It seems to me that we spend a lot of time trying to avoid doing something wrong. I know that may not seem like a profound statement which on its face it appears to be obvious. Yet, the reverse may also be true: we spend a lot of time not doing something “right.” Hmmm what to do?
Recently, I had a most fascinating and enlightening conversation with a group of students around a campfire. Of course, there is nothing like a campfire to trigger conversation, and an occasional profound thought or two. Our conversation ranged from wrestling with what being loved by God means, grappling with the bloody realities of just living life, to self-acceptance. On this last topic, self-acceptance, I left the students with a thought. “Self-acceptance is an act of trust” was my assertion. I thought I would take a few moments (or many) to unpack this further for anyone who wasn’t there and might be intrigued (or horrified) by this assertion.
The journey into self-acceptance starts with grasping the nature of truth in our lives. I have often spoken of an artificial division of truth that I use to fully expand on the nature of this “thing” we call truth. This artificial division is something that I refer to as big “T” truth and little “t” truth. The moment I introduce this concept there seems to be an almost immediate reaction that big “T” truth must be bad, and little “t” truth must be good. This is particularly true of those who have been taught that the only way to live is to live by big T truth. There are those who also gravitate to the little t truth because it seems to capture the realities of where they are living, and there’s an internal sense of failure and even hopelessness of ever being able to live up to the demands and commands of the big T truth. Those reactions, unfortunately, only point up the reasons that I had to make this artificial distinction more clear. The bottom line is that there is only one truth and that is what God has given us in his Word, and all the implications that has for seeing and understanding our lives, relationships, pasts, and futures. Yet, while that is true (there I go again!), we aggravatingly use the same word (truth) for both reality and God’s truth, and the realities of our own lives. When I am brutally honest and forthcoming about the realities in my own life, I’m not speaking God’s truth but I am lining my life up with His truth since He calls us to image Him – the Truth. Then the question arises, “What do I do, or how do I describe the truth of my heart? That’s where I gravitated to the idea of little “t” truth. Is this little “t” truth God’s truth? No, of course not, unless I can find my name among the prophets and authors of the Bible – which, to my relief I do not! But, it is truthful because it is an accurate description of my inner life. It is a revelation to others of what is going on in my heart.
The big T truth is something entirely “other” than the little t truth I’m speaking of above. The big T truth is not only God’s truth that He has provided us in His Scriptures, but it is also reality. I think it can be said that big T truth is the body of knowledge, wisdom, and commands that God has given us to live within. Clearly, it is not at all meant to “hurt” us, but it does “hurt” us since it painfully points out behavior, thoughts, and motivations that do not come into line with His word. This big T truth is also reality, like gravity and the vast body of knowledge we have developed as a result of us being made in God’s image – a desire to know, and study, and accumulate knowledge to more fully enact the responsibility that God gave to us from the very beginning of time. So, we can look into God’s word and pronounce the words, principles, and implications as true because they line up with God’s truth. This is big T truth.
The question has to be asked, then, how do these two truths interact? Or do they interact at all? Is there any intersection between these two truths? Or, do we live one, and describe the other? This is where it gets both exasperating and interesting all at the same time. We do live out small t truths, and we do live out, or at least strive to live out, the big T truths. Yet, it’s not nearly as simple as that. It’s not simple because these two domains of truth do interact, and often we determine how they will interact. Let me describe the two sides of this coin of truth. On the one hand, big T truth is often where many people live, and using this big T truth they frame all of life that way. And, that’s a good thing. As a matter of fact, that is what all Christ-followers do. We take the word of God and apply it to our lives in order to gain understanding and wisdom about how to live life and experience the abundance about which Jesus talked. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. When they begin to grapple with the “bloody realities” of being human, fallen and broken, they often use the big T truth in order to bludgeon those little t truths into submission. Thereby, they gravitate further and further away from realistically and brutally facing this brokenness that is inherent in being human. As a matter of fact, they reject their humanness. If you need a picture to capture this, think of the vertical beam of a cross as the big T truth that anchors our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our relationships with others.
