As a conservative Christian, I used to shy away from the message of self-acceptance, seeing it as mere psychobabble. I was also concerned that too much self-acceptance might stifle personal growth and improvement. Worse, it might even block us from being humble. So I took this concern to a number of pastors, priests, monks, scholars and Christian psychologists throughout the world. What follows below is what they told me.
Biblical self-acceptance is the touchstone for genuine humility since it is not based on anything we can achieve or deserve. The foundation of our own self-acceptance is God’s total acceptance of us while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). It takes a lot of humility to recognize that you are worthy of love and belonging, not because of anything you have achieved or deserve, but simply because are the person you are that God created, loves and redeemed.
True self-acceptance does not mean complacency. Again, go back to the analogy of a parent’s love for a newly born child. Because the parent loves the child, he or she will do everything possible to facilitate growth: to help the child learn to walk, talk, become strong and to grow close to Christ. If God’s love for us is much greater than the love of a parent for a child, then we should expect Him to put us in situations that will stretch us and force us to grow, even if those situations are sometimes painful.
One of the ways we grow is through godly repentance. Yet the devil tries to block genuine repentance by provoking us to feel self-loathing, toxic shame and self-rejection. These maladaptive conditions essentially proclaim that God made a mistake when He created you.
Many of us have descended into toxic shame, self-loathing and self-rejection on an unconscious level without even realizing it. This might be because of experiences as a child, or maybe it is because we internalize other people’s false definitions of us. Still other times, we may experience subliminal shame and self-loathing because we are not availing ourselves of the cleansing that follows regularly repentance (Psalm 51). Whatever the origin, toxic shame and self-loathing cause a misfiring of the impulse to repent in much the same way that lust and possessive behaviors are a misfiring of the impulse to love,
It may seem like a paradox, but self-acceptance goes hand in hand with humility and repentance. Our enemy knows that if he can get us to hate ourselves—to descend into self-loathing and toxic shame—then it becomes almost impossible for us to have a healthy hatred of our sin. When a person is burdened down by toxic shame, then constructive criticism and genuine self-knowledge merely add to the feeling of worthlessness. When we feel worthless, our defense mechanisms kick in and block us from experiencing healthy repentance.
Unfortunately, many people mistake toxic shame for humility. They may imagine that humility means thinking poorly of themselves. In reality, humility does not involve thinking poorly of ourselves; rather, it involves thinking little of ourselves at all. Above all, humility is about being a servant to those around us, putting the needs of others above our own.
To be proud is to love the false self—the self that achieves value through accomplishments, striving, personal gain and the advancement of the ego. To be humble is to accept the true self that God created: the self that is uniquely you, the self that God loves regardless of what you achieve and regardless of how other people think of you.
Without this type of humble self-acceptance, we cannot truly be there for others. Have you ever noticed that people who loath themselves find it hard to accept others? Have you noticed that people who struggle with self-rejection and shame are the ones that find it hard to forgive, empathize or to listen attentively to other people’s needs? On the other hand, when we can see ourselves for who we truly are—all the sin, failure and imperfection—and still accept ourselves as part of the creation that God declared truly good, that is powerful in giving us the inner resources to forgive and love others unconditionally.
It should be clear by now that learning to accept ourselves does not involve becoming static. Being fallen creatures, there will always be things we need to work on improving. The key is why are you trying to improve yourself? Are you trying to improve yourself in the mistaken belief that this will somehow make you more lovable? Are you trying to improve yourself because you’ve believed the lie that you have to reach a certain standard before you will be worthy of love and belonging?
The foundation for self-improvement has to remain your fundamental value as a human being made in the image of God. Take some time to just enjoy being you, and then through God’s grace, endeavor to become the best you that you can possibly be.
Remember, God did not make a mistake when He created you.