Acceptance & Improvement
One of the tensions we experience in the Kingdom of God is the tension between acceptance and improvement. We know that we are fully accepted by grace, yet, there is also a strong call in the Bible to repentance and to holiness. Sometimes, they feel like two opposing forces pulling us to different sides. How can we deal with this tension?
How do you feel when you messed up? I remember when I played table tennis, long ago, I got into the unhealthy habit of calling myself names when I made a stupid mistake that cost me the rally. “Ahhh, you’re so stupid!” “Come on, you loser.” This is not a habit that boosts self-confidence.
How do you feel about yourself after a mistake, or perhaps after a sin? How do you think God sees you after you messed up?
What we are stumbling upon here, is the tension of acceptance and improvement. Somehow, we find it very hard to see ourselves as fully accepted by God, yet, in need of improvement.
Secular solution: Radical Acceptance
Not only Christians experience this tension, everyone does. Secular psychiatry came up with a term to deal with this type of tension: “Radical Acceptance”. I perceive this as both helpful and falling short. This idea, loosely based on Buddhistic philosophy, says that you should: accept everything about yourself, your current situation, and your life without question, blame, or pushback in order to better move through and past them.
This idea speaks directly into this tension between acceptance and improvement we all experience. Through radically accepting your current situation, you acknowledge that there is nothing you can change about the past. Only when you acknowledge your life as it is now, you can do something about what your future will be like.
This is the part that I like about this idea. Only when we embrace the reality of the now, can we do something about the future. Self-improvement naturally flows out of self-acceptance. If it would be the other way around, we would go crazy.
Yet, I think this idea is falling short in one major way: it is very self-focused. Radical acceptance is basically a thought-pattern helping you to live unattached so that nothing could ever hurt you. You teach yourself not to experience any pain or blame over messing up or even grief over what you’ve lost. It is very focused on the self.
The Christian answer: Grace, grace, grace
The Bible teaches us, that there is better way to embrace the tension of acceptance & improvement: grace.
Ephesians 2:1-3 (NLT)
Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.
Essentially, we are all in the same boat. This is the humble acknowledgement that we all need to make. Before we encountered the grace of God, we had nothing to show for. No matter how hard we tried, or how well we did, we were falling short.
In terms that we used before: no amount of self-improvement could ever lead to full acceptance.
Ephesians 2:4-7 (NLT)
But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus.
So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus.
In spite of our sin and guilt, we are accepted by God through grace. With the words of the Casting Crowns song: "Not because of who I am, but because of what you've done.
Not because of what I've done, but because of who you are."
There’s nothing that we did to accomplish this acceptance. It’s all about who God is and what Jesus has done for us. He died on the cross to pay the full ransom for sin. And we receive His grace by faith.
Ephesians 2:8-10 (NLT)
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.
Because this full acceptance by God of who we are now is not an accomplishment of self-improvement, nor a decision of our own will or the result of anything we did – we cannot take any credit for it or boast in it. It doesn’t make us better, smarter or more ‘together’ than anyone else.
Grace means that something very significant has changed: our position to our Creator. Before, we were in a position of rejection. Now, we are in a position of complete acceptance.
Through what Jesus has done on the cross, God accepts you, just as you are. And there is nothing you can do about it.
Yet, God’s grace goes further than just this acceptance. Forgiveness alone doesn’t solve the sin-problem. Through this grace, we become a new creation altogether: God’s masterpiece. We are re-created by God to live the life He always had intended for us.
God’s grace leads both to acceptance AND improvement!
The answer to the tension that we experience is found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our need for acceptance is found in the cross. On the cross, Jesus overcame our shortcomings.
Our need for self-improvement is found in the resurrection – because through Jesus’ resurrection, we are re-created by God and empowered to live the life He had always intended for us!
In the concept of radical acceptance, both self-acceptance and self-improvement are entirely up to you. But in the Gospel, we acknowledge that this doesn’t solve the problem, but only works around it. In Jesus Christ, we find the foundation, motivation and the empowerment for both acceptance and improvement! We are plugged in to the eternal source of love and grace and the power to live a new life!
Because my Creator accepts me as I am, and has forgiven my shortcomings, I can also love myself for who I am now.
Because my Creator has renewed me through the resurrection power of Jesus and the life of the Holy Spirit in me, I am empowered to live a different life from now on.
In Jesus Christ, we find the foundation, motivation and the empowerment for both acceptance and improvement!
Also, I have a reason for improvement that goes far beyond feeling better about myself: I am now living for the glory of God.
Avoiding the Tension
In spite of the fact that we’ve received both acceptance and the power to improve through the same grace, some people still try to avoid the tension. Tension can make you feel uncomfortable, and so you try and find a way around it. People avoid the tension by choosing one side over the other.
Overemphasis on acceptance
Some people try to solve the tension this way saying: since there is no way to self-improve your way to acceptance anyway, let’s just celebrate the fact that we are accepted, and accept that improvement is probably not going to happen.
This train of thought will take you to a place where you read the instructions of God merely as advice and suggestions.
In this thinking, God points you to the best way, but if it is too hard, second best of third best is also fine. As long as you mean well. God loves you no matter what.
