Author's note: the advice in this article is not meant to imply that we should shun those who have hurt our feelings or with whom we disagree. That is unavoidable, even in healthy relationships. The discussion of boundaries refers specifically to those who are abusive or have repeatedly or majorly violated our trust without sincere repentance. Thank you.
Q: I’m struggling. I’m trying to follow the Savior and turn the other cheek, but I feel slapped around so much my cheeks can’t take any more. He asks us to “go the extra mile,” but I feel like I’ve gone hundreds of extra miles. At work, and especially with my family, it seems being nice doesn’t get me anywhere. People take advantage of me and don’t respect me. Is this how it’s supposed to be?
A: Fantastic question. I see this regularly among Church members, a kind of cultural confusion about who Jesus was and what it means to strive to be like Him. Growing up as Primary children we sing: “love one another as Jesus loves you. Try to show kindness in all that you do. Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought, for these are the things Jesus taught” (Children’s Songbook p. 78). There’s even a classic New Era Mormonad depicting Christ with a small child, captioned with the words, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”
As a child, I had an idea of who the Savior was. That idea was incomplete. I first realized this as a teenager studying the New Testament in seminary. It hit me like a freight train, challenging my long-held assumptions: Jesus wasn’t always nice. He straight-up called the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites” and a “generation of vipers.” He bluntly warned individuals and crowds of the consequences of sin, candidly calling them to repentance. He angered a lot of people, so much so that they sought to have him killed.
My wife dryly observes that “if you’re trying to be like Jesus then brandishing a whip and flipping over tables are perfectly acceptable options for behavior.” So what does this mean? Are we not commanded to be kind, loving, and nice?
The first two? Yes. “Nice?” No. Jesus was never nice. Jesus was kind. There’s a big difference. Being nice is about not wanting to upset people or ruffle any feathers. Christ didn’t care about that. He had zero problem with upsetting people. That’s because He was kind. Kind people don’t want to hurt others, but they will speak the truth with boldness and love. Kind people care about the welfare of those around them. Kind people draw healthy boundaries because that’s good for everybody. The Lord upset plenty of people, but that’s not because He was mean. It’s because He was kind, direct, and honest.
Culturally we tend to misunderstand the Lord’s teaching that “the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil” (3 Nephi 11:29). We mistake conflict for contention. Contention is a heated disagreement. It involves anger and can escalate into malice and hatred. Conflict, on the other hand, is unavoidable as we navigate our differences or stand for the right. In trying to follow our Savior, we may erroneously become something that He never was: conflict-avoidant. There was perpetual conflict between Him and the scribes and the Pharisees. Did He back down? He did not. There is conflict today between the ways of the world and the ways of the gospel. There’s conflict between our will and God’s will. He doesn’t avoid any of it.
Christ didn’t yield to the spirit of contention, but that doesn’t mean He avoided conflict when it was a battle worth fighting. His teachings to “turn the other cheek,” “go the extra mile,” and “love your enemy” are designed to keep us from returning evil with evil, anger with anger, hate for hate, and force for force. They’re to keep our hearts full of love for all and create in us a giving spirit. He practiced that. But He still boldly drew boundaries and spoke His mind. He still does today.
Remember, it is He who warns that “God will not be mocked” and tells us that “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Our Redeemer has no problem telling us how He will and won’t be treated. Shouldn’t we, who are trying to follow Him, do the same with each other?
“Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him” (Matthew 5:25). This scripture is often used as an excuse to be conflict-avoidant, which too often leads to passive-aggressive behavior as we cope with negative feelings from unresolved conflict. Fact is, the Lord didn’t mean for us to agree with anything that was wrong or that we actually disagree with. That would be dishonest. Check the footnote on that scripture. “Agree” here is a translation of a Greek word that means “quickly have kind thoughts for or be well disposed toward.”
At work, with your family, and elsewhere, following Christ allows and even requires us to draw healthy boundaries to establish what we will and won’t do for others, as well as establish expectations for mutual respect. In cases where others don’t respect our boundaries, we can show kindness and love. We can let go of anger and bitterness. But we don’t need to let them be close to us.
The Lord commands us to forgive, but He never commands us to trust. Trust has to be earned, and those who don’t earn our trust don’t have the right to be around us. Isn’t that what God Himself does? “And the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel, and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name” (2 Nephi 9:41).
The Savior loves all, but the people who get to have a relationship with Him are only those who respect His boundaries and keep the conditions He has set. So who are you letting into your gate? Do you need to establish clearer, stronger expectations for those with whom you have a relationship? Are you willing to distance yourself from those who disrespect, use, and abuse you until and unless they repent of their behavior? You can forgive them. You can pray for them. But following Jesus means you don’t need to have a relationship of trust with them unless there is mutual respect.
God bless you. I hope this helps.