The Surprising Thing about Courtesy

LauraAll Posts


As I aim to grow in love, I’m brushing the dust off of courtesy.  Though the word isn’t used much these days, it couldn’t be more necessary to our culture.

Actually, it’s my new favorite word.

Courtesy is elegant, ageless, and practical.

What’s not to love about “intentional, polite behavior that shows respect for other people”?

For the Christian, courtesy is simply the daily application of biblical commands to love, be kind, and show honor to one another. It’s one of the essential virtues underlying our entire Christian existence. It’s the lesson that women are to teach other women, detailed in Titus 2. It’s a building block of the Christian life, the supportive wife, the loving mother, and the beloved friend. Courtesy is so powerful that it shapes culture, communities, and families.

In fact, we cannot love others well without choosing to be courteous day by day.

The other night, my friend Mary and I talked about the “how to” of courtesy over hot apple cider. We talked about how we can show courtesy in a million different ways – from saying “hello” to another human to being a good listener. The list I scrawled in my journal includes: helping one another, being generous, taking care of personal hygiene, refraining from gossip, and showing up on time.

Surprisingly though, the thing we spent most of our time discussing was the courteous habit of cleaning up after ourselves. (I used to think that this lesson was just for children, but as it turns out, we both found it a necessary and helpful conversation.) We agreed that the simple gesture of cleaning up after ourselves is a profound way to demonstrate the belief that no one is our servant. Cleaning up after ourselves says, “those who come behind me have dignity.”

The belief that no one is my servant is the heartbeat of courtesy.

This has huge implications for my daily choices. Picking up my bath towel, placing my glass in the dishwasher, and throwing away my own garbage takes on enormous value when I am motivated by esteem for my fellow humans. No one is my servant, existing to clean up after me. These seemingly small gestures add up into a life of kindness.

Mary and I talked about how this applies to the way we tend to our emotional and spiritual needs, too.  Is there such a thing as being spiritually courteous? How about emotionally courteous? There must be. We both grimaced about the way we drop our spiritual and emotional needs all over people without much thought, treating them as our spiritual servants.  And we agreed that we expect our “emotional servants” to pick up our anger, anxiety, frustration, and annoyance though we never express grateful, mutual care.

Courtesy is the “how to” of love.

Jesus said He didn’t come to be served, but to serve. When I read the gospels, I see His lifestyle of courtesy – His every gesture demonstrates His respect for the people He created.  And when He lay down His life, He did so without a need for us to clean up after Him, or to finish the job for Him. He completed redemption for us with no strings attached. Jesus serves us day-in and day-out, courteously treating us with love.

Of course, in doing so, He offers forgiveness for our self-centered, self-exalting habits and helps us to grow in the daily sacrificial lifestyle of courtesy.

I’d love to know your thoughts about courtesy. Most of all, how do you like to demonstrate courtesy day to day?