There is a vast group of people who are the mirror reflection of the big T people. These are the little t truth people. As I indicated above, the little t truth is an honest reflection of the confusion, disillusionment, disappointment, anger, depression, joy, happiness, and contentment that is daily part of our everyday existence. In the society we live in today, many people define reality only by this little t truth. That is how they get away with the retort, “Your truth is your truth, and my truth is mine. What right do you have to judge my truth?” This approach is taking all of life and defining it solely by the little t truth. Ultimately, life was never meant to be lived this way. That is why Christ came. He came and died for us to free us to live realistically and honestly with our brokenness (leading us to the conclusion that we can’t do life alone, and we can’t save ourselves) while at the same time affirming His ways and truth as the anchor that allows us the courage to face ourselves truthfully. In the case above, the little t truth people condemn the big T people for being hypocrites and judges, and yet the little t truth people are simply doing the same thing just from an opposite perspective. For a picture of this way of doing life, think of the cross beam of the cross I described above. It is the horizontal plane of life that is full of the messy, confusing, disappointing, frustrating, joyful, and fulfilling realities of our lives.
There is one last group of people who are not only broken and broken by their fallenness, but who also try to figure how to live life honestly with the big T truth of their lives. These are the people who Brennan Manning referred to as ragamuffins. They were the people who upon looking at themselves pronounce themselves unworthy and broken beyond repair, and yet still hang on to the hope of the truth and grace of Jesus. These people live life as honestly as they know how, and live in the tension of the intersection between big T truth, and little T truth. For them, it is not as simple as pronouncing the big T truth, and concluding that everything is better. For them, it is living a life bravely that is incredibly and maddeningly messy. They fight the thought that they are simply “too broken” for God to “fix.” In spite of that thought, they cling to the big T truth while allowing themselves the grace to make mistakes, to be a “hot mess,” to hate themselves and wonder why to even keep living, or to keep hiding because they are sure that people will just hate them the way that they do.
This is where the issue of self-acceptance raises its ugly head. How is it that “self acceptance is an act of trust?” One last bunny trail… Let me clarify for a moment what self-acceptance is, and what it is not. Self-acceptance is not a resignation. We were never called to resign ourselves to the finality of our brokenness. As a matter of fact, Jesus came and died in order to free us from this brokenness (something he called death and enslavement), and to empower us to live differently… powerfully. When we resign ourselves to our brokenness, we are withdrawing from the fight, and allowing things to happen to us rather than engaging life and acting for ourselves and those we love with the power Jesus gives us.
Self-acceptance is not condoning our sin either. All too often we confuse this idea of self-acceptance as condoning our sin, and adopting the motto of the ancient Romans who suggested that we can sin all the more so that grace may abound even more! Paul had one answer to that, “May it never be!” In other words, “don’t go that route you knuckleheads!”
Self-acceptance is the opposite of self-rejection. Henri Nouwen once said, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved”. Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.” I would go so far as to say, self-rejection is far easier than self-acceptance. Self-rejection sets a course for an addictive level of control over me, over others and what they think of me, and over the world. Never mind the obvious fact that I have no actual control over what others think of me. Never mind the fact that I don’t have any control over the world around me. These are mere technicalities. I may not have control over these things, but that won’t stop me to pursuing it anyway. Anyway, the pursuit distracts me from just how messy things in my life really are.
Self-acceptance is an act of trust because it does what Nouwen referred to above… it affirms the sacred voice that calls me His Beloved. But, wait a minute! (the big T truth people speak up here) “Isn’t that just giving me license to sin?” Maybe… or just maybe it refocuses my sight on what is my motivation to trust God at all? Either I can keep working real hard doing everything that I can to avoid doing something wrong because, of course, the hammer of the big T would descend and crush me, Or, I can trust what God says about me, and what Jesus did for me, and live as bravely and courageously as I can with plenty of mess to go around. Trusting always involves risk. Self-acceptance involves risk. Self-rejection involves control, and risks nothing. Self-acceptance calls me further into a motive of loving God with the choices I make even if they are flawed. I’m willing to do the best that I can. Self-rejection calls me into a motive of “toeing the line” because by doing so I’ll be “okay.” As long as I hit the line, I won’t feel what’s lurking in the shadows.
Allow me to come full circle… the campfire discussion I had with those students was the most gratifying and exciting thing I had happen in a long time. Little by little, they were discovering that they really weren’t terminally unique and different from everyone else. In their honesty and willingness to be known in a way that they rarely risked before, they found something. They found something exceedingly rare these days — the wonder of living in the tension between big T and little t truth, the wonder of living with both truth and grace, the wonder of a small band of people who all know that they’re jacked up, but they are also powerfully and irrevocably pronounced by Jesus as His Beloved.