I ran into a little piece of inspirational art with the words,
“Just for the record there isn’t a thing I would change about you!”
Now, are those the words of deceitful flattery or foolish naivete?
Hopefully, neither. When spoken in truth by a true friend, they are words of acceptance, words that say, “I know you aren’t perfect, and that you will continue to grow as a person, but I accept who you are right now, as you are, fully, without reservation.”
Acceptance. One of the most beautiful gifts we can give or receive. And yet we more often feel the sting of conditional approval or even of outright rejection than the healing balm of acceptance.
Why is that? Why is it hard both to accept and feel accepted in our relationships, fully and without reservations? I see three common barriers to giving and receiving acceptance in our relationships:
- Lack of intimacy
- Failed expectations
- Hurt from wrongs
The first barrier is lack of intimacy. I can easily go up to a complete stranger and say, “I accept you just as you are!” The words won’t be hard to say, but they won’t have much impact on the person’s soul. Why not? Because I don’t really know that person.
Our hearts instinctively realize that the only way to fully accept a person is to fully know a person, and that doesn’t happen very often in our society today. One reason is that we don’t make the time to develop close soul friendships, to fully know other people. The most meaningful words of acceptance I have had in my life are from people I have known for years and have spent many hours intentionally strengthening and deepening the friendship. That takes time, effort, discipline, and a focus on the clear goal of increasing soul intimacy. It doesn’t just “happen” unless you intend for it to happen.
The second reason we have a lack of intimacy is that we put on false faces & fronts of what we think other people want to see or what we want to be. We think that by hiding behind a mask we will feel better because people will then accept us. Yet when someone accepts a mere charade of who we really are, then we often feel worse, not better. But when someone truly knows our soul, the strengths and the weaknesses, the gold and the dirt, and knowing all looks at us and says, “I accept you” —whoa, that’s powerful, that can change a life.
Jesus was a master in human relationships. He intentionally engaged people at a soul level, and people knew he accepted the realthem. Take Peter the fisherman. Overwhelmed at Jesus’ holiness and his sinfulness, Peter said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” He was saying, “I know you won’t accept me, I’m not worthy to even be in your presence.” And yet Jesus became his closest friend. Throughout the Gospel accounts Jesus is befriending tax collectors & prostitutes. One religious leader harrumphed, “If he knew what kind of person she was he wouldn’t be allowing her to touch him.” But the beautiful thing was that Jesus did intimately know others, in all their beauty and ugliness, and accepted and loved them. So should we.
But we often don’t, partially due to the other two barriers to acceptance: failed expectations and hurt from wrongs. We all know well the sting of unmet expectations: the friend who forgets to call, the spouse who isn’t nearly as caring as they were before the wedding, the son who drops out of college. We have our image of what a friend or a coworker or a lover should be, and when the real person comes up short, then the coldness of disappointment appears. Coldness brings distance, and the relationship can slowly die. It can be one big disappointment, or a whole series of small ones, but the end is the same.
The key to overcoming failed expectations is not to judge people, not to set up the law that they must follow, and then act as judge, jury, and executioner of the relationship. Jesus once taught on the poison of judging each other:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)
In Romans 14:4 Paul also taught against judging each other:
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
So, we are taught to not judge, to not compare people to our personal list of how they ought to be, because #1 we do not have clear sight to see their situation and #2 it is God’s place, not ours, to judge, to reprove, & to guide. We are not their judge, and we are not their master, and they are not our servant. We are simply their friend, and we have to let go of expectations in order to accept them. There is no other way.
The final barrier is the barrier of hurt. If we are close enough, for long enough, we will hurt and be hurt at the hands of each other. We all make mistakes, sometimes trivial, sometimes devastating. And often the deepest wounds are those given by close friends and family. How do we get past those hurts to acceptance?
There is only one way: forgiveness. We cannot accept if we cannot forgive. Here another Biblical character can teach us much: Joseph. Beaten and left to die by his own brothers, then sold by them to be a slave. He ended up separated from all that he loved and cherished, in lifetime imprisonment for a crime he did not commit.
Years later, he finally meets his brothers again, but this time as the regent of the most powerful nation on earth. One word, and he can imprison, torture, execute, or enslave them. But what does he do? He weeps & kisses them, and gives them the finest land in Egypt as a gift. He chooses to forgive them, freely, fully, and accept them.
His brothers, even years later, had a hard time believing and accepting Jacob’s forgiveness. When their father Jacob died, they thought Jacob’s acceptance would end:
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died, ‘Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21)
Joseph’s forgiveness and acceptance was unchanging. Why? Joseph himself gives the reason: his foundational trust in the goodness of God. Joseph knew the original evil intent of his brothers, but also knew that God’s hand was upon him (“you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”) Resting in God’s providence is the firmest foundation for a loving and lasting forgiveness and acceptance.
Acceptance. It’s not easy. Are we willing to take the time to invest in each other’s lives, take down the false faces, drop the expectations, forgive the hurts? I hope we are, every day, for only then will we give and receive the life-healing gift of acceptance in our lives.