Nicola Watt felt challenged by God to behave more respectfully, but that doesn't mean tolerating being poorly treated.
I was burning rubbish in the fire one cold afternoon, my husband and I were separated, and I was knee-deep in blaming him. I came across forgotten letters between myself and an old boyfriend. Reading the letters stopped me in my tracks. Though written almost twenty years prior, they echoed with the same antagonistic phrases I’d used against my husband, long before our recent gauntlet of circumstances. "Father, He doesn’t deserve my respect," I had muttered many times. "Look at the way he treats me."
Seeing the pattern of disrespect with another partner opened my eyes and the excuses fell silent. In the heat of the flickering fire, the Holy Spirit convicted me my husband was God’s son and he loved him very much in spite of his current choices. "And, I don’t speak to him – or you – like that," he told me.
Even in my worst moments of sin the Holy Spirit had always spoken to me as a valuable daughter.
The gentle words rolled over me like a freight train. It was true; even in my worst moments of sin the Holy Spirit had always spoken to me as a valuable daughter. Not only did God respect me, He respected himself. Whether correcting, teaching, encouraging, or enjoying time together, his communication and actions always reflected His value and mine.
My introduction to respect began with Dr. Emmerson Eggerich’s book Love & Respect based on Ephesians 5:33: "Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” As a new wife, it was a welcome relief to know we weren’t the only ones caught in what he calls “the crazy cycle,” a couple experiencing difficult to destructive arguments. It also gave me hope to know God would reward my efforts as treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:19) no matter what my spouse chose to do, another main component of Eggerich’s teachings.
In recent years, the book has come under fire for purportedly endangering women in abusive marriages by counseling them to respect their husbands regardless of their husband’s treatment toward them. Though most reviews of the book are positive with many wives experiencing hope and direction, other women have come forward who have been harmed by the concept of unconditional respect which has been likened to a form of subservience. While this article cannot address these important issues completely, as a mentor for wives in hard marriages, I’d like to offer some help by speaking to one central question that has repeatedly surfaced: “Should love be given unconditionally or earned?” with a clamour of strong opinions and experiences on either side.
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Based on Ephesians 5:33, my short answer is that respect is to be given unconditionally. However, unconditional respect is not, perhaps, what some have been taught, with a vital component missing, especially, for wives in hard and even destructive marriages. Unconditional respect, as is love, is based on God’s value of a person, the inherent worth and dignity he gives to us all regardless of our actions. It requires the humble dependency, of both partners, on his power, often precisely to love the “unlovable” and respect the “unrespectable” in each other when we are most tempted (and justified) to do otherwise.
Here’s the catch: Respect, God’s way, is respect for all. Any treatment, action, or word that violates this is not true respect. In my experience, both as a mentor and a wife, if a wife respects herself and her husband, the dynamic of the relationship can change for the better which is what appears to have happened with many readers of Love & Respect. However, if she tries to “respect” her husband, but does not respect herself, for example, by doing anything he asks even if it violates her consciousness or hurts her and the children, a husband who is already feeling entitled will become worse. If she thinks highly of herself, but not her husband, he will often feel belittled and withdraw.
When church leaders send wives home to a potentially (or proven) abusive marriage with the guidance to “respect their husbands more,” that is not the respect of Ephesians 5:33 because the husband is not only being placed above the wife, but also above God, who created the wife, values her equally to the husband, and commands that the husband love her as Christ loves the church. It does not honor God to defy his commands.
A wife does not have to endure poor treatment to show respect.
Likewise, when wives make scathing comments on public threads, though the pain may be understandable, they, and the other women who join in on the mockery, are not respecting the husband as one made in God’s image which disrespects God. A wife does not have to endure poor treatment to show respect. To the contrary: She shows her husband the most respect when she removes herself from conversations and activities that dishonour God, herself, or her husband precisely because she knows his – and her - worth.
As Henri Nouwen wrote in Life of the Beloved: “Once we deeply trust that we are precious in God’s eyes, we are able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique place in God’s heart.” I believe that is the central issue: In our pain, conditional respect says: “Prove to me…” If we are secure in our preciousness to God, and know others are too, we will be free to follow 1 Peter 2:17 and show reverence to all whether or not the relationship is safe to continue.