Many years ago, a cashier was serving me at a video rental store. Seemingly out of nowhere, she said, “If you wear a smile for an umbrella, you’ll get water in your face.” A few years later, a Catholic priest (of all people) told me, “If you don’t swear, people won’t respect you.” My friend Mark could attest to the truth of these maxims.
Before he became a serious Christian, Mark swore a lot and had a negative, cynical attitude. Unsurprisingly, people were usually careful about what they said to him and about how they treated him. In that sense, they respected him. But behind Mark’s back, many people called him an arrogant jerk.
Soon after becoming a committed Christian, Mark went to the other extreme. He usually had a smile pasted on his face, was overly nice, and hardly ever swore. He also appeared needy and vulnerable. Soon, people began to rudely contradict Mark, talk down to him, interrupt him, ignore him and pick on him. Behind his back, they usually said he was a nice guy. That was little consolation, because Mark was deeply hurt.
What does this say about human nature? People usually respect those whom they fear and those who appear strong and they often mistreat those who seem weak. They also often have contempt for goodness, neediness and openness. Before he became nice, Mark believed that most people were good. Later, he believed that most people were self-loving sinners.
Mark has since arrived at a balance. He still hardly ever swears but he doesn’t smile as much. He is also more secure and less open about his feelings. Thus, people respect him more, but they do kid him in a good-natured manner and admonish him if they think he deserves it, and Mark is usually okay with that. However, Mark is still learning to stand up for himself in a non-sinful way when people mistreat him.
Part of the reason that everyone wants respect is that we are all, at least to some extent, prideful and egotistical. Of course, that’s a bad reason. The good reason for wanting respect is that we, as creatures made in God’s image, sense our inherent sacredness. God values us a great deal and doesn’t want us to demean ourselves or to allow ourselves to be mistreated. At the same time, He wants us to be humble, to able to take a joke and to be able to handle some criticism. Finding a balance between demanding proper respect and learning humility is often a life long effort.