So, I was talking with a friend of mine a while back and he said, “So, you’re a pastor, can I ask you for advice about this thing going on?” and I said: Sure. I can’t promise I’ll have any great advice, but sure.
And he says: Well, I have a brother, and we’re very different. We don’t live too far away but we don’t see each other often either. Anyway, we had this really hard conversation the other week, and I’m not sure what to do about it. So I asked: What happened?
And he told me that his brother believes in a lot of conspiracy theories, mostly about politics but lots of other things too, and one of the things was that his brother had a lot of theories about the government and the COVID vaccines and the whole pandemic too. And they had kind of mocked him the past couple of years whenever he took any COVID precautions.
But his brother had reached out because his wife and him had both gotten COVID and one of them actually got very sick. And they missed some work and had some medical bills and were in a bind, and they were asking my friend for some favors to help them out.
And my friend told me he was really torn, because he helps his brother out all the time, but part of him felt that his brother and sister in law got what they deserved this time, and he wasn’t sure that he wanted to come to their rescue. Maybe they had to learn a lesson or something.
So he told his brother: Listen, I’m sorry, I can’t help you out this time.
And his brother got really angry with him. He yelled at him, told him he was an awful person, swore at him, including one bit I’m not going to quote here but just say that it was hate speech, totally degrading. And then my friend’s brother hung up on him.
And my friend asked me: So, did I do the right thing in not helping him out? And what should I do next?
And I thought to myself as I usually do: I have no idea. I mean: who am I to know?
So I just said: Did your brother really call you those things? And he said: Yeah, it’s OK, though, I’m used to it. And I said: No, it’s not OK. I’m so sorry you heard your brother speak to you that way. I’m so sorry you had to hear that from your own family.
And my friend said thanks and then said these words that really struck me. He said,
You know, Steve, I’m just so angry with my brother, not just for how he acted in that phone call, but for the person he’s become. I’m so angry. And I feel kind of disgusted by him too, like I just have contempt for the kind of person he is.
And so I said:
Well, I don’t know if you’re right or not to not help him out. It certainly sounds fair that you didn’t. I mean you’re not obligated to. And I don’t know what you should do next either, but is it OK if I make an observation?
And my friend said:
Yeah, of course.
So I said to him:
If I were you, I’d stick with the anger you feel. I’d be angry too. And maybe the anger will teach you something, or the anger will give you some energy for whatever you want to do next. I’d roll with that anger for now. But the part of you that feels disgust or contempt, like it’s hard to even see your brother like a person anymore, I’d be careful with that. I’d try to kind of separate that from the anger, and see if you can let that part go.
And we talked a little more about what that might look like, and as we did so, I learned, or relearned, so much from that distinction. My friend, with all his emotional intelligence, had noticed that he felt anger for his brother, but he also felt this other thing on top of the anger. He felt disgust or contempt, like he wasn’t just mad at this brother but looked down on him as worthless, as detestable, scum, trash, whatever.
And those aren’t the same thing. One of those – anger – has the chance to be productive – to teach us about our fears or the harm we’re facing, or to help us make changes or make boundaries to protect ourselves. But the other – contempt – doesn’t add anything good to us or our relationships. Contempt is a kind of armor that doesn’t protect or heal. It just makes us proud and smug and rather than building boundaries that protect, it just estranges and eliminates, and it brings shame – none of which heal anything in us or them or really do any good at all.
Today we’re talking about people we can’t stand and about the difference between anger and contempt, and how to lean into one and not the other.
It’s part of a little spring mini-series we’ve called How to Heal the World about mending and repair, about leaning into the Christian notion of salvation for ourselves and our world in really practical ways.
I want to go next to some really famous words from Jesus on this subject. These words are often read or quoted, but still rarely applied. They’re from this famous collection of teachings of Jesus on how to live, called the Sermon on the Mount.
They go like this.
Matthew 7:1-5 (Common English Bible)
1 “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.
2 You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you.
3 Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye?
4 How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye?
5 You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.
Jesus says that in general,
What you put out into the world tends to be what comes back to you.
If you’re friendly, cheerful, kind in your disposition to others, you are more likely to draw that kind of attitude back toward yourself.
Treat people with judgment, criticism, and contempt, and you are likely to elicit that kind of thing in them as well. Look at my friend’s brother – in his frustration and shame, he wasn’t just angry, he yelled and swore and hurled hate speech at my friend. And the first thing my friend felt back was contempt and judgment of his own.
We can live by grace, or we can live by judgment.
We can cut people down, or we can be healers. But we can’t be both.
You know, I think our resistance to this teaching of Jesus, our troubles with contempt, are most obvious in our public life.
SNL had this sketch a couple months back about three couples out for dinner trying to talk about the COVID pandemic. And even though broadly speaking they had similar views, took similar precautions, the joke of the sketch was that they just couldn’t have the conversation. It was just too tense, there were too many landmines.
