"But by the grace of God I am what I am…" (1 Corinthians 15:10).
We hear a lot about "self-acceptance" in modern psychology and in the "self-help" literature derived from it. "Accepting who we are" is often touted as the very first step towards mental health and general well-being. And, up to a point, a Christian must surely agree.
After all, being honest with ourselves about our strengths and our weaknesses, about what is good and bad in our character or habits, is an entirely reasonable beginning to our being honest about ourselves with God and with our neighbours. The old spiritual writers even had a name for this kind of honesty. They called it "an examination of conscience," and they recommended it as a daily event, usually at the end of the day as part of our night prayers.
The rules for an examination of conscience could be either very simple or extremely complex, depending on the amount of practical experience with personal honesty possessed by the person who was expected to follow them. In general, though, an examination of conscience was structured around a comparison of our thoughts, words, and deeds with a divinely-given standard of holiness and good behaviour, such as our Lord’s Summary of the Law or the Ten Commandments.
Did I, for example, in the day now ending, love God with my whole heart, and my whole soul, and my whole mind? Did I love my neighbour as myself? If I was successful in these duties, what helped me to fulfill them and how can I build on that success to become even more faithful? When I failed (and everybody does fail sometimes, since our Lord Jesus Christ alone is without sin), what contributed to that failure? Was I proud? Was I careless? Was I hateful? Are there places, or people, or situations that I need to avoid to keep from sinning? What practical things can I do right away to make a fresh start with God, so that I am less likely to sin tomorrow? And before I sleep, is there anyone that I need to forgive as generously as God has forgiven me?
Of course, whether we call this sort of moral and spiritual discipline "an examination of conscience" or not, and whether we follow this form or that in examining our lives, it ought to be clear that this is something all Christians ought to do every day of their lives. Honesty, like almost every other good thing, takes practice; and the more we practice being honest with God and with ourselves, the more honest we will truly be. This is more than just a "theory." It is an actual part of divine revelation. St. John wrote, for example, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). Likewise, St. John also explained how to know if we have sinned and if we are being honest about it: "He that saith, I know him [Jesus Christ], and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:4).
What a Christian might call "self-acceptance" really begins with God and not with ourselves. God offers us the grace, through the atoning death of his Son Jesus Christ, to live with him forever. God loves us, and from that perfect love we derive the strength to accept God’s grace and to work with him in discovering not only who and what we are, but more importantly, who and what we might become in fellowship with our Father in heaven.
God accepts us in his Son Jesus Christ, and we even sing a hymn about that acceptance in and by our Lord Jesus: "Just as I am, without one plea, But that thy blood was shed for me, And that thou bidd’st me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come" (Hymn 409). When we admit the truth of our need for redemption, we admit, as well, our trust that God will do more with our lives that we ever could do with them on our own. We accept the promise from God that if we are honest and objective about our lives as they really are, then God will never let our failures and sins define those lives forever. He will take away those sins with the Blood of Christ, and he will give us the strength to answer the Gospel call to eternal life in the affirmative.
It is here, precisely, that the Christian parts company with the secular idea of "self-acceptance." A Christian accepts himself as God accepts him: under the sovereignty and judgment of God, and according to God’s standards of right and wrong, of good and bad behavior. A Christian offers his whole life to God in unblinking honesty, and receives his life again from God as a "new life in Jesus Christ," to which is attached God’s faithful promises of holiness and perfection in God’s own good time. Thus, every faithful Christian can face the entire world, can face anybody and anything, in whatever calling God chooses to give him, and can say with St. Paul: "By the grace of God, I am what I am."
In stark contrast, those who take up a worldly doctrine of self-acceptance and who adopt an ethic of self-help, self-love, and self-approval are not seeking a new life at all. If they had a hymn, it would be "Just as I am, with a thousand pleas that I am plenty good enough right now and have a right to be and to do whatever I want." There are no standards of right and wrong, or of good and evil in such a life, except for self-will.
Amazingly, however, not everybody who lives by the secular rules of self-acceptance will call himself an atheist, even though the disorder of his life is a thoroughgoing denial of Almighty God and of his call to grace, order, and life in himself. Many such people will even insist that they are "Christians," on the completely impossible basis that they can decide for themselves, and on their own terms, what constitutes "Christianity."
Think of the thieves and murderers (such as the members of various crime syndicates) who claim to be Christians. Think of the liars and frauds (such as certain of our politicians) that pose for pictures in churches. Think of those engaged in adultery and extra-marital affairs that present themselves at the altar rail to receive the Holy Communion. Think of those who work in church bureaucracies and at church conventions to "normalize" perversion and to "bless" same-sex relations that God has forbidden. Think of the thousands of sins, great and small, that go unrepented (and, thus, unforgiven) because people say, "I am what I am, and God must accept me as I am."
The defiant "I am what I am" of worldly self-acceptance would be almost comical, if all it were was the cartoon vainglory of Popeye the Sailor, "I am what I am, and that’s all that I am," barked at Olive Oyl, Bluto, and the world. But it is a much more serious business.
Consider the answer Moses received when he stood barefooted before the Burning Bush manifesting the glory of Almighty God to ask the holiest of names: "And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you" (Exodus 3:14).
"I am that I am" or "I am what I am" is the Name of God alone. When anyone else claims that Name for himself, when anyone else announces "I am what I am, take it or leave it," that person has usurped the place and dignity of Almighty God. That person has made himself the tiny "god" of a wicked little world of his own. Since, however, all such "little worlds" are entirely imaginary, because there is only the One True God and the one creation that he rules absolutely, the people who stake their claim to them rule nothing, and they are in danger, unless they repent, of condemning themselves to the hell where all false gods must eventually go.
The choice, therefore, could not be clearer. We can embrace the love of God, put all our trust in him, and say with St. Paul, "By the grace of God, I am what I am." Or we can try to be gods ourselves. God’s love will be greater than any love we can give ourselves, and God will bring us to heaven to share his life, honor, and glory. Self-love will give us nothing, not even honesty about ourselves, and it will take us to the abyss. If nothing else, all this proves yet again that sin has never made any sense as a response to a great and good God so willing to give us all his love and grace.
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne