jQuery Slider

You are here

Self-acceptance in Christ - Part 2

Self-acceptance in Christ

Part 2. The Role of the Cross in the Transformation Process

By Bruce E. Atkinson, PhD
Special to Virtueonline.org
February 28, 2024

Please read Part 1 (https://virtueonline.org/self-acceptance-christ) prior to reading Part 2.

The Problem of Performance-based Self-worth

From our Great Generation legacy, my family received a strong work ethic and biblical morality that laid the foundation for our success in the world. The unfortunate side-effect of this legacy is that it also created the burden of a performance-based sense of self-worth and a susceptibility to a works-oriented (instead of grace-oriented) soteriology. American Christians too easily accept the idea that we were saved only to serve and succeed. As a result, we find it easy to become competitive and judgmental-- always looking to measure our performance and compare it with that of others. What a trap!

Many people identify so much with their work or family roles that when these roles no longer exist, they become seriously depressed and may even commit suicide. When your work IS your life, then retirement becomes a killer. Likewise, the state of depression known as "empty nest syndrome" is a product of centering one's life completely around the role of parent. When the role is gone, there is a huge hole left in one's life in terms of a sense of purpose and worth.

Here is the principle that we Christians must incorporate into our lives and work: What we do does not determine who we are, but who we are inevitably determined by what we do. Read that again. 'Being' is primary and 'doing' is secondary, but doing ultimately provides the evidence (the fruit) regarding who we really are.

Self-glory, fame, power, and fortune are not what we aim for. If such things come, they may be a hindrance to our spiritual development. The rich man's chances for getting through the door are not very good (Matthew 19:24). It's probably even worse for those in positions of authority and celebrity status in this world, for whom the severity of the temptations are often directly correlated with the individual's degree of worldly fame and power. On the other hand, humility (lowliness) speeds spiritual growth.

In his years before serving as a missionary, Paul gained a deep understanding of who he had become in Christ. Later he would write, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live..." Now if you can accept an alive man saying he has died, you should be able to accept the fact that the dead man need no longer work to earn acceptance and worth. And I am thankful that Paul did not stop there but went on to say, "but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." He had already obtained God's acceptance through Jesus' work on the Cross.

All this being so, Paul certainly did not need to earn anyone's acceptance. That applies equally well to us. We are Christians "to the praise and glory of His grace wherein He has made us accepted in the beloved" (Ephesians 1:6). Notice that Paul uses the past tense. As Jesus said, it is indeed finished. God sees us as being now and forever in Christ, that is, we are identified with Jesus and thus also identified with the Father. Remember in John 15 where Jesus proclaimed that He is the vine and we are the branches. We are one with Him, but He is the source of all true life and spiritual power. We cannot earn our worth, it is a given-- the pressure is off.


In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being,
we must learn to be detached
from the results of our own activities.
We must be content:
to live... without watching ourselves live,
to work... without expecting immediate results,
to love... without instantaneous satisfaction, and
to exist... without any special recognition.
It is only when we are detached from our selves
that we can be at peace with ourselves.

-- Thomas Merton

I believe that the quickest way to spiritual maturation is also the simplest. There is an old English saying that goes something like "When two sit long and talk deep, the one becomes much like the other." It is very much like the biological principle of osmosis. The more we spend time in God's presence, in prayer, in congregational worship, and in study of the scriptures, the more of Him rubs off on us. We start to "think God's thoughts after Him."

The Bible says we are to "seek His face" and yet it also says that "no man can see His face and live." Together, these apparently contradictory statements remind us that we must die to self. In seeking and seeing God's face, we get to know God intimately and the "old nature" shrivels up and dies, and the new spirit-led soul becomes stamped with Christ's image.

