Accepting the acceptance of God is how Karl Barth defined faith. I’m tempted to tweak his definition slightly and state that faith is welcoming being welcomed by God but I suspect that I may be splitting hairs and I am certain that I’m being presumptuous in taking on the great Swiss theologian. So lets assume that acceptance entails welcoming.
But for many of us accepting that we are accepted, is excruciatingly difficult. We can understand that we are accepted, that through Christ and through him alone the guilt that made us unacceptable to God has been atoned for and that we have been freely given the identity of children of God. We can understand this and we can know it to be true, but our feelings struggle to follow where our understanding leads.
In spite of the transformational power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, worry and sadness fear and isolation persist. The reasons for these difficult feelings are usually buried deep within our past and in the narrative we have formed out of our experiences of our past relationships. But, as so often happens with powerful feelings, they demand an immediate explanation, one that relates to our here-and-now lives. As our relation to God dominates our understanding of who we are, it is inevitable that this search for an explanation for such powerful emotions will attach itself to this relationship. And so we are left with this conflict between our thoughts and our feelings: we know ourselves to be accepted by God, but we feel that we’re not, and these feelings that we’re not lead us to doubt that we are.
It’s not that doubt is producing in us uncomfortable feelings, but that our uncomfortable feelings are creating doubt. This does not mean that we don’t believe: doubt is not incompatible with faith. It would be better to think of this as pointing to our faith as a work in progress.
The point is that our own narrative of unacceptability – and all other kinds of self-narratives – was written by us in response to our early relational experiences. It was the way we made sense of how others were responding to us and it shaped the decisions we made about who we are and how to be in the world. Very often then our struggles to integrate God’s narrative of gracious acceptance into our own are down to these early decisions about the story of our life.
This being the case, the church plays a vital role in communicating God’s acceptance and welcoming of his people. What is damaged in relationship is healed through relationship. The acceptance of God is of course received by faith, but although that faith does have a strongly personal element about it, it does not exist within an individualised bubble. Faith is a shared experience and it thrives within the community of faith. As the self is formed and nurtured in relationship so faith, which completes the self, takes shape and flourishes in relationship. In short, God’s welcoming of us is communicated and reinforced by our welcoming of each other.
This is a clear principle of baptism. When a person is baptised the church is publicly stating that they are accepted by the community of faith on the basis of God’s gracious acceptance of them. The relationship between the church’s acceptance and God’s is also reinforced in Matthew 18:18 in which Jesus says, “…whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven”. The actions of the church in freeing someone from their guilt and alienation is confirming and reinforcing what God has already done for them.
But what does this look like in practice? Jesus’ command to love as he has loved gives us the perfect answer to this question. Love in Scripture is no mere sentiment. The love of God is synonymous with his saving acts and it is this love that Christ reveals in his giving of himself for and to the church. To love then is to work towards the redemption of others, which must include their redemption from restrictive and damaging beliefs about themselves, beliefs that place a limit on their growth and put a brake on their flourishing.
It isn’t possible for me to give an exhaustive account of what this means for the day-to-day life of the church, so I want to highlight three qualities I believe a church needs to nurture if it is to become more accepting.
1. Openness. The cross of Christ is a place of vulnerability. But it is precisely because we want to hide our vulnerability from others that we are often less than open with them. We present a photoshopped version of ourselves to the world that has had all our vulnerability airbrushed out. Sometimes we even aggressively defend our own vulnerability by exposing the vulnerability of others or by projecting our vulnerability onto them. The need to develop openness calls the church to work at becoming a community where people are encouraged to be OK with their own vulnerability.
Learning to become OK with our limitations is not something we can’t achieve by ourselves, it needs the support and encouragement of people who are important to us. We are enticed into openness by relationships where we feel safe to be ourselves. The church, therefore, needs to be a community that is accepting and not condemning of the vulnerability of others.
I feel I need to add a qualification at this point. I am not saying that church relationships are to be boundary-less. Others do not have a right to unlimited access to our lives simply because they are Christians. What I am saying, however, is that whatever access they do have into our personalities and our lives, what they encounter there is authentic. Someone recently illustrated this to me by speaking of a personality as a series of rooms. We don’t allow everyone into every room of our self – we have degrees of intimacy with others depending on the nature of their relationship to us. But whichever rooms we allow others access into they need to be genuinely reflective of who we are.
2. Connection. In his books I-Thou and Between Man and Man the philosopher and Talmudic scholar Martin Buber describes us as being at all times engaging with the world in one of two modes. The first of these is the I-It relationship. Here a person objectifies the other, measures them, categorises them and fails to connect with their true essence. The second is the I-Thou encounter in which true dialogue is established, which does not necessitate words or content. To be in the I-Thou relationship is to be really present with and towards the other in a truly mutual relationship. Though a Jewish scholar, Buber was influenced by Christian writers such as Ludwig Feuerbach and Soren Kierkegaard and his ideas find a great deal of reinforcement in Scripture, particularly in the manner in which Jesus engaged with others.
The I-Thou relationship is vital if a church is to communicate the acceptance of God. Words are not enough. Our whole person must be directed towards the other in complete regard for them. It is important in Buber’s conception of I-Thou relating that this is not done with an agenda. It is easy to see how, if I engage with another with the express purpose of getting them to change, I am inevitably going to fail to do so authentically since I am more concerned with achieving my personal goal than I am for them. And so the I-Thou relationship cannot be a means to an end, since people are an end in themselves. Having said this, by this authentic acceptance of others, we are liberating what has already been liberated in heaven.
3. Regard. Whereas Buber stresses the mutuality of the I-Thou relationship his unofficial disciple and successor as the existential philosopher of relating, Emmanuel Levinas argued that the truly ethical relationship is non-mutual. In his book Totality and Infinity Levinas contrasts two ways of encountering the Other. The first is to reduce the other to a totality, to squeeze them into a theory, to imagine that we can measure them and circumscribe them with our definitions and label them according certain categories. The other way is to regard them in their infinity (infinity here refers to the infinite possibilities contained within every human, rather than to any infinity of being such is usually ascribed to God alone), and to approach them in their transcendence. Every encounter with another, he argues, is a summons to become truly human by regarding the other as being higher than us.
There are clear echoes in Levinas’ work of the Biblical stipulation to ‘[d]o nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves’ (Philippians 2:3). And this, according to Levinas, is not merely the correct ethical mode of relating, but it is also the fundamental and primeval form of being for all human beings. It is how the self comes into being and is developed. To be a church that encourages its members to grow and flourish by being released from their shackles of anxiety and fear it is vital that we learn to consider others more significant than ourselves and relate to them accordingly.
This communication has the effect of undermining our expectations of rejection, expectations that are the product of our self-narrative. And as this is repeated we are presented with the opportunity of amending our self-narrative of alienation and condemnation for something more befitting those who have been welcomed by a gracious God into his everlasting kingdom.