Cultivating Contempt for Contempt

“What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”

So says the cover of the book our small group has begun reading together. This book, Sacred Marriage, by Gary Thomas, is one my husband read about a year ago for a class he took on gospel-centered marriage; he has recommended it as an excellent read at least once in a previous blog of his. I am only now getting a chance to pick it up, and I would join him in encouraging married couples to consider reading it together. Even if you think you have a great marriage, it’s challenging material. Thomas discusses with convicting boldness the various ways in which marriage is the environment God uses – if we’re willing – to develop the character of Christ within us.

While I’m nowhere near done reading, I just finished a chapter entitled “Holy Honor,” which focuses on how marriage can teach us to respect others, beginning with our spouses. I was deeply struck by Thomas’ emphasis of a particular idea within this chapter, wherein he says that God’s word call us to “have contempt for contempt.”

I was struck by this emphasis, I think, because while marriage is ideally a loving and intimate relationship, it is a common occurrence to instead witness husbands and wives talking to and treating each other with contempt. You might not initially label the behavior that way, but how often do you hear one spouse speak with a derogatory or dismissive tone toward the other in a moment of thoughtlessness? I know I’ve been guilty of doing that very thing. This kind of disrespectful behavior, left unchecked, can create a marital environment that is more contemptuous than loving.

Let me share a little of what Thomas says about this idea:

This chapter deals with the discipline of showing respect, particularly to your spouse. The sad truth is that comparatively few Christians think of giving respect as a command or a spiritual discipline. We are obsessed with being respected, but rarely consider our own obligation to respect others.

Scripture has much to say in this regard. We are commanded to respect our parents (Leviticus 19:3); the elderly (Leviticus 19:32); God (Malachi 1:6); our spouse (Ephesians 5:33; 1 Peter 3:7); and in fact, everyone: “Show proper respect to everyone,” urges Peter, the devoted disciple of Jesus (1 Peter 2:17).

All of us have a visceral desire to be respected. When this desire isn’t met, we are tempted to lapse into a self-defeating response. Rather than work to build our own life so that respect is granted to us, we work to tear down our spouse in a desperate attempt to convince ourselves that their lack of respect is meaningless. Spiritually, this becomes a vicious and debilitating cycle that is extremely difficult to break.

God has a solution that, if we adopt it, will revolutionize our relationships. While many people fight to receive respect, Christian marriage calls us to focus our efforts on giving respect. We are called to honor someone even when we know only too well their deepest character flaws. We are called to stretch ourselves, to find out how we can learn to respect this person with whom we’ve become so familiar. And in this exploration, we are urged to “have contempt for contempt.”

Think about that for a moment – we are called to honor, to respect our spouse even when we know only too well their deepest character flaws. No one sees your husband’s flaws as clearly as you do. No one knows your wife’s weaknesses the way you do. Familiarity and repeated exposure to their deepest struggles with sin can create one of two responses – contempt or compassion. Which one of these heart responses does it most often elicit in your marriage?

Now turn it around. This is exactly the environment – this marriage to a sinner, living day in and day out together under one roof – in which God intends to try you, refine you, and expose your sin. And as He exposes your sin, it’s your husband or wife who has the front row seat. How does your spouse most often respond to you in that situation? How do you want them to respond? And how do you react when they don’t respond with compassion?

Isn’t it amazing how blind we can be to the double standard we were living out when we first got married, perhaps even still are living out? We wanted our new spouse to be that one person in the world who really knows us and loves us for who we are – but then we all struggle mightily, don’t we, to love our spouses for who they are, especially when we’re staring at their weaknesses, besetting sins and failures. Have you come to love your husband or wife with all his or her flaws, or are you still living out that double standard, wanting your spouse to accept and love you, yet struggling to do the same?

Tremper Longman III and Dan Allender capture the problem concisely, I think, in the following quote, also pulled from Sacred Marriage: “We must never be naïve enough to think of marriage as a safe harbor from the Fall…the deepest struggles of life will occur in the most primary relationship affected by the Fall: marriage.”

We want marriage to be a safe harbor from difficulty and the struggles of sin – at least we want that for ourselves – when the reality is that the closest relationship you will likely have this side of heaven is the one place where God clearly intends to reveal your sin…and your spouse’s.

If we wanted to revolutionize our marriages, we could take to heart one simple fact and live out of that fact every single day: our spouse is a sinner, and needs God’s grace shown to him/her, through us, every single day. We simply must accept our spouses just as they are, and love them through the lifelong process of their sanctification. Thomas says it this way (emphasis mine):

(I am) called to extend gentleness and tolerance toward my wife. I want her to become all that Jesus calls her to become, and I hope with all my heart that I will be a positive factor in her pursuit of this aim (and vice versa). But she will never fully get there this side of heaven, so I must love and accept her in the reality of our lives in a sin-stained world.

Loving your spouse for who he or she is doesn’t mean you let them off the hook for poor behaviors; it doesn’t mean they don’t have to continue the battle with sin in their lives. It simply means that, when you are confronted with the oh-so-familiar pattern of their weaknesses and failures, you don’t allow your response to be contempt, but compassion.

They need your compassion desperately. After all, they are married to a sinner, too.

Philippians 2:1-8 (emphasis mine)

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

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