Can a Christian stand up for his rights? Can he defend himself verbally? Can he be assertive? Or should he always "turn the other cheek"? Here is what the Bible ready says about assertive behavior.
Phyllis is twenty pounds overweight and painfully aware of it. All night long her husband has been making joking remarks to other partygoers about what she and the Goodyear blimp have in common. His remarks hurt her deeply, and she feels like crying inside. But on the outside she laughs at his gibes along with everyone else. After all, he is only being clever, and she is getting a bit tubby, isn't she? On the way home she develops a splitting headache, takes two aspirin and goes to bed without giving him so much as a good-night kiss. In the morning she pretends to sleep in, and he goes to work without "waking" her. She spends the day under a cloud of depression, cleaning out the refrigerator for consolation.
A Common Experience
Like Phyllis, a lot of us suffer humiliating experiences which hurt us deeply and perhaps leave permanent scars. There are few of us who haven't come away from a situation wishing we had stood up for our rights — told people that they couldn't walk all over us like that. But we didn't. Instead we walked away feeling aggravated, resentful, angry or perhaps more than a little depressed. Many of us lack the nerve to say no to door-to-door salesmen, out-of-line neighbors who ask to borrow prized possessions, or friends who offer us responsibilities in local clubs when we're already over-committed. We might have trouble telling someone to roll up the car window when our sinuses are aching, or even asking for somebody at the other end of the table to pass the butter. And a lot of times we're trapped because of this, caught up in a situation of somebody else's devising. Because we're forced to act against our will, we feel a great deal of anger and resentment. But again, we're very hesitant to express it, so it comes out as a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness, anger or depression. Some women especially feel that they have no rights. Having been indoctrinated with the idea that they must at all costs please everyone — husband, children, parents, mother-in-law, next-door neighbor and the entirety of the local PTA — they feel bombarded with conflicting demands that can't possibly be reconciled or fulfilled. They feel that they are helpless pawns — nonpersons who don't have the right to say what they want to do in a given situation.
But Isn't Martyrdom Christian?
But you might wonder, "Isn't that a truly Christian way to behave? After all, aren't we supposed to turn the other cheek, suffer and take wrong, let people walk all over us?" Let's examine this question in detail. There are three basic styles of behavior, which experts have classified as passive, aggressive and assertive. When Phyllis allowed her husband to make cutting remarks without speaking up in her own defense, she was behaving passively-allowing another to take away her rights by default. Social scientists have found that chronic passive behavior begets all kinds of emotional difficulties, and leads to generally poor mental health. Had she behaved aggressively, she might have turned the evening into something of a "who's-afraid-of-Virginia Woolf" situation, letting others at the party know in a subtle or not-so-subtle way that her husband was no prize either — that he let an important deal slip through his fingers last week, that he can't bowl worth a hoot, and besides, he's not all that great a lover. She would return measure for measure and then some, making the poor fellow wish he'd never bothered to crawl out from under his rock and show his face. Sometimes a person who's been passive in a certain situation will finally "blow his cork" — he's taken all he can take, and now he's going to let them have it. And he behaves in an aggressive manner, stomping all over other people's rights in vengeful retaliation. Aggressive behavior is not generally socially acceptable. Nor is it usually Christian. "Returning evil for evil" is negative, impolite and hurtful, and those who behave aggressively as a matter of course cannot be classified as truly mentally healthy, either. The third and most attractive form of behavior is assertiveness. Had Phyllis behaved assertively she might have remained silent at the party. But on the way home, or perhaps even the next night after her husband had returned from work and had time to relax, she would have approached him in a kind but firm manner. She would have said she accepts his wish that she lose weight. She too is painfully aware she has a problem and is doing her best to eliminate it. But she does not like the way he keeps after her constantly, embarrassing her in public and ridiculing her in front of their friends. In fact, his behavior causes her to feel hurt, attacked, put down and depressed, and this is frustrating to her — it causes her to eat all the more. She would say all this nicely and privately, without accusing or belittling him — but she would say her piece and say it firmly. She would let him know that she does not like that kind of treatment and that it will inevitably lead to future conflicts.
Was Christ Assertive?
