I’m in the market for a new English word. The only term I can find that comes close to what I want to say, says too much. I always have to explain, in fact, to over-explain; to state that I only mean this but not that.
The word that doesn’t quite work is the word “acceptance”. By “acceptance” I’d often like to mean that I love a person just as they are. Whatever their flaws might currently be, they don’t have to change a thing for me to continue to value them, care about them and be committed to their welfare. I will not reject them, in the sense that I stop loving them as a person.
The word “acceptance” has a couple of other nuances, though. The second nuance is that sometimes we have to “accept” things that we don’t like about another person. Maybe they eat too loudly or tend to procrastinate. We’ve challenged them to change, but they haven’t, so at some point we decide to let it go, to “accept” it. It’s not worth the conflict – “That’s just the way she is.” Or we accept that it’s raining on the day of our picnic. This isn’t really full acceptance, it’s more like resignation (“It is what it is”). Deep down, though, we wish things were different.
The third nuance is the one that causes some confusion regarding my meaning. In this use the word “accept” means “acceptable”. Something’s acceptable if it meets our standards— it’s good enough or right or fair or satisfactory. This is an act of approval.
Here’s where it gets tricky. To say that I “accept” someone in the first sense – that I’m committed to love them, is not the same as saying that everything about them is acceptable. If one of my friends, for instance, enters into an immoral lifestyle, I may accept them in the first sense, as a person I will always care about, while at the same time strongly rejecting some of their moral choices. In fact, if I really do love someone I will reject anything they do that is destructive to themselves, to others, or to their relationship with God. Accepting another person should not necessitate accepting their sin (and vice versa since I’m a sinner too). God never accepts sin as being okay . This is a distinction, by the way, which is sometimes vigorously contested by people caught in sin. Supposedly it’s intolerant to “love the sinner and hate the sin.” “You either accept all of me or you don’t accept me at all!” some have insisted. This is a silly standard, one that even they can’t follow – would they “accept” someone else's destructive drug addiction or abusive behavior?
So I’m left looking for a new English word which captures nuance one – “I’ll always care about you” without automatically throwing in the third nuance – “I approve of everything you do”. This, I think, is a weakness in the English language. I need all three nuances of “accept”, but it’s easy to confuse which one I’m using. Each one is useful in its own way.
How is each type of acceptance useful?
1. Acceptance of a person as a worthwhile being allows me to love others well
This type of acceptance is an imitation of God’s attitude toward human beings. He’s made us in His image (Gen. 1:26). He loves all of us deeply and shows it in many practical ways. He’s provided all sorts of resources and works to build a close personal relationship with us, even sending His Son Jesus to earth to remove the sin barrier between us and Him. All of this is done, not because we’ve earned it, but out of sheer grace; undeserved favor. Another phrase for this sort of acceptance is “unconditional love”. He’s freely chosen to bestow great worth on all of us. Without it, you and I would not survive or thrive.
We’re called, in Scripture to do the same for our fellow human beings (Matt. 22:39) and even for our enemies (Matt. 5:44). They don’t have to earn it. It’s an act of grace. This acceptance of the innate worth of others creates a healthy relational greenhouse where relationships can grow and flourish despite the inevitable problems we face in a sinful world. It’s the foundation for healthy families and thriving communities on every level. The bottom line is that others, whatever we may think of the way they act, still have a basic worth in God’s eyes. If we believe this, it will guide everything we do toward others in a more constructive direction. On the other hand, much of the chaos in our world today is directly traceable to an unwillingness to accept one other as worthwhile human beings created in God’s image.
This sort of acceptance, this unconditional love, doesn’t come naturally to us as sinful beings. It’s a gift that God must teach us to give. We grow in this area by first receiving God’s forgiveness and then relying on His strength; a slow process, but well worth it.
2. Acceptance of others’ actions even, when they’re not what I’d prefer, allows me to get along with them and build our relationship
Another word for this, at least as used in an older sense, is “tolerance”. There will always be aspects of other people which bug us. While some of these aspects are unacceptable, like physical abuse, here I’m more concerned with actions or attitudes which, in themselves, are not necessarily wrong, or at least not seriously wrong, but are still inconvenient or annoying. It may be a marriage partner who’s messy or a co-worker who’s a bit on the lazy side. We ask them to change, and they may even promise to do this, but they don’t. Often, in these cases, it’s better to just accept the situation. It’s not worth fighting about. In fact, perfectly good marriages or friendships are sometimes ruined over an unwillingness to leave minor matters alone and enjoy what we do have.
3. Acceptance of what is good and right in others reinforces God’s wise standards
This third sense is, our way of saying that something or someone is acceptable because they meet certain standards. If, for instance, I pay to have my house painted, I expect this to be done properly according to our prior agreement. It’s not acceptable for a painter to take my money and then drive off with the house half-painted. It’s not acceptable to abuse a child or to cheat on my marriage partner. As a Christian, I find many, though not all of my standards, in the Bible. I evaluate myself, others, and my world by God’s standards of right and wrong. I believe God to be the final Judge of what is acceptable. If this is true, and we are all one day accountable to God, it’s important that I live and teach God’ holy and absolute standards. If I love others, I will encourage them to do the same. Many in our world, of course, resist these standards of God, and find it distasteful and even arrogant for believers to proclaim them. “Who are you,” they say, “to tell me what’s acceptable?!” I’ll do it anyway though, because I love them too much to look the other way.