Say the wrong thing, even wonder out loud with the wrong question, and you’ll be held in contempt like you’re a science-hating, pandemic causing fool. I remember feeling this contempt in myself once inside this Dunkin Donuts. There was an indoor mask mandate in my community, and I went into Dunkin, and I was paying attention to who was wearing their mask, and who wasn’t, and was wearing it kind of hanging down below the nose, or below the mouth, or you know, below the chin.
And at the time, I was feeling tense, like I don’t want to be in this store, I think I’ll wait outside while they make my coffee. But honestly, I was thinking about who was doing what with their masks and writing stories in my head about why some of them were as thoughtless or careless or ignorant as I felt they were. And I thought: these are bad people here. In just a few seconds, my fear had metastasized in me into judgment and contempt.
Toward the end of the skit on SNL, when people are sharing their true feelings, there’s this laugh line when someone says: To be honest, when an anti-vaxxer gets Covid, I feel happy!
And someone’s like: No you don’t. But the joke’s there because the feeling is.
We’ve seen this kind of contempt writ large in our politics. Our last president seemed to hold everyone but himself and his fans in contempt. His words sometimes were just a stream of mocking takedowns, schoolyard bullying kinds of lies and mean, cheap insults again and again.
He’d realized early in his campaign that fear and contempt can rally people to action. One of the most effective ways to mobilize and aggressive “us” is to find a set of enemies we can call “them” and make them out to be as scary and stupid and contemptable as possible.
But it wasn’t just him, right? His opponent in 2016 had that fundraising speech that went viral where she said you could put Trump’s supporters in two baskets, one basket of people who are worthy of compassion or pity maybe, and another basket of people she called the “basket of deplorables.” The homophobes, the xenophobes, the misogynists, and the racists.
And I mean, at some level, I get it. Homophobic behavior, racist action and all that are cancers.
But how many people have been shamed into changing? Who has ever said to their judge:
Thank you for showing me how contemptible I am. Now I’ll do better.
No one wants to be put in a basket.
Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you.
Contempt is the curse that keeps on cursing. It only pushes more shame and more contempt into the world.
This gets us in our private lives too.
The past couple years I’ve had a couple important relationships in my life that have really gone south, that have just gotten much, much harder. They were perfect before, but they’re damaged now. For various reasons, though, these are people I don’t want to just walk away from. I want to stay in their lives, and they in mine.
But it’s been hard work.
With one of these people, I endured just a string of criticisms from them, in interaction after interaction. And most of them seemed baseless to me, really unfair. But one of them struck home, spoke to a way I’d really hurt them. And I thought: it’d be fair for me to apologize for that, it’d be right to do so.
So I wrote this apology letter, and I showed it to a person I trust for feedback before I sent it. And they were like 80% of the letter is really great.
But that bit in the beginning where you say you have a lot of reason to be angry with them, and they’ve really done you wrong, but there’s this one thing you want to apologize for, so here we go… Why do you need to keep that bit in there? What’s that doing for you?
And I was like, well, it’s the truth. I want to apologize but I want them to know they’re wrong too, that really, they’re mostly wrong.
And my friend said maybe so, but if you leave that in, what do you think they’ll remember about this letter, what will be their takeaway. And I thought: oh, it won’t be the apology anymore, it’ll be my contempt for them. Like you’re awful, by the way, but oh, yeah, I have this one thing to apologize for. And I thought: that’s not the kind of person I want to be.
So I cut that part out. It hurt my pride a little bit to do so. But I cut it out. And I’m glad I did.
The Bible’s got this other line that I think builds on Jesus’ teaching on judgment and contempt. It’s from this little letter to the Ephesians, where the author is talking to a community of faith about how to follow Jesus, how to be people of grace, people who can love each other and get along together, even amongst differences. And at one point it says:
Ephesians 4:26-27 (Common English Bible)
26 Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger.
27 Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.
So anger is not sin, because you can be angry without sinning. But in our anger, dangers can arise. We can make room for the devil, the satan, the accuser.
Early in our marriage, Grace and I tried to take this teaching very rigidly. Like most of the too rigid ideas we had together, I’m pretty sure this was my fault. But we had this idea, or I had this idea I foisted on to us, that it was critical that if we had any anger toward one another, if we had any unresolved conflict, we had to make peace, we had to resolve it thoroughly before we went to bed.
After all, the scriptures say:
Don’t let the sun set on your anger.
I never realized, come to think of it, that the words actually talk about the sunset, not going to bed. It’s weird how even our most rigid ideas we think come from the Bible aren’t actually there. I was convinced this principle – don’t go to sleep with your spouse until you’ve resolved your conflict – came from this verse, but that’s not even what it says.
