumption that you can’t tell people not be hurt or angry.

    I am glad for you that you are able to let go of anger and hurt immediately. And I agree that you are not the only one; we have seen evidences of that in the news in the recent past, and it’s always encouraging and uplifting for me.

    But (check it out!) we’re all different. We’re in different places spiritually. I don’t think that the place you are in is “better” than that of the person who takes longer to come to forgiveness than you do. It’s just different.

  8. I really appreciate your thoughts on forgiveness, Seraphine. There’s obviously danger in not taking enough responsibility for our actions. But I also think there’s at least as much danger in taking too much responsibility for our actions. Forgiveness is tricky: we should love people no matter how they treat us, but I also think it’s sometimes difficult not to fall into the belief, as part of extending that forgiveness, that we somehow deserve to be mistreated.

    It’s true we should forgive, but my experience has been that if no one else will validate your feelings that you’ve been treated inappropriately, you lose the ability to validate your own feelings. You unfortunately start thinking that forgiveness means accepting that you deserve to be treated badly.

  9. Eric, perhaps we are more in agreement than I assumed, though I like what Ann and Kiskilili have added: while I am willing to call my close friends on behavior that appears like they’re attempting to make themselves more miserable by wallowing in anger and bitterness, etc., I see my validation and empathy as a step to helping them reach that point. As Kiskilili points out, humans need understanding and validation as part of the process of seeing one’s own self-worth, recognizing where responsibility lies, and figuring out how to forgive and move on.

    Charity, I like how you envision boundaries as something that is necessary to avoid ending up in a place where one is adopting the role of victim. I do think when we are constantly victimized (and part of that can be allowing ourselves to be victimized by not establishing proper boundaries), it’s much easier to fall into the mindset of blaming everyone else and thinking “everyone’s out to get me”.

  10. Eric’s point that we have an individual choice to be angry or not is very right. I had a scrap of paper floating around my desk from a sacrament talk a few weeks ago. I’ll try and paraphraze what was written on it. When someone offends you unintentionally, only a fool gets angry. When someone offends you intentionally, only a fool gets angry.

  11. Charity, that’s downright trite.

    Somebody from church sexually assaults your child. Only a fool would be angry?

    Somebody from church deliberately misrepresents an investment that is actually a pyramid scheme, stealing thousands of dollars from you in the process. Only a fool would be angry?

    “Offense” isn’t something that we take only because someone said something thoughtless or unkind about our weight or hairstyle or child-rearing abilities or political preferences. When our lives are seriously damaged by the actions of others, it’s not foolish to get angry.

  12. I’m quite fascinated by this discussion. I actually grew up with a firm belief that anger was a choice, and that if I felt it, I could simply tell myself to stop feeling that way and the emotion would disappear. I so much wanted to be “nice,” and in my mind nice people didn’t get angry. But sadly it didn’t disappear; it simply showed up in a variety of other ways, and often rather destructive ones. I’ve been in a fair amount of therapy in my life (you’re now all invited to play “guess the diagnosis” ;)), and one of the hardest things for me to learn has been that my unpleasant emotions can’t be eradicated through willpower alone. I’m aware that different people have radically different emotional styles, and I’m quite open to the possiblity that what’s helped me might not be what’s helpful for everyone. But I can say that in my own life, what I’m struggling to learn is to acknowledge my feelings of anger and hurt, to listen to what they’re telling me instead of attempting to immediately squash them or telling them to go away.  Doing that is hard for me, sometimes really hard. But I have to admit that when I’ve been willing to take that route, it’s led me to much greater peace in the long run.

  13. There is such a thing as righteous anger and sadness, even God describes feeling these emotions. Since God doesn’t always immediately quash these feelings within himself I think it is unfair to ask us to do the same. I’m curious, though, where the distinction is between the unrighteous anger, and the righteous anger. Does the difference lay in what we do with those feelings, how long we keep them, or perhaps in subtle differences within the emotion itself?

  14. I’m very sympathetic to the general tenor of comments here; in my own life I’ve had very similar experiences, and I’ve found that forgiveness sometimes requires distance.

    But I’ve always wondered: if forgiveness does not demand that we put ourselves into situations where we are repeatedly victimized–and my belief is very much that it does not–what, then, we do with the verse in the Sermon on Mount about not resisting evil and about turning the other cheek that Seraphine places at the beginning of her post? It does seem to suggest that we not defend ourselves.

    How do all of you understand this passage?

  15. In one of Eugene England’s essays he cites the work of Walter Wink on nonviolence:

    [Wink] argues that the passage I have just read from the Sermon on the Mount has been misunderstood: Christ’s command to “resist not evil” is assumed to mean we should be passive in the face of evil. Wink points out that that is a bad translation. What it more accurately says is “Do not respond violently to violence.” . . .

