4 Reasons Not to Retaliate at Work

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In college, I worked at a quick service restaurant. At this particular establishment, they took the word “quick” seriously.

My haste led to sloppy work. As I grabbed chicken sandwiches, boxes of nuggets or bags of fries to place on trays or in to-go bags, I would oftentimes let a fry fall out, or I would grab sandwiches from the wrong spot.

Ms. Becky* was not amused. This middle-aged woman was the kingpin of the kitchen, and she would automatically become the dominant personality in any room she entered. She arrived at work every morning before 6am, and she had worked there for years. You either did things her way, or you hit the highway.

In my naiveté, I didn’t pick up on her subtle clues that she was unimpressed with my sloppiness. So, one day she sent a salad across the special order chute. The lid was cracked open, and the salad ingredients were sloppy and disorganized. I peered back into the kitchen. From the look on her face, I could tell it wasn’t a mistake. Clearly, she was sending me a message.

This sort of thing happened again. And again. And every time I passed food back to her to fix, she and I both knew what was going on. I had broached her kitchen code, so she was retaliating.

At the time, I was angry. Insulted. I was tempted to retaliate, to complain to a superior or vent to my coworkers.

Perhaps you have a similar story. Workplaces are fertile soil for conflict. In a workplace, diverse people with different personalities, backgrounds and interests work shoulder-to-shoulder in close quarters. Each worker has slightly different motivations — paycheck, respect or gaining the boss’ favor — and sometimes these motivations conflict with those of their co-workers.

Add in the normal stresses of the work itself, and workplace conflict is inevitable. Intentionally or not, someone will offend you, hurt you or attack you. And in these moments, the easiest response is to retaliate.

Workplaces are fertile soil for conflict.

Jesus’ Perspective on Retaliation

Jesus has something to say about retaliation.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
(Matthew 5:38)

Jesus was quoting an Old Testament civil law that was intended to limit retaliation. For example, if you steal a pen from my desk, this law ensured that I couldn’t steal your computer in revenge.

Yet some people began to use this law (which was intended to limit retaliation) as an excuse to justify vindictiveness. They were totally missing the point.

So Jesus issued a radical, countercultural challenge — to turn the other cheek. He explained,

But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
(Matthew 5:39-42)

Jesus urges us not to retaliate. Most of us want to push back against these words. When someone assails my work ethic, I want to point out their flaws. When someone fails to give me credit for an idea, I want to make my contributions known. When someone goes behind my back, I want to go behind theirs. [1]

Practically, then, how can you live out these words at work? How and why can you obey Jesus’ command to refrain from retaliating? Here are a couple of suggestions.

1. Believe that God’s justice is greater than your vindictiveness.

One reason we want to retaliate is because we fear that the person who offended us will get away with it. We long for justice in this situation, and we’re afraid there will be none.

When we think this way, though, we’re assuming God isn’t aware of this situation. As a result, we take matters into our own hands because we don’t believe God will do anything.

But we must listen and believe what the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:19:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.

We must believe that God’s justice is greater than our vindictiveness at work.

When a co-worker attacks your sense of self-worth, you can choose to remember who you are in Christ.

2. Remember who you are in Christ.

Oftentimes, we want to retaliate because someone has said or done something that degraded our sense of dignity or self-worth. Maybe someone sent an email to everyone but you. Perhaps they planned an event without your input. Whatever the situation, you feel lesser because of a coworker’s actions.

But consider this: When you repent and believe in Jesus, you become God’s child. You are one with Christ. And no one can say or do anything to you to change this reality.

So, when a co-worker attacks your sense of self-worth, you can choose to remember who you are in Christ. No matter how this person has degraded you, God has already upgraded you to the most valuable position in the universe.

3. Believe that “the lack of retaliation” is the greatest form of protest.

Remember the old saying: “Kill them with kindness.” When people knock you down, they expect you to punch back. When you choose not to retaliate, people take notice.

Martin Luther King, Jr. explained this principle well when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

4. Consider that Jesus chose not to retaliate.

If anyone had a right to retaliate, it was Jesus. The Roman soldiers didn’t just slap Jesus’ cheek; they flogged his body. They didn’t just take his tunic; they stripped him and bet on his clothes. They didn’t just force Jesus to go a mile; they told him to carry his own means of execution. They didn’t just make fun of him behind his back; they mocked him to his face.

Yet Jesus never retaliated. He never fought back. He willingly allowed himself to be humiliated beyond belief, and he did so for our benefit.

Yes, refraining from retaliation can be painfully difficult — especially at work. But we can take Jesus at his word, because he modeled this principle for us.

[1] To be clear, if you or someone you know experiences violence or abuse at work, you should immediately report such activity to a superior or to law enforcement. Doing so is not retaliation in any sense; it’s a necessary step in the pursuit of justice. Jesus is not excusing such behavior, nor does he condone it.

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Nathaniel D. Williams

Editor and Content Manager

Nathaniel D. Williams (M.Div, Southeastern Seminary) oversees the website, podcast and social media for the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture, and he serves as the pastor of Cedar Rock First Baptist Church. His work has appeared at Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, Fathom Mag, the ERLC and BRNow.org. He and his family live in rural North Carolina.

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