Theology of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul

On one's own, it is impossible to achieve the transformation that is the Christian's destiny. This God does for us, but we must also learn the lessons of the Cross and then be willing to carry our own cross (Luke 14:27). If anything, essential and eternal is to be born in us (God's doing), then something else that we once thought to be essential must die. I know it sounds morbid, but what is a cross but a means to facilitate death? In one's daily living experience, there must be a real "dying to self" as the Cross is applied to one's life. Then, with the self-centered ego essentially out of the way, the Holy Spirit can increasingly take over guidance. This is one description of the process of sanctification. https://www.virtueonline.org/sanctification-definitive-progressive-eschatological

A.W. Tozer: "The whole purpose of God in redemption is to make us holy and to restore us to the image of God. To accomplish this, He disengages us from earthly ambitions and draws us away from the cheap and unworthy prizes that worldly men set their hearts upon. The true Christian ideal is not to be happy but to be holy." However, it is also true that only a holy person can be truly happy; I understand that contentment is merely a side-effect of holiness (see Paul's teaching in Phil 4:4-13). Note that the fruits of the Spirit include love, inner peace, and joy (Galatians 5:22-23). If these three things are not essential to any definition of happiness, then I do not know what "happy" can possibly mean. God does not want us to be miserable!

But for the initial step in the right direction, we must first accept how depraved and hopeless the flesh-dependent 'self' actually is. The word 'solipsistic' describes where the self wants to go. In philosophy this is the view that the self is the origin of all that exists, such that the entire universe is no more than a dream (or nightmare) invented by one's own godlike mind. Of course, this idea is truly psychotic; none of us is God.

The Apostle Paul was very clear about the ugly reality; our self-centered nature (embedded in the flesh) is already dead to God and its motives are never entirely pure:
"Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God." (Romans 8:5-8)

The eminent Anglican preacher John R.W. Stott put it this way: "The biblical doctrine of 'total depravity' means neither that all humans are equally depraved, nor that nobody is capable of any good, but rather that no part of any human person (mind, emotions, conscience, will, etc.) has remained untainted by the fall. ...It is difficult to understand those who cling to the doctrine of the fundamental goodness of human nature, and do so in a generation which has witnessed two devastating world wars and especially the horrors which occasioned and accompanied the second. It is even harder to understand those who attribute this belief to Jesus Christ. For he taught nothing of the kind. Jesus taught that within the soil of every man's heart there lie buried the ugly seeds of every conceivable sin -'evil thoughts, acts of fornication, of theft, murder, adultery, ruthless greed, and malice; fraud, indecency, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly.' [Matthew 15:19-20] All thirteen are 'evil things', and they come out of the heart of 'the man' or 'the men', every man. This is Jesus Christ's estimate of fallen human nature."

So, for us to be saved, it was entirely necessary for Jesus to pay the price for us, to allow us to be forgiven and receive a new heart and soul, and eventually to even receive a new eternal body in the Resurrection. After conversion, how does the sanctification process occur? We know that it involves "pruning" and God's discipline (John 15) before we can bear fruit. Out of a painful self-death comes a transforming metamorphosis.

The Apostle Paul plumbed the depths: "For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3). "All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death... We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin-- because anyone who has died has been freed from sin..." (Romans 6:3-7, emphases mine).

So we should want to die in this particular way! It is not a physical death but it is a death to our old life and Paul says that our response to this spiritual reality should be this: "Offer yourselves to God, as those who have returned from death to life!" (Romans 6:13).

In this "death of self" we become enabled to truly live down here-- from up there. The old life was not really life anyway, it was what I call "the stumbling lunacy of the inner zombie." But with conversion, we can now reject that pseudo-life and walk in the true life of the Spirit. Here is how it all happens.

If all goes right in our life, there comes a time when everything goes wrong. If our insecurity and pride are to be conquered, then we must come to the end of our selves. This is when we experience our own personal cross. We fail and then we fall; unable to save ourselves, we hit bottom. The mystics have called this "the dark night of the soul." On the bottom, we have nowhere to look but up, and for some of us, it is at this point that we finally surrender fully to our Creator. Having risked that proverbial leap of faith, our alone-ness can become wonderfully transformed into an experience of "at-one-ness" with God in which no sense of separation exists. It is what we were made for. Regardless of the severity of the trauma experienced during our "dark night," if it brings us to God, then it was well worth the trouble. The pain was temporary but the benefits are forever: "For our affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." (2 Corinthians 4:17)

And here is how Jesus Himself defined eternal life: "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." (John 17:3) It is not about religion as I indicated earlier, it is about a personal relationship. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, wrote that he had found the secret to being content in all circumstances. Paul wrote: "I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Philippians 3:7).

