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Do Intellectuals, Wardens, Social Workers, and Doctors Understand Unconditional Respect?

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In Stanford’s educational series, we read, “In the literature of moral and political philosophy, the notion of respect for persons commonly means a kind of respect that all people are owed morally just because they are persons, regardless of social position, individual characteristics or achievements, or moral merit.”

Respect regardless!

Wait. What? No!

Yes.

Does this mean one’s merit and ability have nothing to do with receiving respect? Indeed, another's character and competency ignites feelings of respect in us for them. We should show respect toward those who deserve our respect due to their merit or ability. We most certainly ought to feel and show respect toward Martin Luther King Jr. or Hank Aaron due to their merit and ability. They have earned and deserve our respect. 

However, if we only show respect to those who have earned it with their merit or ability, then we miss God’s call on us to treat the lost soul with unconditional positive regard simply because they are created in God’s image.

As Christ-followers we are to display unconditional respect for others, regardless of merit or ability, because of the Imago Dei (Image of God) both in others, and in ourselves.

Unconditional Respect Because of the Likeness of God in Other People

First, we display unconditional respect because the other person has the residual of the Image of God within them.

James writes, "With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way" (James 3:9-10).

Did you catch the phrase “made in the likeness of God”?

Though the person may deserve to be cursed, we do not curse them because of who they are deep within apart from their carnal conduct. God tells us that we ought not to curse individuals made in the image of God.

James means that even though others do what we deem worthy of cursing, we refrain from hateful and contemptuous words. We refrain not because we pretend the other person did no wrong and is undeserving of rebuke, but because this person is made with intrinsic worth. Cursing them would be cursing the likeness of God in them. There is a line over which we must not step. We give unconditional respect because we reverence the likeness of God in every human being. Our complete commitment and belief drive unconditional respect in the likeness of God in each person.

Even people who say things like, "God damn you" have entered cursing by calling down the supernatural to inflict punishment and harm. James prohibits this. No matter how unthinking and habitual the cursing may have been expressed, this person is still guilty of cursing the image of God in the other human being.

Cursing also entails any offensive expletive uttered out of anger and annoyance, which in many instances evidences that we are a holier-than-thou person habitually agitated at the imperfections of others. Though we say we care, we care more about ourselves, given we react with contempt and disdain. In condemning the other as pathetic, not only do we disrespect the likeness of God in the other, we prove how small and pitiful we are.

Does Showing Unconditional Respect Mean Sanctioning Evil?

This raises the question: Should we say nothing about another's shortcomings and sins? Sadly and unacceptably, some have never learned how to respectfully confront that which is unrespectable. They think there are only two options: keep your mouth shut about evil or praise the evil. In either case, one must sanction evil.

Those who refuse to abstain from speech about unrespectable behavior or refuse to affirm unrespectable actions default to what they think is their only alternative: disrespect and contempt. However, one need only respectfully confront that which does not reflect the likeness of God in them. This isn't rocket science.

Though James instructs us not to curse, he does instruct us to speak and correct. The absence of cursing has nothing to do with the absence of communication and confrontation. We read in James 5:19-20, "My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins."

The Likeness of God in a Person Versus Liking the Person

Unconditional respect does not mean that we necessarily like the person created in the likeness of God. The attitudes and actions of the other person can be anything but respectable and likable. For example, this isn't about us having positive feelings toward a person who habitually lies. Their sinful character and conduct are not likable. We do not have to like someone who fails to act on the likeness of God inside them.

This is about who God calls us to be—one who sees the likeness of God in the other person and treats them respectfully though they do not deserve this treatment. We always believe in their potential to repent and align to the image of God inside of them.

Because we wish to influence them to repent, we hold back from carrying the negative truth that they need to hear about their carnal conduct via disdain and disgust. That rarely works. Regardless if the other person receives what we tell them, this is about who we will be when clearly communicating what is true, kind, and necessary for this person to hear.

Why No Unconditional Respect?

Why, then, do some refuse to apply unconditional respect? A professor of philosophy writes, “If I deem someone else not worthy of continued respect, I am essentially downgrading their status to that of a thing, something beneath me that I can dispose of or use at will. But who am I to make such a decision? How can I possibly claim to put myself in a position to judge someone else like this? Perhaps God knows that the person I refuse to respect is not really worthy of being respected, but lacking such an absolute perspective on things, how could I ever decide that another person is really not worthy of respect? The only way I can do this is by assuming that I am somehow above the person I condemn. But that is an unjustified (and, in fact, immoral) assumption to make."

One readily notices that such folks tend to be angry, self-righteous, and judgmental. They can actually be worse sinners as self-righteous Pharisees than the guilty sinners they are condemning. Pharisees see themselves to be inherently better, and the other ought to be damned. Jesus was more troubled by Pharisees than known sinners. The self-righteous Pharisee can be more disrespectful than the sinner is unrespectable.

Unconditional Respect Because of the Likeness of God in Us

Second, we choose to be respectful in tone, word choice, and action because we choose to conduct ourselves in ways that reflect the likeness of God. This is who we will be, no matter the condition of the other person. We make this choice because we know our attitude of hate and contempt is sin.

