July 16, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
He burns the chariots with fire.
With a staggering degree of accuracy, John Gottman can predict the future of a marriage by listening to a mere 15 minutes of a taped interaction between husband and wife. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell reveals how this psychologist has developed a remarkable sensitivity to verbal and non-verbal messages between spouses. So sensitive that he’s been able to detect the presence of a single interpersonal dynamic which correlates significantly with the health and life-span of a given marriage: contempt. One or both spouses often display frustration with their mate. When the frustration leads to a conception of the other as inferior to them, however, the relationship has entered into the toxic domain of contempt. “Contempt is special,” Gladwell notes. “If you can measure contempt, then all of a sudden you don't need to know every detail of the couple's relationship.” Where it grows, the marriage tends to die. Contrariwise, where it can be rooted out—or even kept from taking root—the marriage can survive and thrive.
Throughout Psalm 46, the Psalmist declares the Lord’s inimitable power—power to nourish, power to lay waste, and, here in verse 9, power to end strife. God’s interest in and capacity for bringing peace are well noted. Israel’s history can certainly point to God’s peaceable geopolitical activities (e.g. 2 Sam. 10). His prophets anticipate God’s apocalyptic work of bringing peace fully and finally (cf. Daniel 7, Rev. 20:7–15). Far be it from us, though, to conceive of God’s power to bring peace only on the large scale.
That power should be respected even at the scale of interpersonal relationship—where strife can devolve into contempt. Whether it’s in a marriage, within a family, or between friends, our sinfulness continually exposes us to the threat of strife that can sow contempt. How then shall we respect God’s reconciling power so that contempt might not devastate whatever relationships we’re in?
Sunday reminded us that the Psalmist enjoins a stillness of surrender. We do not still ourselves for the sake of stillness, but to surrender to the will and work of God. We humble ourselves enough to listen for what His word is telling us (Joshua 1:8). We recognize our finitude against His eternality and majesty (Ps. 8:4). Above all, we still ourselves to comprehend how He, in His Son, has ended the lengthiest, most entrenched, most devastating, and most consequential contempt—that which existed between us and Him (Eph. 2:14–17). The stillness found in prayer yields the necessary insight.
When we see our strife in the context of His strife with us, the recognition breaks and burns whatever fuels our interpersonal conflicts. Remembering former wrongs (1 Cor. 13:5), speaking unwholesome words (Eph. 4:29), engaging in rivalry or conceit (Phil. 2:3)—they all cease to be our weapons of choice when we submit in stillness to what He’s done for us in Christ.
When, in our stillness, we see Him as our ultimate refuge, strength, and ever present help, we no longer press for such things in another person—the frustration of which often greases the skids toward contempt. As Bob Franke sings:
There's a hole in the middle of the prettiest life
So the lawyers and the prophets say
Not your father nor your mother
Nor your lover's gonna ever make it go away
Meeting God in the stillness to surrender to His sufficiency is the only way to stop the war to get from another what only God can give.
With whom are you at war right now—whether in open conflict or brooding alienation? Where do you notice frustration teetering on the edge of—or plunging headlong into—contempt? If in our stillness before Him we see anew His greatest work of peacemaking, how might such stillness serve to end that present war?