    Wink points out that in that culture smiting a person on the right cheek was done only to humiliate inferiors and only with the back side of the right hand. The left hand could only be used for unclean tasks, and to actually strike a person, an inferior, directly with a fist would be to recognize them as an equal. So if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek, the left cheek. Now he can neither strike you with his fist nor backhand you with his left hand, which puts him in a remarkably difficult position: even your process of submission becomes a judgment on his violence.

    (from Eugene England, “The Prince of Peace,” in Making Peace: Personal Essays)

    I’ll leave it to the New Testament scholars among us to weigh in on the plausibility of that interpretation, but I find it intriguing.

  16. I’ve heard that same interpretation Lynnette. Something that I think supports it’ is that the vast majority of bullies (I use the term ‘bully liberally to describe anyone of any age who is mean, manipulative, or abusive) aren’t particuluarly interested in what they’re doing to you, they’re interested in the feeling of power they get from making you do something you don’t want to do. By giving them more than what they asked for you are defining the terms of the relationship and are reclaiming control of the situation. Sure the bully probably won’t have an instant change of heart and will still run off with your coat and your cloak too, but the situation will not have been satisfying for them in the way they are accustomed to because you denied them the power of manipulating you. Also, if the bully isn’t after that feeling of power, chances are they actually need something, be it whatever they are stealing from you, or simply some positive attention. I think the bishop from Les Miserables illustrates this principle and it’s effects on the life of the bully perfectly.

  17. Eve, thanks for restating one of the concerns of my post. It was a question I had (but didn’t really have a good answer for). And Lynnette, I really like that interpretation (even if it’s not entirely accurate), so thanks!

    Charity, I think I’m going to have to agree with Ann. While I think there are many instances where we get irritated about small, inconsequential things, and we need to display more patience and less anger, I think in situations where true offense has been given (such as the serious examples Ann states), it is difficult, and not necessarily wise to try and immediately escape/ignore anger (or you can run into some of the problems that Lynnette has run into).

  18. Starfoxy, I love the question you ask:

    I’m curious, though, where the distinction is between the unrighteous anger, and the righteous anger. Does the difference lay in what we do with those feelings, how long we keep them, or perhaps in subtle differences within the emotion itself?

    I wish I had a good answer, but I don’t. I tend to think that there is a difference in the emotion itself (that there is a form of anger that God feels that is justified), but because I think that as mortals we are most likely to end up in a place of unrighteous anger, that we should not try to justify any anger as righteous anger. Instead, we should just focus on working through the anger, dealing with it, etc.

  19. #17 Seraphine wrote: I think I’m going to have to agree with Ann.

    Y’all will save a lot of time if you program a keyboard macro to type that statement out 😛

  20. As number two hundred and fifty-eight thousand five hundred and eighty-five most wittily profound person in the Mormon bloggonacle, I’d say it’s not so much anger itself that’s good or bad as the actions resulting from it: “By their fruits”? So that spontaneous anger as channeled to motivate rightous actions such as forgiveness or else not overreacting while still not wanting to stand for abuse: HMM…YEAH, I LIKE!; whereas, self-protective instincts allowed to result in inordinate resentment and secret designs of sabotage: UMMM…NNNNO, NOT SO MUCH. :^)

    A sticky question, though, since, as Ecclesiastes says, there’s a time for peace a time for war and making a stand sometimes means we have to resort to pummeling bullies.

  21. I just recieved an email citing a book review that mentions certain pitfalls of what it terms “spiritual practice”.

    This particular quote made me think of this thread:

    The clinician should be mindful of the “defensive misuse of spirituality and inflation of the ego.” For example, a client’s suppression of strong feelings of anger, rage, depression, sadness, or hatred by a pseudospiritual presentation of forgiveness and love for all people should be gently confronted in case the client is using spirituality as a defense against emotions that feel too dangerous to allow into conscious awareness.

    I know for myself that my most powerful experience of being able to forgive came only after I allowed myself to fully feel my anger and then work through it.

  22. klh, it does seem like there are occasions where anger can be helpful or justified. Still, I think it’s such a volatile emotion and can be so easily used for wrong and hurtful ends that I tend to do my best to work through it and rid it from my life.

    AmyB, thanks for the quote, and I’m in agreement with you. I’ve definitely fallen into similar kinds of pitfalls myself, and I’ve found that working “through” the anger (by allowing myself to feel it and deal with it) is the tactic that has worked the best in my life.

  23. I was talking with my husband about righteous anger, and he thinks that it doesn’t apply to us as humans, that it only applied to Christ. I’m not sure I agree, but we have been told to forgive everyone and that Christ will forgive whom he will forgive.
    So, righteous or unrighteous, I know I need to be a lot more patient and a lot less indignant.


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