QUESTION: You taught about unconditional love and respect, but how can I respect someone who isn’t respectable? It seems to me that respect is something you earn. How do you respect a Charles Manson?
RESPONSE: It’s important to distinguish between the value of how one is acting and the value of the person. The way a person acts may be, in all honesty, worthless. But does that mean the person is worthless? No. That person, foolish and self-centered as they may be, is made in the image of God, with will and freedom and a moral center, an immortal soul and nobility. These are gifts, you don’t earn them or work for them, they are just the value that you carry because God made us in his image. A person is a magnificent creature, a thing of awe and beauty – no matter what.
It’s due to this inherent worth, that in marriage we can love an unlovable wife or respect a disrespectful husband. Because it is based on their worth as children of God. It may help you to look at it like this: I am not respecting this man, so much as I respect the God who made him “fearfully and wonderfully”. (Ps 139) He made ALL men this way and there’s not a person you’ve locked eyes with who doesn’t carry the stamp of God, and therefore also an inherent worth and incredible value – they matter.
So there is no time at which they become someone whom you are “allowed to” or “ought to” disrespect. They may have done disrespectful things and this happens – often! Those things are not to be honored, or respected, nor tolerated indefinitely (see my example below).
Of course, we should be long on tolerance for disrespectful or unlovable behavior, since everyone carries the disease of sin as equally as we carry the Image of God. And that’s another reason why we just don’t ever have that moment where God says, “OK, now treat this person disrespectfully, because they deserve it!”
So then we shouldn’t say that love or respect should be earned. What we are probably trying to say is that is it is foolish to trust someone who has been untrustworthy. Yes, it is foolish to trust an untrustworthy person, since they will put you at risk by their established track record of bad behavior. But even with trust (as opposed to love and respect), to rehabilitate a repeat offender, trust cannot always be earned, it must sometimes be given as a gift.
So the Christian gives love and respect and sometimes yes, even trust, unconditionally.
What a terrible world we would live in if I only got the respect or love that my actions at any moment deserved. Certainly there would be times that I would get praise and honor and reward, but then, I’d have just as many times as I’d reap shame and dishonor. And then what kind of person would I turn into? A miserable one either way, because I’d be proud and judgmental when I receive honor or I’d be shameful, guilty and fearful when I fall out of favor. This is the yo-yo world of just desserts, of Karma, for every action an equal and opposite reaction, and it’s a world that God’s grace in Christ was meant to save us from.
But what should we do when disrespectful or unloving behavior happens, and affects us deeply? Here’s what we do: Don’t condone or ignore. Also don’t treat this as a justified opportunity to become sarcastic, critical, shaming, withdrawing or vengeful – because “they deserve it”. We have no right, because God commands respect and love unconditionally. Instead, we approach such bad behavior with the truth in love. We truthfully point it out (after proper self examination Matt 7:3-5) and we do so in love (Ephesians 4:15), always ready to forgive (Matt 18:22). The language we use is respectful, and the treatment is loving, because the person who has failed us is still valuable to God. We respect God by respecting them, yes, even a murderer.
Now, if there’s no repentance, no honorable acknowledgement, no confession, no humility, we are not called by God to continue to expose ourselves to reckless and sinful behavior indefinitely. This is where we say, “trust must be earned.” Paul tells Christians to “warn a divisive man once, warn him a second time, after that have nothing to do with him.” (Titus 3:10). The respect is given in the gracious confrontation and love is shown in the repeated warnings (we don’t just dump people after one offense).
But we may have to protect ourselves if the man of dishonorable character and actions won’t have the respect for himself (or God) to see correction as a gift and return to love and relationship. So even as we may distance ourselves from disrespectful and dishonorable behavior, even if we cannot trust them, we are continuing to honor and respect that person! How? By giving them the honor of correction. And the honor of honesty. And finally we give them the honor of a choice, the honor of freedom to do as they please.
Great example I saw recently: A man’s wife left him for another man. It was ugly, unloving behavior. But she’s valuable to God, made in his Image, and my friend treated her like that, even after she ran off. It was a struggle for him, of course, but this showed me it’s possible to honor a dishonorable person. How did he do it? He didn’t vengefully dump her. He patiently sought good counsel and invited her into reconciliation talks. He didn’t flame her out with friends, or seek immediate divorce. When she showed some signs of life, he welcomed them. He treated her nicely in their post-separation conversations, even when she was clearly still shacking up. He didn’t maliciously seek to keep her from her son, or her stuff still lying around their house, or even half of his retirement! All that is loving and respectful behavior towards someone engaged directly in unloving and disrespectful behavior.
At the same time, this did not go on indefinitely. After 2 years of total abandonment, as a sort of a last act of cowardice, the cheating wife didn’t even have the decency to make official what she had clearly, already done, which is divorce her husband. Too lazy? Too cheap to hire the lawyer? Who knows. So my friend finally made official what only his wife made possible – the end of their marriage. His action showed that we don’t simply ignore disrespectful behavior, nor do we fail to protect ourselves from it when the time comes. We just believe that we don’t treat people at every moment as their actions deserve, and in this way my friend imitated God most beautifully. (Psalm 103:10)
And thank God for that, because, as one teacher once said, “great marriages are populated by two great forgivers.”