“Have mercy up on us, O Lord, have mercy on us, for we have had more than enough of contempt.” (Psalm 123:3)
What is Contempt?
Contempt is an ugly word, and a bit antiquated, so we don’t often think about exactly what it means. It is a cold word, not hot like anger. Contempt is when we look at another human being, created in the image of God, and see something less, unimportant—a thing instead of a person. We have contempt on another when we think of them more as a problem to be solved, or an obstacle to be overcome, than a person worthy of our loving engagement.
Who Is Guilty of It?
We don’t usually think of ourselves as contemptuous, but contempt sits behind much of the way we are tempted to interact with others. When we look at others and think we have nothing to learn from them, this is contempt. When we think that the cost of relationship with them is too high, this is contempt. If we dismiss people with difficult questions rather than consider those questions, this is contempt. When your spouse shares some difficult criticism and you find yourself unable to consider what they’re saying because it’s just too difficult to hear, this is contempt. If we can’t open ourselves up fully to what another person is saying and listen well, doing to them as we would have them do to us, this is contempt.
Is Contempt Justified?
It’s easy to feel when others are being contemptuous toward us: and with the Psalmist we might well lament that we have had more than enough of contempt. Yet it can be difficult for us to see it in ourselves. How easy it is to feel as if our contempt is justified; how the real reason we can’t listen to the criticism of others is because we defend Biblical truth. Or maybe we believe there is something unique about us that others cannot understand. Until we have dealt with our contempt, anger’s cold companion, we cannot grow in faith and love.
How do we root out contempt? You could write books about it—it’s far more than I could cover here. But I think the gist of it is that we have to fall in love with God’s mercy. We have to remember that God is merciful to us; that we on our own have nothing of merit to bring to God except that God has mercy. We have to daily rehearse that we are the objects of mercy until we believe it deep down in our hearts and guts. Once we know that we have received mercy, then we can begin to extend mercy to others.
Michael Jordan is the dean of the chapel at Houghton College, and also a member of the Class of ’99.
Highlander Devotionals are contributed by members of the broader Houghton community, including our worldwide alumni family. These reflections are a testament to the continued, transforming work of Jesus Christ in the lives of alumni and others who have called Houghton “home.”