Unacceptable Unacceptability

In a previous post I mentioned Karl Barth’s definition of faith as accepting the acceptance of God. Paul Tillich says a little more than this when he defines faith as accepting our acceptance in spite of our unacceptability. According to this definition faith requires the acknowledgement of our unacceptability. This, even for seasoned Christians is much easier said than done.

Instead of accepting our unacceptability and exposing it to the grace of God we defend against troubling presence through making our acceptance by God conditional. In this way, although on a conscious level we really do believe that we are sinners saved only by God’s grace, on a psychological level we completely avoid being exposed to our unacceptability. So long as we fulfil certain conditions we are perfectly acceptable.

I need to stress here that I am not thinking about straightforward salvation-by-works teaching. This happens without us having to consciously compromise our belief in grace since it takes place out of our awareness. Without our knowing how or why our experience of faith becomes troubled by the belief that our acceptance by God is conditional.

This happens because growing up we came to think of ourselves as being acceptable to others only if we fulfil certain criteria. Over time this way of viewing ourselves recedes into the recesses of our minds. It is still present and it is still very active, but we are so accustomed to it that we are no longer aware of its presence. And yet, all the while, it is shaping how we view ourselves in relationship with others and, crucially, in relationship with God.

Borrowing from the theory of Transactional Analysis I want to suggest four conditions we impose on our own acceptability.

1. I’m acceptable only if I show no weakness. We whose acceptability takes this form define ourselves by our emotional strength, by which I mean that we will never show or acknowledge our vulnerability. When I think of this pattern of being I’m always reminded of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail who, even when both his arms have been cut off in a fight with King Arthur, refuses to surrender and dismisses his injuries as a mere flesh wound. You can always rely on us who define ourselves in this way in the church no matter what, but our experience of the life of faith is far from easy. If our vulnerability catches up with us and leaks out, then our identity, including our identity as Christians, is brought into question. In this we are caught in a double bind since being strong all the time means that we deny the very thing that we secretly yearn for, which is someone to take care of us. And so, although we will never show it, we spend much of our time in a secret and forbidden sadness.

2. I’m acceptable only if I please others. When our acceptability depends on pleasing others we must at all times put huge effort into being nice. We do what others expect of us and are always hugely accommodating of other people’s needs and wishes. In the eyes of many within the church this makes us model Christians; paradigms of Christian love. But this is not a representation of ourselves that we recognise. To us the experience of life is filled with a constant second guessing of what others think about us and a habitual replaying of our conversations with others searching for evidence of their approval. We are slaves to our need for affirmation and have little or no freedom for the authentic expression of our true feelings. Inside a hurricane of rage might be tearing us up, or we might be marooned in the doldrums of depression, but we can never show it. And if anything of our true negative self-experience leaks out then it is nothing less than catastrophic for us, because not only will others not like us, a prospect that holds an existential threat for us, but nor will God.

3. I’m acceptable only if I’m perfect. If this is our belief then it is likely that we were brought up in a fairly strict environment, where rules were plenty and where they had to be kept. In this environment we learned to think that the love of our parents, or whoever set the rules, depended on how well we performed at keeping the rules (even if it didn’t). It’s not difficult to see how this will make us vulnerable to legalistic forms of Christianity. The rules of the household are replaced by the law of God and the rules of the church, and the fear of being abandoned by our parents morphs into the anxiety of rejection by God. This kind of conditional acceptance also means that we will be more liable to adopt, or fall into, ritualistic practices. The anxiety of being rejected by God and by others can be kept at bay by the repeated performance of certain rites. Once again, the apparent result of this process is a life of admirable discipline, but the experience of that life is far from easy. Anxiety dominates and has the potential to set us onto an inescapable spiral leading downwards towards panic, because if we believe that to be anxious is to break the rules that God has set for us (as some Christians do), then the experience of anxiety, over which we feel we have no control, provokes more anxiety because it leads to the rejection of God.

4. I’m acceptable only if I keep on trying. The demand to keep trying for fear that we will be rejected by God is to be seen in many churches of all traditions. Those of us who have this understanding of ourselves can’t afford to give up doing things in the church because that would lead, so we believe, to condemnation. Exhaustion is the inevitable result. This particular conditional acceptability comes with a catch. If we believe that we need to keep on trying in order to be loved or accepted by God then succeeding at whatever it is we are trying to do becomes a problem. After all, if we succeed at it, then we can no try to do it! And so we triers often find ways of sabotaging our own efforts. We don’t do this consciously, of course since by the time we’ve reached adulthood this has become as unconscious a behaviour as any other habit. But this self-sabotaging tendency is there to be seen if we reflected on our lives. Triers have often been compared to Sysiphus from Greek mythology. He was condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill, except that whenever the pushed, shoved and heaved the huge rock towards the summit, it would role all the way back down to the bottom and Sysiphus would have to drag his weary body down the hill and start the cruel exercise all over again.

I think it is helpful for us, when we recognise that we view our acceptance by God to be conditional in any one of these ways to also recognise that the source of this belief about ourselves is not to be found in our experience of faith, but in our psychology. As our faith exists within the structure of our already formed psyche it is inevitably going to be affected for better or for worse by the processes that are already established there. Understanding this frees us from the fear that our difficulties are in some sense spiritual and, therefore, otherworldly and beyond our capacity to resolve. It frees us to segregate our relationship with God from our relationships with others and so it gives us the space to work on the growth of our psyche out of these damaging ways of thinking about ourselves without the huge pressure of having to ‘fix’ our relationship with God.

To make these important steps what we need is an accepting church, a church that undermines our expectations of being accepted ‘only if…’ and that accepts us unconditionally. We need a church that instead of imposing conditions gives permissions, permissions to not be strong, or perfect, permissions to not please others or try hard. As I’ve written in a previous post, a church like this constantly affirms and reinforces God’s acceptance of us, an acceptance which is in spite of our unacceptability.

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