In last week’s article on obeying, I touched briefly on the concept of unconditional respect. Several people commented or emailed me asking for more on the subject. I don’t think I have much to add that will strike anyone as particularly profound, but I will try to flesh out the idea a bit more nonetheless.
I’ve been reading Love & Respect by Emmerson Eggerichs. The book is called Love and Respect and is written to husbands and wives. But I’ve snarked with other friends who’ve also read it that it needs the subtitle, But Mostly Respect. It’s aimed heavily at wives, which I sometimes resent. The book focuses on the unconditional love husbands are called to give their wives and the unconditional respect wives are called to give their husbands. Of course, unconditional love is a much more commonly accepted idea among the type of Christians reading such a book, so it makes sense that the author takes longer to convince the reader of the need for unconditional respect than he does for unconditional love. Once I got over my irritation with the unbalanced emphasis between love and respect, I was reminded of what I already know – respect is my husband’s love language. In other words, when I show him unconditional respect I am showing him unconditional love. There is no way that is more effective at communicating my love for him than this respect that God instructs me to show. And there is no more effective way at communicating a lack of love for him than treating him with contempt or sarcasm.
Most of us understand the concept of respect. But the idea of unconditional respect is a paradigm shift for many of us. Unconditional means without conditions or limitations. Respect is esteem or honor given someone; something that reflects the worth or excellence of a person. When you put the two together, we are talking about honoring someone in a way that reflects their worth and value without conditions based on their behavior. Ephesians 5 clearly instructs wives to respect their husbands just as it instructs husbands to love their wives. And both commands are given without condition. In fact, the entire point of the illustration of Christ and the Church in Ephesians 5 is that this love that husbands extend to wives is a sacrificial love without respect to the recipient’s loveliness. While Christ is making His Church beautiful, she was not in that condition when He sought her. Likewise, the husband is to love even the unlovely wife. Whether she is externally or internally lovely, the husband is to love her without respect to her condition, just as Christ loves the Church.
Eggerichs is correct that such unconditional love is way easier to understand than unconditional respect. But when you get the first, you are well down the path of understanding the second. I know how offended I would be if my husband put out the vibe that I need to earn his love. Being loved unconditionally is a blessing to the recipient that actually draws them toward the light. Could it be that way with respect as well? I believe strongly that it is. The key to the kind of respect that truly ministers to a man, the kind that doesn’t suck the life out of you as the wife, is that before you respect him, you love him. Paul in Ephesians 5 seems to assume such love from a wife for her husband. Some wives don’t love their husbands, and, frankly, I don’t know how to talk about respecting your husband if you don’t love him. Respect costs a wife at times, and without love for our God first and our husband second, the price will seem to high. The Greatest Command once again shows why it is indeed the most important thing.
I wrote the following in The Gospel-Centered Woman.
1 Peter 3 1 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct.
I observe several important things about these verses from I Peter 3. First, there is something winning about submission and respect. The Greek word for won, kerdaino, can also mean gain or profit. The context involves a husband who is disobeying the Word. This is a very serious issue. Peter is teaching that in this serious situation, respect is a powerful response that wins over your opponent. Note that he does not say it defeats him. The difference in defeating and winning over is profound.
Some women may not want to win over their husband. Given enough hurt or anger, they may rather defeat and destroy, leaving scorched earth in place of their conflict. In that case, this Scripture will only chafe against that desire. But if you love your husband and do not want to see him destroyed even as he walks a disobedient path, then respect is God’s powerful weapon for winning him. There is gain and profit to be found in this respect, which is more powerful than words according to this passage.
Note also that this chaste, respectful response in the face of disobedience is not the same as sweeping a husband’s sin under the carpet. This passage does not encourage a wife to ignore sin or pretend like it does not exist. That response does no one any good. The entire point of the passage is that this husband is clearly disobeying, and Peter’s instruction is not that the wife pretend he is not. There are two unhelpful reactions to a husband’s sin, and the first one is ignoring or minimizing it. Our culture calls it enabling. The second unhelpful reaction is one that relies on words over quiet character and strength. A wife may need to draw a line in the sand in light of her husband’s ungodly behavior, but Peter’s instruction indicates that fewer words are better.
In Love and Respect, Eggerichs emphasizes that respect for a man is like his air hose as he dives through the depths of the ocean. He needs it THAT MUCH. Speaking to him with respect and treating him with respect does not mean ignoring his sin, but it is KEY to speaking about his sins or shortcomings in a way that he can actually hear. If you truly love him and want to strongly help him, respect him. Without condition. I am of the firm conviction that this instruction in Ephesians 5 is a sweet gift to both husbands and wives in the midst of conflict – truly a light shining on a treacherous path that illuminates the way to respond.