"But by the grace of God I am what I amÖ" (1 Corinthians
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 neighbors.
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 behavior, such as our Lordís 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 neighbor 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 Godís 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 biddíst 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 Godís 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 Godís faithful promises
of holiness and perfection in Godís 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 thatís 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
"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. Godís 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.
Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation.
If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please
credit St. Andrewís Church and Dr. Tarsitano.