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Acceptance That Heals

June 19, 2013

In the last blog post I mentioned a tenet from Acceptance and Commitment therapy: “We can choose to react to negative thoughts or simply accept the fact that we have had a negative thought.” This is also a fundamental principle in the spiritual life. Our choice has more than temporal, psychological repercussions. It has eternal significance, for repetitive choices set up patterns of behavior that can either draw us closer to God and neighbor or drive us further away from the two poles of our existence. Let us assume for the sake of this post that the choice made involves acceptance of the fact that we’ve had a negative thought.

For the Fathers, we are not to be surprised that we have negative thoughts, demonic thoughts, or crazy thoughts, but we accept this state of affairs as a humble awareness that we are human beings in a fallen world in constant need of the Lord’s mercy. We are sinners; we miss the mark. And at times, our thoughts are sinful and miss the mark. There is no need to get agitated about this situation, but there is good reason to accept it in humility. This acceptance does not need to be morose or gloomy, but quiet, calm, and hopeful, hopeful because we have a Physician for our souls and a Physician for our thoughts, hopeful because Christ has already shown Himself to be victorious over every human foe, hopeful because we are not the center of the universe, Christ is.

Now, some may argue that such an acceptance is itself a negative thought harmful to one’s self esteem, but acceptance of thoughts should never mean identification with them. Furthermore, there are healthy examples in the Gospel that demonstrate a kind of acceptance that leads to salvation, that leads to transformation, that fills a world of darkness with a light and a parched land with living water. The prior two Sunday gospels confirms this for us. The Samaritan woman and the man born blind both humbly accept their lowly state in life. Such a humble acceptance gives God the room in which to act in their lives. It should be noted the speed in which Christ acts in their lives. They are almost immediately transformed and healed. This happens precisely because of their acceptance of their state, whether it be having had five husbands or having lived one’s life in darkness. When we accept the fact that we have improper thoughts, we can also move on quickly to what Christ is saying to us or asking of us and in so doing find the healing, the living water, the light of the day that we all desire.

Consider another good example from the secular world. During every meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, the speaker (presuming he is a member of AA, of course) stands up and first affirms his state in life. He unequivocally states, “I am Joe and I am an alcoholic.” This is not done to shame the person about to speak and it’s sometimes even said cheerfully. It is but an acknowledgement that humble acceptance of one’s state is integral to recovery and sobriety.

This strategy of acceptance concerning the thoughts is not always easy. First of all, we fight to survive in so many areas of our life that fighting becomes a default mode of reacting to dangers within and without. Yet fighting often makes the opposing forces stronger. Acceptance allows Christ to come in and fight our inner battles. Second, there are many forces in our lives that mitigate against humility born of acceptance. Our culture, our community, and perhaps our workplace send us signals that an honest acknowledgement of one’s condition is not only unwarranted, but also unhelpful. We need to protect ourselves. We are told in sometimes not so subtle ways to make sure our co-workers and our bosses recognize our talents, our abilities, even our goodness. This can be such a strong force that we begin to believe it ourselves and take steps to hide our negative thoughts, our failures, and our sinfulness. This is not the message of the Gospel. In reality, it’s not psychologically healthy either. Of course, this doesn’t mean we reveal our innermost self to anyone or everyone. But we do need to be refreshingly honest with ourselves and with our God. And at some point, it is good to bare our souls to God through spiritual fathers that accept us, accept our thoughts, and gently turn us from ourselves and from our thoughts to the healing light and living waters of Christ’s grace and graciousness.

As I’ve written in a previous post, humility is the first step in the spiritual life. Humility requires acceptance of our human condition so that God can transform us just as He transformed the Samaritan woman and the man born blind. Humility is the key to all the other virtues and eternal life. Saint Augustine once wrote to Dioscorus that there is only one way for human beings to reach fulfillment: “In that way the first part is humility; the second, humility; the third, humility (prima humilitas; secunda, humilitas; tertia, humilitas): and this I will continue to repeat as often as you might ask for direction, not because there are no other instructions that could be given, but because, unless humility precede, accompany, and follow every good action that we perform, being at once the object that we keep before our eyes, the support to which we cling, and the bridle by which we are restrained, pride will seize from our hand any good work for which we might feel good about ourselves” (Letter 118.22, PL 32.432). Acceptance of the existence of our negative thoughts is an act of honesty, humility, and even hope. It frees us up from the compulsion of reacting, so that we can turn towards our Redeemer who came to “save sinners of whom I am first.” Acceptance is ultimately so refreshing and so consoling, because it puts us on the right path that leads to salvation.

  1. susan permalink

    your writings are refreshing too!!!

  2. elijahmaria permalink

    It has always been interesting that so much of the ancient and thereby later counsels in the spiritual life speak in terms of spiritual warfare, with numerous references to struggle and fighting and extreme feats of endurance. Yet as you note here there are times when the best thing to do is yield…not to the negative or the evil…but to God’s supreme power over that which plagues us, that which attacks us, that which frightens us. There are times when it is best to take a deep breath, and slowly release all temptation to reach for control as we release the breath. It seems however that there’s no formula that tells us when it is better to yield or when it is better to stand firm. At least I have never found one that works any better than knowing myself, and a little bit of trial and error.

  3. Shelly Stamps permalink

    Amen, Father Alexis.

  4. Susan and Shelly, thank you so much for your kind encouragement and positive feedback.

    Maria, I also thank you for your comments.

    I have often thought about the military imagery of spiritual warfare in scripture and in the fathers. Saint Nicodemos’ Unseen Warfare was one of my earliest books as a fledgling monastic. And yet, it’s a metaphor that I purposefully avoided in my book for reasons contained in this post and your own comments. I think Christianity is more about our peace with God than our war with the devil, although that often subtle warfare is a part of human life since even before the Fall. The peace that Christ gives us is so present in Orthodox spirituality and Liturgy, where all is calm, harmonious, and luminous before the throne of God. The call to be peacemakers in our endeavors applies to ourselves as well as to others. If we are also to be Christian soldiers, it is in the sense of being peaceful warriors who are patient, strategic, and committed to the victory that Christ has already achieved. Knowing when to accept and what to accept is one of the most important strategies in making Christ’s victory our own.

  5. mary benton permalink

    This is excellent, Fr. Alexis.

    This is particularly applicable to those of us afflicted with obsessive thoughts. Often we think that, if we have “bad” thoughts, we must be bad. This creates a vicious cycle where we try to aggressively fight the thoughts, resulting only in our attention being more firmly focused on them. It is an agonizing experience and a cycle that is hard to break free of.

    Something that helped me greatly in years past was the awareness that any suffering can be offered to God as prayer – even suffering of this type that seems so horrible and pointless. Allowing my suffering to be become prayer for another enabled me to accept it – which (paradoxically) helps it drift out of my mind.

    Thank you for your wise words.

  6. Thank you, once more, Mary, for your helpful comments.

    I too like the idea of offering up one’s suffering and even one’s troubling thoughts to God. The word for suffering in Latin, passivus, is the root of our word passive. It is a cousin of the Greek word for suffering πάθος (the root of our word pathos) and translated as Passion as in the Passion of Christ. Being passive with respect to harmful thoughts is an active choice of the will. I find something powerful in that choice. I can’t help think of the immense dignity and majesty of the crucified Christ looking down at His hecklers with a calm and sorrowful countenance. I think just a bit of that dignity can be ours if we learn when we need to suffer with the thoughts in the sense of being passive and not fighting, in order in the end to be victorious.

    Fr. Alexis

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