When the old self is crucified, it leaves a God-shaped hole... which only God's Holy Spirit can fill. Like the mythical Phoenix, out of the ashes of a dead-and-buried self-centered self, the grace of God makes possible a divine regeneration. Christians who stay close to Christ and who daily carry their own cross can expect to experience an abundantly fruitful life as a result. This entire process has been called both "the Christ-centered life" and "the exchanged life."

As we fully identify with Jesus on the Cross, the resulting spiritual knowledge releases powerful healing elements. As we understand that the Father loves us as part of His Son, and Christ loves us as part of Himself, we are enabled to accept ourselves. We are now covered by the Blood of Christ, with our sins blotted out; we are justified by the Cross and "He has made us accepted in the beloved" (Ephesians 1:6). This acceptance is not due to anything we deserved or did but only because God chose us in Christ "before the foundation of the world"(Ephesians 1:4-6, cf. Matthew 25:34).

Our self-acceptance resulting from identification with Christ is important psychologically because most of our psychological distress in life comes from feelings of rejection and our fears of future failure and rejection. Rejection taken to its extreme means abandonment. Ouch! To some extent we all have felt these feelings from growing up with imperfect parents in an imperfect world. In order for Christians to overcome these feelings of rejection we need to understand the reality that we are now IN CHRIST forever. The old self was indeed worthy of rejection, but that is now a crucified self.

An apropos prayer offered by Peter Scazzero: "Lord, everything in me kicks against going to the foot of the cross where you will root out of me all that is not of you. Help me not to fear the 'deaths' it will take for me to be transformed into a free person who loves You and others well. Have mercy on me, O Lord. In Jesus' name, amen." Amen, indeed!

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described this self-subtractive process in his own unique way (originally written in Strasbourg during the First World War, with my own translation here): "Henceforth... Christ's activity (with suffering as its most important instrument) will take the form of substituting Christ for the soul (or "ecstasizing" the soul). The time comes for the creature who is born-again into Christ when 'He must grow greater, while I must grow less.' This is the hour of the specifically Christian operation, when Christ, while preserving in man the treasures of the Imago Dei, empties him of his egocentrism and takes his heart. It is a grievous hour for our lower nature, abandoned to those forces in the world that bring diminishment, but one full of delight for the man who has the light of faith and feels that he is being driven out of himself, and that all that is wrong within is dying, under the compelling power of a truly Holy communion."

This process of self-diminishment or "going to the Cross" does not mean self-persecution or self-abuse. If I have given my entire self to Christ, then the initial step has been taken; now it is only for me to continue to follow Him and His burden on me will be light (Matt 11:28-30).

But we must not forget one negative reality-- the emerging self-in-Christ must operate in a war zone. We have enemies. There is ongoing conflict with spiritual evil, with a sinful world system, and with the dying remnant of the zombie within and its self-centered habit patterns (see Rom 7:15-8:17, Gal 6:13-14, Phil 3:7ff). So it is important for us to understand that this death and transformation is an extended process and (praise God!) it will indeed lead to those fruits of the Spirit we desire: love, joy, inner peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control... and also usefulness to God in His purpose of bringing His heavenly Kingdom to earth.

I believe that what my "eternal self" becomes and what accrues to it in the final analysis will be determined by two things: 1) the grace of God, and 2) how close I remained to our Lord in this life. If there is any credit to be handed out, I cannot rightfully lay claim to it. All the good and all the benefits come from His doing, not mine. The reality is: "Christ in me, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27). In fully accepting my born-again self as being in Christ, I can now forget myself and concentrate on helping others.

Bruce Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He has an M.S. in research psychology from Illinois State U. and a B.A. from Beloit College. He is also a veteran of the USAF medical corps and served a term in Vietnam in aeromedical evacuation. He is Moderator and a frequent contributor for Virtue Online, and he is a member of the Anglican Church in North America.

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top