But again, the question arises: Is assertive behavior a truly Christian way to act? After all, didn't Jesus humbly and meekly allow Himself to be crucified and killed without standing up for His rights? The Bible shows us that Jesus Christ really did behave in an assertive manner. He did stand up for His rights, not allowing a pack of accusers to murder Him before His time came to voluntarily give His life for mankind (see Luke 4:28-30). And even when it was time for Him to die, He asserted His full legal right in not giving out information about His disciples. When the high priest asked Him about His followers and His doctrine, He answered: "I didn't do anything in secret — why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said." Then one of the officials nearby struck Him in the face. "Is that the way to answer the high priest?" he demanded. Jesus then said: "If I said something wrong, speak up about it. But if I spoke the truth, why did you hit me?" (John 18:19-23.) So Christ Himself wasn't intimidated into giving up His rights by a bullying official. He "went as a lamb to the slaughter," but He went of His own accord, not because some petty Palestinian officials had the legal right to make Him do so (see John 10:17-18). Christ constantly asserted His rights as the Son of God, healing on the Sabbath in spite of picky pharisaical regulations, and driving the moneychangers out of His Father's house, the Temple. The apostle Paul also behaved assertively. When confronted by an annoying case of demon possession, he ordered the evil spirit to leave him and his party alone (Acts 16:16-40). And when this led to their being thrown into jail, uncondemned but beaten in spite of their legal immunity to such treatment as Roman citizens, Paul asserted his full rights. He demanded that the magistrates apologize and personally escort him out of prison. When politely asked to leave town, he just as politely ignored the request and entered into Lydia's house, visiting and comforting the brethren until he was good and ready to depart. On another occasion Paul escaped a beating by again asking the officials if it were legal to scourge an uncondemned Roman citizen (Acts 22:22-29). (And to falsely claim you were a Roman citizen was punishable by the death penalty, so they knew he meant business.)
Turning the Other Cheek?
So it would seem that neither Christ nor the apostle Paul "turned the other cheek" in the sense that some interpret Jesus' words in Matthew 5. What, then, does this phrase really mean? Matthew 5:38-41, part of Christ's Sermon on the Mount, reads: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs "from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you" (RSV). Here Christ is reacting to the lex talionis (law of retaliation) of the Old Testament, which stated that revenge was to be appropriate" an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," no more and no less (see Exodus 21:23-24 and Deuteronomy 19:21). This law limited the amount of revenge one could take on another. In other words, if a man knocked out your tooth you couldn't break his neck for it. But now Christ is saying "vengeance is God's"; that a Christian should forgive rather than exact a specific legal penalty from one who wrongs him. In other words, taking aggressive action against someone who wrongs you is not in keeping with New Testament Christian principles. We are not to return evil for evil (Rom. 12:17); rather we are to forgive our enemies. Here Christ is actually advocating assertive behavior — being in control of the situation. If someone takes you to court and demands your inner garment, give him two garments — your outer one as well. (Old Testament law forbade a creditor to keep this cloak or outer garment overnight — Exodus 22:25-26.) If a Roman courier conscripts you into carrying his mail pouch one mile, show him that you are doing it of your own free will. Go an extra mile. We are not to participate in aggressive retaliation, but Christ here urges that we take control of our lives — that we use the options available to us. ("So you think you have control over my life because you took my shirt. Well, I'll show you that you don't — here's my coat, too, which I'm going to let you take." Or, "Come on — I want to carry it another mile. It's my choice and I want to do it.") So if your enemy hungers, feed him. But if he just walks up to you and grabs your chicken-salad sandwich, you are not feeding him voluntarily. You are not "turning the other cheek" or "going the extra mile," because you had no choice in the matter. The apostle Paul admonished the Corinthians to react assertively rather than submit to false teachers (II Cor. 11:1-21). He wrote: "For you bear it if a man makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face" (verse 20, RSV). The implication is very plain — they ought not to have put up with such people who took advantage of them. They had the right to assert themselves. Instead, they were passive and submissive, encouraging aggressive behavior on the part of those false teachers.
Laying Down Your Life
So Christ's example is one of voluntary sacrifice. He said: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13, RSV). That's the essence of Christianity. But is it love if a person murders you and takes away your life when you didn't want to give it? A person shows true Christian love when he doesn't have to do it, but freely and willingly chooses to share what he has with someone who is in need. He gives "not grudgingly, or of necessity," but because he wants to. And if someone wrongs him, he takes an assertive stand. If that person doesn't comply with his wishes, he has nonetheless maintained his dignity, and he can believe in faith that in spite of the outcome, "all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). Some people say that Christianity contributes to neurosis — that it causes people to "turn the other cheek" in a nonassertive manner, building up a reservoir of frustration that ultimately leads to aggressive behavior. But as we have seen, this kind of "turning the other cheek" is not true Christianity at all — it's a false understanding of what Jesus meant and what God requires. No, true Christianity calls for freedom — for standing fast in that liberty that Christ has given us. As assertive Christians, we can by our own voluntary choice give up our rights, and lay down our possessions, our time, or even our lives in service to others. We have been given freedom of choice and the right to behave assertively.