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Love: Acceptance or Forgiveness?

During this season when many Christians have been observing Lent, I have been ruminating on Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal or Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32).  In this, I have been helped by Henri Nouwen’s, The Return of the Prodigal Son.   I have reached the conclusion that contemporary culture grossly, even fatally, has misunderstood the love of others as acceptance without forgiveness.

“I accept you as you are” is a common understanding of love these days.  It means to approve of another person without any demand or expectation of change. Acceptance goes far beyond tolerance.  To tolerate is to relate peaceably or without antagonism to others without approving of them, their beliefs or their actions.  Acceptance endorses that person.  It recognizes the validity of that person’s character, preferences, beliefs, and actions.

The contemporary notion of absolute acceptance sounds so loving.   “I accept you as you are,” appears to be practicing unconditional love.  Not to accept others is judgmental.  After all, Jesus himself said, “Judge not” (Matthew 7:1). However, a closer look at Jesus’ words demonstrates that he did not advocate absolute acceptance.  He says, “Judge not that you may not be judged.”  Then he states that those who judge others without first dealing with their own faults are hypocrites (Matthew 7:3-5).  For Jesus there were standards that determined what was acceptable or unacceptable in human relationships.  If the contemporary idea of absolute acceptance is not based upon the Christian faith, from where does it originate?

The contemporary valuing of acceptance is based upon the notion of the sovereign self in which individuals have an absolute right to define themselves.  In his book Existentialism and Human Emotions Jean-Paul Sartre, the French atheist existentialist, concluded, “… there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it.”  Man is free and responsible to define himself.  No one else does or can.  The sovereign self forcefully rejects any eternal reality, whether God, nature or society, to limit its freedom to create and recreate its self.  Unfortunately, this so-called freedom is fraught with errors and tragic consequences.

Contemporary denials of human nature negate the relationship between one’s objective biological composition and the subjective self.  Sexual identity or gender identity, if you will, is fluid.  Bruce Jenner felt that his male body did not match his female self; so through a series of medical treatments and operations he transformed himself into Caitlyn Jenner.

Transgenderism thus appears to promise a radically new freedom of the self from the body.  In reality, it is one form of self-alienation.   Caitlyn Jenner recently underwent reassignment surgery because having a penis contradicted the authentic feminine self.  The body has become the enemy of the authentic soul.

Racial identity has also become subject to the sovereign self. Rachel Dolezal asserts that she is black, even though she is biologically white.  “Transracialism,” to coin a word, contends that race is a social construct.  Therefore, to criticize Rachel Dolezal for claiming to be black becomes an oppressive denial of who she has chosen to be.

The charge of oppression brings to the light the negative consequences of the sovereign self for community.  At its most fundamental, community is based upon a shared reality.  The sovereign self will brook no external limits to its claim either to create its own reality or to change that reality at any time.  The result is not just the loss of community but also a battle of conflicting sovereign selves.  It is a Nietzschean battle of warring “creator gods” for the control of reality.

Ultimately, the sovereign self harks back to man’s original sin.  In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve rejected God’s authority over them.  However, their sin was not merely rebellion against God.  They wished to become their own gods, thus making their rebellion a rejection of their natures as created beings made in the image of God.  The sovereign self results in self-alienation and ultimately in despair as one denies who one is.  To proclaim oneself as sovereign is to have lost one’s true identity, one’s true self.

The story of man’s original sin reveals that it is not just the Caitlyn Jenners and Rachel Dolezals of this world who have gone astray.  All of us have followed the siren song of the sovereign self and need to return to our true self.

At this point Jesus’ story of the lost or prodigal son offers hope, even as it rejects the sovereign self and the notion of absolute acceptance. The parable tells the story of a son who leaves his father and his home.  He wanders off, loses everything he has, and, having rejected his father, ends up in destitution and degradation.  Significantly, the turning point in the story is when he comes to himself and decides to return to his father.  He realizes that he has sinned against heaven and against his father.  Upon his return, the loving father rushes to accept the penitent son.

The story of the lost son is a story of forgiveness, not mere acceptance.  The self is not sovereign.  The self is defined by God.  To reject God is to reject our true self as being made in his image.  Because the human will apart from God is not strong enough to maintain a stable self, we wander about lost, seeking a home for our self.  In the poignant words of Nouwen, “Home is the center of my being. … Leaving home is, then, much more than an historical event bound to time and place.  It is a denial of the spiritual reality that I belong to God with every part of my being.”[1]

The gospel tells us that the heavenly Father doesn’t just wait for us to return to him and to ourselves.  He sent his Son Jesus “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).  On the cross he died the death to which our rejection of God and of our true self led.  Faith means dying to the false god that our supposedly sovereign self created.  Faith means finding our true home and self in the risen Christ who created and redeemed us.  We are forgiven and thus accepted.



[1] Henry Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Convergent, 2016), p. 43.

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