Anyway, what trying to apply this principle mainly did was create a series of late night conflicts about conflict. Like how are we going to resolve this and make peace when to be honest, we just were ready to yet. Maybe one of us just needed to be angry for a bit. Or maybe one of us needed some time to think.
Later, it became clear to me that this scripture is more about the course your anger and criticism take, not about whether or not you can eliminate before sundown, or bedtime.
And I think it’s helped us to chill out a bit, let go of some of my rigid, silly rules.
You know, this insight is affirmed by some of the experts in couples work. There are these folks, the Gottmans, they’re got an institute for healthy marriages and relationships called the Gottman Institute, and they’re like the premier voice on this stuff.
And in their research with couples, they’ve identified what they call the four horsemen of relationships, the four forces that tear down marriages. They’re criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling (which means withdrawing all the time from conflict), and contempt.
And the worst of the four horsemen, the most lethal, in their experience, is contempt.
Because contempt attacks a person’s self, with insult or abuse. Contempt says:
You are worthless. I’d be happy if you got sick. You’re a deplorable. You’re dead to me.
It’s contempt, not anger, that leads us into sin. Contempt truly does make room for the devil. Jesus said once:
The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy. The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but I come that you may have life, and life abundant.
Friends, when I talk about the devil or the thief here, I’m not talking about an invisible boogeyman, or a pitchfork-wielding, angry, horned red devil. I’m talking about any forces inside of us, among us that steal, kill, and destroy, that rob us of connection and life, that tear down our lives and relationships, and society.
And our persistent habits of judgment and contempt are high on the list of these thieving forces.
Jesus is like
Don’t do it, there’s a better way.
We’ll come back to his words, but here’s how the Gottmans put it. Their antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation, to remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and to find and express gratitude for positive actions. More reasons to build up those gratitude habits we were talking about last week.
Ruby Sales, who we talked about on Easter and the week before, put it this way. She said:
You know, in our world, it’s easier to think about who and what we hate, then who and what we love. It’s easier to think about who and what we hate, then who and what we love.
My friend, my colleague Ivy, reminded me of this wisdom a few weeks ago, and it was right as I was getting ready to have another hard conversation in one of those difficult relationships in my life.
So I took it to heart, I asked God for help in remembering what I love about this person. It was easy to think of what I was angry about, what I feel critical of, what unchecked would just again and again turn to contempt in me. But I asked God for help to remember what I love and respect about this person. And things came to mind. And I spent time thinking about these things before our next conversation. And it made a big difference. It didn’t change anything in them right away, but it changed a lot in me.
Christena Cleveland put it this way.
When dealing with someone that makes you angry, that you might be inclined to hold in judgment or contempt, say a little prayer: May the image of God in me greet the image of God in you. It’s kind of what the Hindi word: namaste means. And it’s very much the wisdom of Jesus as well.
May the image of God in me greet the image of God in you. May I see in my friend, my spouse, my family, and even in my enemy not just what I hate but what I love.
This is a big way that we do what Jesus commands, that we take the splinter out of our own eye, and then seek to heal our neighbor’s sight. There are other sins, there are plenty of other splinters we’ve got my friends, but there are few that are as sharp and lethal, and as common and deep as judgment and contempt.
If, with the help of God and friends, we can pull that contempt out of us, if we can see and treat others with the dignity that is their birthright too as a child of God, made in God’s image, then we’ll go a long way toward healing our relationships, healing ourselves, and healing the world.
I’d like us to close today with a practice on this. We’ll call this exercise Dropping The Stone.
It’s got five parts to it. We won’t just assign this one for homework, we’ll take a minute, if you’re willing to try it together.
Here’s how it’s going to work.
We’re going to take a few moments of silence now.
I invite you to close your eyes, if you’re willing, or at least turn your gaze away from me or anyone else, and think of a person that you feel anger or contempt toward.
And with a story from the life of Jesus in mind, one where he sees people wanting to throw stones at someone else and gets them to drop their stones, imagine the person at whom you wish you could throw a stone.
To whom do you feel anger or contempt? Take a minute, let the name come to mind. See their face.
Now ask yourself:
What do I feel toward this person? Why am I angry? What is the source of the contempt?
Imagine that all that anger and contempt is inside a stone in your hand. Validate that for a minute.
OK, try the third step now.
As you imagine this person, as you call them to mind, as you see them, ask yourself:
What do I love about them?
And focus on that quality.
And if you can’t think of anything you love about them, ask yourself,
How would it be possible to love them? What is the good in them? How do they bear the image of God?
Now, in your mind, put your stone down.
Say to God:
God, I would like to set aside the contempt. I’d like to be free of it…. I can be angry, but I will not harm. I will not seek revenge. I will not judge. I will not seek to rob my fellow human of their dignity.
And lastly, ask yourself, ask God,
Free of my contempt, what will I do next instead? What will I say or do with this person?