Like a lot of people I know, I’m not satisfied. Not satisfied with my life as it stands now, not content with the thing that consumes most of my productive hours (work), and I feel like there is so much more in life yet to do. And I’ve been pressing God. “What’s up? What’s next? What else should I be doing, or not doing? How do I get from where I am to where I think you ultimately want me?” You know, the typical probing and questioning, seeking “next things”.
And occasionally, after some concentrated time in prayer, I’ll walk away, get on with my day, and suddenly out of nowhere, a spark of insight will flare up, a quiet voice will whisper a clue into my ear. It’s almost as though I have to first stir up the pot, or plow up some hard ground before the delicate words can filter through the cacophony of thoughts in my head. The latest came several weeks back. “Radical Acceptance.” And the fuller explanation trailed along immediately: if you want walk in the love of God and if you want the power of God to flow in your life without obstacle or interference, you have to practice radical acceptance. Just like Jesus did.
I’m seeking “more” — you know, that whole “what else” thing we all get when searching for true fulfillment in life. And I know I’ve got things in my life that are holding me back. Wrong thinking, bad attitudes, warped or narrow perspective, habits or lack of habits. And when I get serious with God about them, sometimes he points them out. This time, that was it. The idea is akin to the concept of “unconditional love”. We’ve all heard it preached at us. Some of us even try to walk in it, but it’s really, really hard. And for me, well, I’ve got a train load of baggage that slows me down. If I’m not careful, I tend to be critical, I tend to prejudge people — and usually all based on superficial stuff. I decide whether I like a person or not, or if I want to associate with them, or I’ll just make comments in my head, sizing people up based on outward appearance or behavior. And these snap judgments limit me. I’ve pegged a person, mentally put them in a box. I’ve bagged and tagged them. As a result, genuine personal interaction may never occur. I may never get to know that person for who he or she really is on the inside, simply because I’ve already dispensed with them in my head. And it’s not necessarily out of a superior attitude; it’s not always because I think I’m better than them or that they don’t fit comfortably in the world I’ve constructed for myself. Sometimes it’s the reverse. They’re too good, too perfect or good-looking, too holy or too successful — too intimidating to me. So my world stays small. Not only am I limiting my options for helping others, for stepping outside my box and genuinely interacting with them from a place of authenticity and integrity, but I’ve also limited my ability to be blessed by them.
There’s this verse in the Bible that pops into my head from time to time. It’s in Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus, that they may know “the riches of God’s glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:18). I love that whole passage, a recipe for growing in spiritual depth and maturity. But that part of it is loaded with hidden treasure. People are the wealth of God. We bless others, and they bless us just by being who they are — as they are. And if we limit our interaction, our fellowship, for whatever reason, we limit that blessing, we cut ourselves off from some of those “glorious riches”.
And we don’t have to look far in the Bible to find other examples of this. There’s that famous scene when the prophet Samuel is looking to anoint the next king of Israel. He has Jesse’s sons paraded in front of him, and he is impressed with their physical attributes: strong, tall, powerful, etc. Yet God rejects each one of them: “no, not this one.” Finally Jesse has to send for his youngest son, David, who’s out tending the sheep. And David is the chosen one. Why? “The LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature… for God sees not as man sees. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart'” (1 Samuel 16:7). Outward appearance is always misleading, and it is never a good basis for determining someone’s true qualities.
And in Jesus’ life, he chose some very questionable people to hang around with. Corrupt officials, hated extortionists, zealots and radical political activists, despised and outcast Samaritans, women of bad moral character. Of course there were others too, like a few of his disciples who were hard-working fisherman. But I’m struck by his handling of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). His disciples went ahead of him into the town to find some food, while he hung back. And this woman had been married five times and was currently living with a man she wasn’t married to. And the obvious: she was Samaritan. They were people of twisted theology, a distorted view of the truth, they were a threat to orthodoxy and religious purity. Yet when Jesus’ disciples come back and are shocked to find him talking with her, he tells them “I have food you know nothing about. My food is to do the will of him who sent me.” Jesus got personal fulfillment and satisfaction from talking with this “unclean” woman. That little bit of hanging out with her WAS the work of God. Had he followed socially acceptable protocol, he would never even have looked at her much less engaged her in a conversation that brought her into true relationship with the living God.
I’m looking for more. I’m looking to do more, to BE more. And God has been whispering recently in my ear, “if you want to overcome the next roadblock in your journey to a more fulfilling spiritual life, then you’ve got to deal with this pre-judging stuff. You’ve got to stop looking on the outward appearance, and see people like I see them: from their hearts.” Radical acceptance.
Okay, the acceptance part of that seems pretty straight forward. But radical? I’m not really the radical type. So I think this is more an adverb than an adjective: it’s how I’m to accept people. Like when a cancer has threatened a vital organ in the body, sometimes a surgeon will perform a radical procedure to cut it out. My habitual sizing people up has become pretty automatic; it happens without me even thinking about it. And for these automatic behaviors, sometimes the only way to correct them is with radical, deliberate counter-behavior. Whenever I catch myself making these quick critiques, I have to stop myself, and consciously try to see the person as God sees them. Those people whose lifestyles or behaviors would normally put me off, I have to treat as Jesus would.
It’s a simple truth. The real power of God works through his love. And real love is easily blocked by our quick assessments, by our pre-judgments (prejudices!), our sizing-up of others based on surface inspection. We limit ourselves by these petty attitudes. And whether they’re based on our own insecurities, past experiences, or an unjustified feeling of superiority, they will prevent us from walking in the fullness of what God has for us. Because, in essence, we are limiting God’s ability to work through us.
Since this little nugget was dropped in my head a few weeks back, I’ve tried to open myself up to people and situations I’ve cut myself off from in the past. And the results have been truly surprising.
This is my third attempt at writing this little note, and it has become long enough. There’s so much more to consider about this. And needless to say, there’s also the other side of the balance that needs to be maintained as well. Radical acceptance does not mean to simply embrace everyone under the sun with one of those mushy “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all children of God” mentalities. There is a place for true discernment and separation when necessary. I’ll write more on some of these new and disturbing adventures in the days ahead. But for now I leave you with this thought in a nutshell:
If you want to the love of God to flow freely in your life, if you want to unleash the power of God, then you have to practice Radical Acceptance. Just like Jesus did.