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You Are Accepted

You Are Acceptedby Peter W. Marty

On a StoryCorps segment of National Public Radio several years ago, listeners were treated to a personal conversation between a father and his adopted son.

Ten years earlier, Brian Miller had adopted then 7-year-old Johnathan Emerson in what was something of a high stakes proposition. Like most adoptees, Johnathan did not show up on Miller’s doorstep as a blank page, innocently waiting for his life story to be written. He already had multiple chapters etched into his short span of years—chapters of abuse, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and the all-too-ugly pain of being unwanted. That’s what happens when you get shuffled between foster homes.

For his part, Brian was single, and inexperienced as a dad. He had little idea how to deal with Johnathan’s outbursts, his throwing of objects, and the growing set of troubles emerging from his behavior at school. Johnathan knew fear. Fear meant getting tossed back into the tangled web of an impersonal court system. He didn’t want that nightmare any more than any other foster child does.

One day, with this fear in the background, Brian took it upon himself to remind Johnathan of several important realities. He informed his new son that his residence was permanent, not temporary. This was an adoption, not another foster home. Moreover, bad behavior would not disqualify the kid from being able to depend on the love of his new dad.

So, as recorded in the NPR conversation, Brian turned to Johnathan to say: “I used to have to remind you, ‘It’s over, Johnathan. You’re adopted. There are no more judges in your life.’ I think it didn’t sink into you for a couple of years that, you know, the adoption was final.”

Imagine the fear and trepidation of having to face yet another judge. That was Johnathan’s plight. When you have been unable to count on much in your life, and plenty of adults have let you down, it’s hard to appreciate the gift of adoption.

But that’s what adoption is—a gift. There is no clawing and scratching that a child must engage in order to be adopted. In fact, for better or worse, nothing in the adoption process really depends on the child at all. It is the goodwill promises of the adoptive parent that ultimately matter. It is the loving desire of that parent to risk all and give all that makes for a truly hope-filled adoption. (back to top)

THE REACH OF LOVE

Whether he knew it or not, Johnathan’s dad was speaking the language of grace that day he told his son there would be no more judges. Brian’s words sound like a paraphrasing echo of theologian Paul Tillich’s famous description of grace: “You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you … Do not seek for anything, do not perform anything, do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

It can be hard to accept that you are accepted when your personal life hits pothole after pothole. When little seems to work in your favor, and past behaviors haunt, it can be easy to convince yourself that you are forever beyond the reach of God’s love. Grace starts to feel like a pleasant idea from which someone has squeezed all the energy. Rather than functioning as the organizing  force of your life’s story, grace sounds more like abstract  theory. In search of gravity for a frail life, grace can seem to carry all the weight of a marshmallow.

But what if grace is what happens to your life when it finally dawns on you that, in Christ, your past is not going to catch up with you? This is how the late theologian and writer Lewis Smedes liked to conceive of grace. You don’t get to stew over the consequences of your past. That past is past. You are adopted. In the heart of Christ, you have a permanent home.

Smedes took his cues from the same Bible where we learn that God’s love places our lives beyond negotiation. You may think that God will only, and can only, love you if you become more spiritual. Or, that God will accept you once you demonstrate greater moral virtue. But the scriptures teach us that God goes to great pains to pick and love unqualified people, whether they are morally virtuous or not.

Like a pre-owned car on a dealer’s lot, with an “AS IS” sticker pasted inside the rear window, we fall into the lap of God as we are. It’s not an “as we wish we were” proposition. God receives us as we are without conditions placed upon our past or present circumstances. God’s very character is to embody and express generous love so that our lives might enjoy a better future.

Divine love is not something we must prove ourselves worthy of deserving. No, that love just comes whether we’re looking for it or not. Like french fries that show up next to the burger on your plate, regardless of whether you ordered them, grace comes without any beckoning on our part. (back to top)

WORTH AND VALUE

Some things in life are loved because they are valuable; other things are valuable because they are loved. This second arrangement is the design of grace. God dissociates moral goodness or striving on our part from any love God shares.

So, for example, in the case of a child, imagine not having to scramble for daily worth or fearing the repercussions of another judge. If grace were at play in our lives the way God envisions, children all over the world would get tucked into bed each night knowing someone’s deep love for them.