Radical obedience is the standard, not the ideal. Following Jesus happens on His terms, not yours.
The best lies are half-truths. And this is a half-truth. God’s unconditional love is no carte-blanche to do whatever you want. Watering down the truth of God’s Word is a slippery slope. This way of thinking is also based on the misconception that God’s standard is an impossible one. It underestimates the power of the Spirit that is at work within us.
Jesus was quite clear that following Him would mean giving up everything.
Luke 9:57-62 (NLT)
As they were walking along, someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.”
He said to another person, “Come, follow me.”
The man agreed, but he said, “Lord, first let me return home and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead! Your duty is to go and preach about the Kingdom of God.”
Another said, “Yes, Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family.” But Jesus told him, “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.”
Following Jesus is not something you can do on the side, when you feel like it or when you find the time for it. There is no place for duo-loyalty or postponing.
Radical obedience is the standard, not the ideal. Following Jesus happens on His terms, not yours.
Overemphasis on improvement
There are also many people who will emphasise the need to improve over the fact that we are accepted as we are. God loves you, but… They like to put comma’s, where God puts a full stop.
What does an overemphasis on improvement lead to? Well, it usually starts with striving; trying to please God in your own strength. Then a good dose of pride comes in, because look at how much better you are doing than others. But then in the end it almost always leads to self-condemnation, because you discover you are incapable of keeping the standards you set for yourself.
If you are familiar with the Gospels, you know what happens when Jesus meets striving, pride and hypocrisy. It doesn’t end well. In no uncertain terms Jesus confronts this misrepresentation of God’s character.
Matthew 23:2-4 (NLT)
“The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.
You see, Jesus doesn’t comment much on if what they say is true – that’s not his main concern with the Pharisees. His main concern is where their hearts are at.
Embracing the tension
So then, since avoiding the tension leads to imbalance, how can we embrace the tension instead? Here are four keys for you to help you navigate through the tension.
1) It all starts with trust
When navigating through the tension of acceptance and improvement, we need to trust Jesus. We need to trust that He says that He loves us unconditionally – even when we messed up in such a way that we find it very hard to love ourselves. Trust in the fact that He loves you, and there is nothing you can do about it.
Secondly, we need to trust the direction that He is giving to us? Do we trust that when He says: “go”, we’re good to go? Do we trust that when He says: “no”, it is not to limit us, bully us or beat us into submission, but really just better not to?
If Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Then surely, obeying Him is the way to true life.
If Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, we can be sure that obeying Him is the way to true life. Faith in Him should lead to obedience – even when His guiding points us into a different direction than where we were heading.
2) Follow the direction, don’t focus on the checkpoints
When you received the grace of God, you became a new creation. God has set you on a new track that is heading closer to Him, and is heading to a life that resembles the life of Jesus.
This is a journey that will take our whole lives. This journey is not about arriving at a certain destination. I don’t know anyone that could humbly say: I have now arrived as a disciple of Jesus. I completely and fully resemble Jesus.
Yet, I know many people that would say that they are moving closer to Jesus every day. And as we move closer, both this understanding of acceptance and an inner desire for improvement will grow.
When we look at our lives of that of others, we can get very caught up by checkpoints. We’ve got to arrive at certain stages of discipleship like: a certain amount of prayer and Bible study every day, or losing a certain habit. But Jesus is not after a tick the box type of discipleship. He is after your heart. I think we need to learn that the right direction – closer to Jesus everyday – is more important than hitting certain checkpoints.
Thinking in terms of ‘direction’ will help you to navigate through interpersonal relationships as well. You do not think of yourself as doing well or doing poorly in relation to others – but you view yourself as on a journey to grow closer to Jesus.
3) Learn to discern
When you experience the tension between acceptance and improvement, in a certain failure, there are two voices that will start speaking to you: condemnation and conviction.
The Spirit will leave you this voice message:
“Hey man, you know that’s not right. This is not what you were created for. Let me show you a better way to handle this my child. I’ll be right with you through the struggle. Trust me, just follow my guiding.”
The devil will leave you this voice message:
“You are such a failure. Do you call yourself a Christian? Don’t make me laugh. What do you have to offer that would please God? You are nothing but a dirty sinner, and there is no escaping from it. Why don’t you give up this foolish desire of growing to be like Christ, so we can finally have some fun!”
The voice of the devil will try to make you doubt your acceptance, for a lack of improvement. He is the accuser. But the Spirit will speak life into you. He will use your acceptance as a motivation for your continuing improvement.
4) Whatever you do, always stay humble
Please understanding that there is no amount of self-improvement that could make God accept you any more or less. He accepts you through grace. This brings us to a place of humility. We fully rely on the saving work of Jesus. Humbly we bow at the Cross, thanking Jesus for what He has done.
And only from a place of humility, the Spirit can also start His work in you of becoming more like Jesus. Humbly, we accept the invitation to the journey of Christ-likeness. Humbly we accept His direction, even when we had different thoughts. And humbly we partner with the Spirit, making ourselves available to others and serve them with the love of Christ.
Humility will also help you to navigate your relationships with others. The Holy Spirit doesn’t make you better than others. He makes you better than you. And that’s all the testimony you need.