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When Criticism Becomes Contempt

     I woke up on the second day of Vacation Bible School (VBS) this summer with a throat ablaze with scratchy, swollen soreness.  When I opened my mouth to respond to breakfast requests from my kids–there was nothing but squeaky attempts at language.  I pushed out the word, “Breakfast?” and then handed around the cereal bowls as requested.  Thus ended our morning conversation.

     This was a problem.  Having only finished one night of our five-night long VBS, I had a week of speaking and singing ahead of me.  A week of object lessons and praise songs. A week of yelling out our Bible point for each night and a week of rallying excitement among the kids.  That’s right, my entire job for VBS depended on singing and speaking.

     And I had no voice.

     I gargled and drank tea.  I used throat spray and became a chain sucker of cough drops.  I drank enough water to float away and faithfully popped vitamins every night.

     But my chief strategy became rest.  All day, every day I didn’t speak.  If necessary, I whispered, but mostly I was a silent member of my household.

     A week as one of the voiceless got me thinking about what we say and how we say it, how our words reflect our heart, how we’re called to be listeners, and more.

     By the end of each hushed day, I stepped onto the stage at church and spoke the first full-voiced words in about 24 hours.  “Welcome to VBS!  We’re so glad you’re here tonight . . . “  My only normal vocalizations each day were lessons about God’s Word to children.

     That week reminded me of the story about a woman who sought closeness to God, so she joined a convent and took a vow of silence.  One day each year, each woman was allowed to speak just two words to the Mother Superior.  After one year, the woman stood in the long line and spoke just two words when it was her turn:  “Bed hard.”  A year later, she stood in line again to say, “Food bad.”  The third time around, she stood before the Mother Superior to say, “I quit.”

     “I’m not surprised,” said the Mother Superior.  “You’ve been complaining since you got here.”

     I wonder, at the end of a normal day when my voice is unrestricted and I can chatter on at will, what is it that I’ve been talking about?

Complaining and whining?

Criticizing my husband?


Correcting my kids?

Waxing eloquent about myself?

Praising God and sharing from His Word?

Encouraging others?

     What about you?  How do you put your voice to use each day?

     Out of necessity that week, the only way I could really use my voice was talking about God.  The moment that Vacation Bible School ended and I climbed into the minivan with my kids, I returned to a life of silent listening and, if necessary, whispered prompts to get others talking.

     Words have power and impact.  They can build others up, fill their spirit with strength and courage, and point them to Christ.  But words can also rip people apart, tearing their spirits down to tiny shreds of defeated nothingness.  Indeed, “death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Proverbs 18:21 ESV).

    With such weaponry in our arsenal, with such power housed in a simple voicebox, you would think we’d be more cautious about what we say, especially in our homes to our husband and kids.  Like the nun who could only speak two words a year or like me who had 30 minutes to talk in a 24-hour day, we could prioritize and speak only what is necessary, true, and God-honoring.

     But I’m not always so careful.  I sometimes forget that my voice is a precious gift and that my words have impact.  It’s too easy just to babble off whatever pops into my head sans filter.

     Does this happen in your marriage?  In her book, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Lois Tverberg writes about four marriage-killers as identified by John Gottman: “defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt” with contempt overshadowing all the others. 

     Tverberg writes:

Criticism, as Gottman defines it, is to point our your partner’s sins: ‘You’re self-centered, you drink too much, and you’re mean to the kids.’  But contempt is far worse, because it doesn’t just expose sin, it damns the sinner: ‘you’re a failure as a father!’  ‘Worthless loser!’  ‘You’ll never amount to anything!’  Contempt is the end product of condemnation, which comes from a history of judging unfavorably and without mercy.

     The real issue here isn’t just speaking without thinking.  It’s that ultimately, “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45b ESV).

Essentially, at the end of the day if we’ve used most of our words to gossip—then we’re a gossip.

And if we’ve spent most of our day complaining—then we’re a complainer.

If our conversation has mostly been about criticizing other people—then we’re negative.

If we’ve ripped our husbands to pieces with contempt---then we’re contemptuous.

If we’ve monopolized conversations with our own opinions and thoughts—then we’re selfish and self-focused.

     The words we toss about with little thought and no constraint are peeling back the covers of our heart and showing what’s really in there.  And sometimes it’s ugly.

     That means we don’t just need to filter our words; we need God to do some heart changing, too, and purify our words by purifying the attitudes of our heart and mind.

If you could only talk for 30 minutes today, what would you use that time to say?


     Lord, help me refocus my eyes on what is positive and good in my husband and stop focusing on the negative.  Help me to love him the way You love him and appreciate the way You have designed him.  Stop my mouth from saying anything that will tear him apart, criticize or show contempt for him.   Teach me not to focus on his mistakes or failings, but instead repent and fix what I need to change in me.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

To read more devotional thoughts from Heather King, check out her blog here: http://heathercking.wordpress.com/

Copyright © 2008-2015 Heather King

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