Does this mean that we refrain from confrontations and withhold consequences related to their unacceptable behavior? No. Years ago, in the Atlantic Monthly, a story about an American prison caught my attention. It was one of the most successful prisons for rehabilitating criminals in the country due to the warden, Dennis Luther. “The root of Luther's approach is unconditional respect for the inmates as people. ‘If you want people to behave responsibly, and treat you with respect, then you treat other people that way.’"

In another article, he said, “I separate the criminal act from the criminal . . . we can treat them . . . with dignity and respect.” About Luther, people said, “He disarms inmate fear and aggression with an ancient weapon: basic human respect.” One inmate said, "He shows us respect.”

Did the conduct that landed them in prison merit respect?

No. Dennis Luther trained his staff to be people who gave respect toward the inner person of every inmate apart from their crimes. The staff would not react with disrespect but responded with positive regard when troubling matters required addressing. This is about who they would be as a staff, not about who the prisoners failed to be in their conduct. Not only was this possible, but it also transformed relationships.

All of us will find ourselves in uncomfortable situations to face unrespectable behaviors. We can either confront and correct these respectfully or attempt to do so disrespectfully. For certain, we cannot justify our unrespectable behavior when confronting another's unrespectable behavior. This thinking is flawed and indefensible.

The Power and Influence of Unconditional Respect

Those who condemn unconditional respect as a type of teaching that demands a wife, in particular, to be a doormat and put duct tape over her mouth display their superficial and unsophisticated thought-process about how to love and respect people created in the likeness of God. They undermine empowerment and influence by claiming it renders people as impotent victims. Worse, they show their loathing of Peter’s teaching of unconditional respect in 1 Peter 3:1-2, where he says a wife’s “respectful behavior” has the power to win over even a husband who has been “disobedient to the word.” This is God’s Word to us! Do we believe it?

What is revealing when listening to and watching those who condemn unconditional respect is that they frequently and conspicuously show ridicule, contempt, and disgust. They prove the point about the long-term ineffectiveness of this approach to win hearts. Not only are they unlikable and unattractive people, but they also limit their influence to the degree they perpetuate such lack of depth of character, and an undersupply of clear, logical, and convincing thought. But as Scott Peck wrote, people can be people of the lie. Sadly, for long periods of time, they can mislead many others and rupture relationships. There is little, if any, godly kingdom fruit.

In a Harvard education article, we read that it is important in the social work field for workers to consider how "your clients will feel about their experience with you as they—maybe for one of the few times in their lives—experience being treated with unconditional positive regard, respect, and dignity. While this is important for all clients, it is especially critical for clients whose life histories include chronic adversity, traumatic events, or social or racial injustice, some of whom may find it particularly difficult to develop a trusting relationship given their life experience."

In an article titled "The Importance of Unconditional Respect," we read of the challenge to medical professionals. The article begins, “‘A person’s a person no matter how small.' A doctor in his own right, this quote from Theodor Seuss Geisel emphasizes the importance of unconditional respect for all persons. In a hospital setting, this type of respect must be understood and exemplified by all. Roles big and small, played by staff and patient alike, assure that proper care is given and received. Disrespect from any party can lead to miscommunication, difficult situations, and conflict."

Applied to marriage, disrespect (and un-love) feeds miscommunication, difficult situations, and conflict.

Sadly, there are people out there like this adult child described. "My mother has been the clear aggressor verbally—a fact obvious to everyone in the home but her. I'll share a bit, since this is anonymous. She called him an idiot, a *rear*hole or a horses *rear* (only *rear* wasn't her word of choice), *forget* you (only *forget* wasn't her word), etc. She even went as far as to criticize his sexual difficulties—right in front of me and my two sisters."

This mother was not an innocent, vulnerable victim but an aggressor. Unfortunately, she lived in denial and blamed her husband. She felt her reactions were justified. But to James, cursing the likeness of God in another person went against God’s calling on this wife. Such a wife, according to her adult child, does not get a pass. It is called sin.

If this mother differs, she can easily enough equate her hatred and contempt as righteous indignation and never soften to the truth of unconditional respect. She can actually take up offense against the concept as though it subjects her to abuse. She will miss out on the power and influence that philosophers, physicians, and prisoners have discovered.

The way forward is to follow the saged advice we find among thinkers, wardens, social workers, and doctors. It is called unconditional respect and is an elegant thing that makes perfect sense because of the image of God in other people and the image of God in us.

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. Can it sometimes be difficult to think of others as having the image of God inside them? Why is that? Why is the image of God inside us always worthy of respect, even when we are not behaving very respectable?
  2. Emerson quoted a philosophy professor who said, “If I deem someone else not worthy of continued respect, I am essentially downgrading their status to that of a thing, something beneath me that I can dispose of or use at will.” Do you agree with this statement? Explain why or why not? 
  3. How should it make a difference in our actions and reactions when we remember that we, too, carry the image of God inside us? What might that look like when confronting unrespectable behavior? 
  4. In 1 Peter 3:1-2, the apostle wrote that a disobedient husband “may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior.” Which means, while still no less powerful, it is not a guarantee, as all humans are stubborn and sinful. Why, though, should one always express respectful behavior toward an unrespectable person, anyways, despite no guarantee on the effect it will have on the person?