The Bible never says life is easy. God never promised to give us the easy life. It’s true that Jesus did say “my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” but look more closely at that sentence. “MY YOKE is easy and MY BURDEN is light.” No matter what, you will always have a burden in this life to carry. That’s tough to accept. We all wish for the easy life instead. If you’re like me, you probably wish that God would just make all your problems go away. Maybe give you the winning lottery numbers. I tell God, of all the people out there, you should let me win the lottery. Because if I win, you know it’s going to a good cause. I’d build a few churches with that lottery money. An orphanage, of course, and a hospital too. I’d even tell God, you know what Lord, I’m not the greedy type. I don’t need $300 million to be happy. Just let me win the basic jackpot, just $2 or $3 million, and I’d be fine with that. But, no luck. No one in my family has ever won the jackpot.
However, there was this one time when my brother did hold a winning lottery ticket in his hands. It was a Mega Millions ticket worth $170 million. You see, my family has a corner store out in the backwoods of Ohio. My brothers and I would constantly be working in the store, and if there was one thing we were always selling it was lottery tickets. Now a lot of our regular customers are blue collar workers, handy men who go around looking for odd jobs. One such customer is this guy named Jim. Every week, Jim and his construction buddies would do a lottery pool together. On the mornings after every drawing, Jim would have this routine of coming into the store and getting my brother Bruce to check if he won anything. So on that fateful morning, Jim comes into the store and at first it’s the same as usual. He gives Bruce his ticket, looks at the newspapers, checks if he needs cigarettes. My brother scans the ticket, and looks at the screen. He rubs his eyes and looks at the lottery machine for a second time. A third time. He can’t believe it. My brother gets to be the one to tell this man that his life will never be the same again. “You’re… a millionaire!” my brother tells him. Jim, of course, thinks Bruce is just joking. But my brother shows him the lottery screen. Jim is initially dumbfounded, but then he starts shouting frantically in excitement. He kept yelling, “Rags to riches, baby! Rags to riches!” But with a lot more swear words. Can you believe that? Jim never has to work another day in his life anymore. He still decided to stay in the area. Got himself a new truck and a new house. Never has to worry about anything ever again. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
We all prefer the easy road. It’s natural for us as humans to seek an escape from the hardships of life. Unfortunately, a lot of churches today are all about catering to our desire for that sort of comfort. They want to attract people with a version of Christianity that is free from burdens. A version of the spiritual life that is free from pain. You could call it softball spirituality. We see this all the time in the different kinds of church cultures around us. There’s the health & wealth culture, which is all about trying to leverage worldly success from God. Using God to make yourself rich. There’s the café culture, where people try to make their church aesthetically pleasing and as relaxed as possible. Basically make it feel like you’re shopping at an Ikea. And of course there’s the family values culture, where Christians care more about living inside of a safe bubble than going out into the world. Keeping their kids away from anything that might seem remotely offensive. These are all ways that church leaders have tried to sell us an easy kind of faith. But life is not easy, no matter how much we try to dress up our churches with nice and expensive things.
We all have hard things in life to face, the things that are challenging and embarrassing and sad to talk about. To avoid these issues is a mistake, only setting us up for more frustration when things don’t work out how we hope they will. So rather than letting our faith be an excuse to run away from the problems of the world, I want to focus on what Jesus tells us to do instead. Jesus wants us to make a stand. He wants us to stand tall when troubles come. Jesus doesn't teach us how to have a life free from pain.
In Matthew 5:39, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached one of his most famous sayings ever. “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” It’s such a challenging teaching that people, to this day, don’t really know what to make of it. I think the Sermon on the Mount is truly one of the most difficult sections of the Bible to interpret. People have all sorts of different theories about what Jesus really means here, arguing about whether Jesus meant his words to be taken literally or not. One time I heard a person preaching on this passage, and they claimed that Jesus was saying you should just let people steal from you. Just let people take advantage of you whenever they want to. Which is basically the unhealthiest advice I’ve ever heard in my life.
Another popular explanation is that, according to some, Jesus is making the case for nonviolence. For pacifism. For never fighting back. They look at those words “do not resist,” and again, they take it to the literal extreme. I’ve heard people say this verse means do not resist Hitler, do not resist al Qaeda, do not resist corruption. Their argument is that if you let the world go to hell, somehow God’s love will still prevail in darker times. On a practical level, this actually sounds like the least loving thing you can do, because you’re just standing by and letting people be murdered. But on a scriptural level as well, Jesus isn’t really talking about fighting, about what to do when you’re being physically attacked. He’s talking about something different, because the person in his example is being slapped—specifically on the right cheek. What he’s picturing for us is a backhanded slap, and that’s the kind of gesture someone makes when they want to insult you. It’s what someone would do when they want to assert their authority over you, like an abusive master over a worker. So Jesus is not telling us what to do if someone wants to get into a fight with you. Realistically, how often would that happen to anyone one of us, anyway? Instead, Jesus is telling us what to do when someone is trying to make you feel smaller. When something is trying to keep you down, trying to humiliate you. It’s about when you confront a situation that you don’t have any control over. Jesus doesn't teach us how to be free from pain. He teaches us how to take the hits.
That’s what it means to turn the other cheek. It means being strong enough to take the hits that come your way. We Christians get so caught up in trying to figure out the nuances of the text, looking for the cross references and the grammar structure and the historical context, that we sometimes miss what God’s Word is saying in plain sight. Turning the other cheek means you get hit! You get slapped in the face! But, you don’t walk away. You don’t wilt in the midst of pressure. You don’t pretend that everything is ok. You face facts: there is no silver lining. None of us are going to win the lottery. Not everyone gets to achieve their dreams in life. In fact, most people won’t reach their dreams. There’s something they don’t teach you in school. Life is hard. So turning the other cheek, more than anything, means having courage. The courage to face the pain of our lives… lives that didn’t turn out how we hoped.
How has life slapped you in the face? How has life mistreated you? Maybe it’s hard to make ends meet. You’re living paycheck to paycheck, and no matter what, it seems like you can’t get out of debt. Maybe you’re lonely. It’s tough to admit to being lonely when everyone else seems to be doing well. We can hide it so well. Maybe you’ve lost something in your life that has been hard to get over. You feel this loss every day and it seems like nothing will be able to fill it. Life can really slap you in the face.
In my other ministry directing the Youth Collaborative, I think about all the urban youth in my city. What chance does a teenager with dark skin have in today’s America? Leaders and politicians don’t care about them. We all know that Rhode Island has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. But even when jobs do come in, they always go to the commuters and the gentrifiers. I think about all these kids around us, every single one of them with hopes and dreams for their future. What’s going to happen to those dreams as they get older?
So we don’t need a health & wealth Jesus who gives empty promises of success. We don’t need a hipster Jesus that pretends everything is interesting and zen and can be solved with a social media post. We need a Jesus that can help us in troubled times. We need the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus who told us to take the hits—and then he took those very hits on himself, when the authorities finally caught up to him. People need the Jesus who tells us to be resilient—and then he showed us just how resilient he really was, because he didn’t just get up off the ground, but he got up out of the grave. People need to hear about the Jesus who didn’t run away from life’s problems, but did the exact opposite: Jesus actually left the easy life, he left paradise, just so he could be in the mud and the dirt with the rest of us miserable human beings. I think that’s the Jesus people need to hear about.