In a story I once overheard, a famous actress was attending a film premiere. She was dripping with diamonds. Someone near the front row, overwhelmed by this wealth, exclaimed, “Goodness, diamonds!” to which a nearby filmgoer leaned over to say, “Lady, goodness had nothing to do with it.” Indeed his retort was spot on. Goodness as a moral attribute was not the reason those pricey rocks hung from the actress’ neck.

In a similar way, God’s capacity to locate value in our lives has nothing to do with our personal goodness or virtue. The good news of the gospel is that God freely bestows grace in unearned and undeserved fashion. The challenge for Christian people is to believe and accept this news, hard as this road to acceptance may be. We’re skeptical that God’s adoption of us is truly a gift.

A primary cause of this skepticism stems from a deeply embedded confusion we can’t seem to easily clear up. Simply put, we regularly confuse gift with entitlement.

The U.S. Constitution fosters some of this mix-up. Because we live in a society of rights—each of us is born with “inalienable rights”—many people view their lives as little more than a bundle of rights. Our daily assignment becomes the exercise of these personal rights. To live, honor, and protect these rights is our responsibility.

At one level, this sounds noble. It certainly looks American. But watch how quickly and frequently our understanding of rights morphs into entitlement thinking. When entitlement thinking takes center stage, my life becomes less a gift with obligations attached and more a God-given right to which I am entitled. Gratitude runs in short supply when I have such little sense that my life, with all of the graces running through it, is actually a gift.

In Jesus’ parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16), entitlement behavior afflicts the all-day laborers. These are the ones who become angry once they realize that their fellow laborers received exactly the same pay, even if they only worked a fraction of the day. So the owner of the vineyard questions the frustrated, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

God’s gracious generosity trips up more than some laborers who worked their tails off in the heat of the day. All of us are capable of stumbling over this same generosity. God’s grace generally poses no problem for us on occasions when we recognize we are clear beneficiaries. In those moments, we can be savvy at convincing ourselves that we have done something to earn this lovely favor. When others get showered with grace, however, it’s a different story. That’s when we pull out the comparison grids. We mutter or grumble at the injustice of someone appearing to have it better. (back to top)

RECEIVING AND SHARING

Reversing patterns of entitlement thinking and ingratitude can happen. It takes some altered behavior on our part, however. Two opportunities rise immediately to the surface.

First, we simply have to practice becoming better receivers. Most American Christians find it much more difficult to receive than to give. This isn’t merely a function of someone having drilled into our heads those words of Luke quoting Paul quoting Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We also don’t like the idea of being obligated or indebted to another. Getting something for nothing can create uneasiness.

Most of us prefer the giving mode. Doing things for others, being strong and generous; these fit our psyche well. But a giver always has power over another. She is in control, whether it’s giving a compliment or giving advice. He maintains the upper hand when he offers that advance to his employee in need of money.

Notice the disciple Peter’s eagerness to wash the feet of Jesus—a giver and a doer—in contrast to his discomfort or reluctance of being on the receiving end of Jesus washing his feet (John 13).

There is a reason Jesus told us that kingdom living would not be ours unless we figured out how to receive God as a child. Children are champion receivers. This is their primary mode of living. They have no other choice. What can they really control within their precious little lives?

Grace always comes as a gift. To receive it, though, our hands and lives must be wide open. This is the only requirement.

A second opportunity for rethinking behaviors that put up resistance to grace-filled living invites us to share the blessings of every day. “If we want to understand God’s goodness in God’s gifts,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “then we must think of them as a responsibility we bear for our brothers and sisters.” Privilege and blessing create responsibility. To wake up into the grace of a day we did not make is a sure sign that we are to share that abundance freely.

Long before our nation’s Constitution ever articulated the language of rights, John Winthrop was busy delivering a sermon with a very different message. In 1620, while aboard the Arbella, Winthrop preached to a band of Puritans, reminding them that shared responsibility would be their distinctive identity in the New World. In explicating the Great Commandment of Jesus, Winthrop noted: “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together.”

John Winthrop preached that day what believers have been trying to get straight since the time of Jesus. Namely, grace-filled people understand that God’s gifts always come to them on the way to someone else.

The Rev. Peter W. Marty is senior pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, and a regular columnist for The Lutheran magazine.

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