Early in our relationship, my wife and I debated the proposition that people have the ability to change who they are — the attributes and characteristics that are most deeply ingrained in their being — personalities and orientations, so to speak. The way we respond to situations, the way we compose ourselves in different circumstances, the lifestyle choices we make that bring definition to our lives; all originate in the roots of our natural dispositions. Earthly wisdom tells us that we are who we are and we should learn to accept that, because once we do there is no greater freedom. And why? Enjoy this life, find total carnal happiness for yourself — live your life according to you. The notion of American distinctiveness has been culturally entrenched since Hoover, but because of an increased desire for uniqueness and personal happiness, this country has seen an unprecedented rise in individualism on the social landscape. People, now more than ever, not only believe that they wield total autonomy over their lives (as opposed to the sovereignty of a higher power), but they desire such control for others, which, in turn, has contributed to the development of a sweeping trend of increased tolerance of unorthodox lifestyles, behaviors, and viewpoints. This might lead us to assume that religious belief would see a gradual decline in society, but ironically, nine out if ten Americans still believe in God.
Though the self-esteem movement of the 1980’s gained some traction, there is an even more popular movement of self-love and acceptance that has swept American society in recent years, driven by one defining factor — we do not like to be judged. We believe that we are who we are and for others to criticize our ingrained attributes is offensive and hypocritical. And the influence is suffocating. Pop culture icons write songs about it; secular and Christian authors write books about it; and our favorite movies and shows formulate storylines that embrace it. Lady Gaga seemingly incorporates her beliefs in a universalist God in her chart-topper “Born This Way”; Joel Osteen reminds his readers of their unlimited potential in his best-selling The Power of I Am; and as arguably the most influential person on TV, Oprah promotes 10 day plans on “how self-acceptance can crack open your life.” While these examples might seem harmless to most, this constant stream of vanity stimulation has helped to create an over-developed sense of narcissism. We need to feel important, valued, accepted, affirmed. This movement teaches us that we are the priority; that we should put our own happiness and well-being first (the mission statement from the “self-love movement” website). Even the widely valued Five Love Languages takes one of our deepest human-based egotistical insecurities, the need for affirmation, and promotes it as an inherently endearing quality that should be not only accepted, but nurtured. This mindset naturally leads us away from religion because the onus is no longer on any deity to preserve us; we are responsible for ourselves. But, since 89% of Americans still believe that God exists (Gallup, 2016), there is clearly a philosophical conflict waging in us about how much control we have over our own lives. We want what we want, but in the back of our minds we are uncertain about the end. But, since the percentage of people who still believe that God exists is so surprisingly high, let’s assume, then, that there is a God and quickly indulge a putatively uncomfortable question: Does God accept us the way we are?
As this movement has gained steam, people have departed from the traditional, uncompromising legalism of the Christian religion (found in both the Old and New Testaments) that permeated much of American culture for centuries and flocked to the more groovy, “progressive” teachings of Jesus, who even modern secular scholars believe was a great moral philosopher. This forward-looking perspective focuses almost exclusively on God’s boundless love, while omitting the reminder that God is still capable of great wrath. But because of their increased levels of tolerance for unorthodox social behaviors that derive from “who people are,” the potential for wrath doesn’t make sense to millennial Christians. If there is a God, why would he have programmed someone in such a manner to innately defy his edicts? If we believe that we are were simply born a specific way — that God made us this way — there is nothing to change. We are who we are.
First of all, God wove an intricate web of elements together to make you who you are – and for a purpose. But, unless one believes strictly in moral relativism, Christians and non-Christians can agree that people do bad things, making them inherently imperfect. Let me be clear; this is not a piece on the concept of “original sin,” but if God is perfect and we are imperfect, and perfection is the absence of imperfection, then prior to a relationship with God, “the way you are” is separated from him. Logically, then, it is not possible for us to be in the presence of God while covered in our iniquities, so how could God accept us the way we are prior to entering into a relationship with him? Because of our innate imperfection, then, something has to change for us to engage in communion with God. This is not meant to be dismal or condemning; this is the reality of God’s holiness against our deficiencies.
The most significant flaw in the movement for limitless acceptance is that it equates tolerance with love. Why do we think that just because God loves us, he accepts lifestyles, actions, and decisions that are contrary to his teachings and nature? If God had simply established an underlying, universal acceptance of human beings, there would have been no need for Jesus, the man who even secularists invoke when justifying their choices to Christians. My wife loves me, but she would confidently affirm that there are things about me that need to change. Consider, for example, that, sometimes, I can be driven by pride. Scripture consistently and frequently speaks against pride. So, if I know that God would rather me not rest in my pride, why wouldn’t I strive for humility? Because he made me the way I am?
People like to think that since God created them, they must be perfect in his eyes — otherwise, why would he have created them only to reject them because of something that is out of their control (personality, orientation, etc.)? In this confidence, we convince ourselves that we are fashioned with a natural righteousness that provides us with an ultimate, unconditional acceptance as long as we not only maintain, but even cultivate that outward righteousness toward others. But Jesus offers a different outlook on this and because 71% of Americans still believe the Bible to be a holy document and God-inspired, it would seem worth the look. In his parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, which was given specifically for people who think highly of their own righteousness while looking down on others, the Pharisee thanked God, through prayer, that he was not like “robbers, evildoers, and adulterers,” — sinners — and reminded God of his own righteousness in regularly fasting and tithing, which the Pharisee would have considered part of God’s law. The tax collector, meanwhile, stood further back, in shame, unable even to lift his head, because he knew that he was a sinner. Instead, his prayer was simple: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus told the people that the tax collector went home justified before the Lord because of his humility, prompting that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” To the world, this self-love movement is exactly what we need to help us achieve true happiness for ourselves. To God, we have made ourselves the idol.
Respected author N.T. Wright notes an important point in his biblical commentary regarding the half-truth that God simply accepts us the way we are: “will ‘God’s acceptance’ do as a complete grounding of Christian ethics? Emphatically not. Grace reaches where humans are and accepts them as they are, because anything less would result in nobody’s being saved… but grace is always transformative. God accepts us where we are, but God does not intend to leave us where we are…” If you are prepared to justify questionable actions, lifestyle decisions, or personality quirks based on the premise that because God is full of love, he unconditionally accepts you — guess again. Thankfully, we have pop icon Alessia Cara to remind us everyday on the radio: “you should know you’re beautiful just the way you are; and you don’t have to change a thing; the world could change its heart….”
We are not a God.