Language has a curious way of morphing from one meaning into another that’s very different. For example, “accept,” as in, “We must learn to accept people as they are.”
In fact, I read a quote from a famous person whom I don’t need to identify. But here’s what he said: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
Much of what this person said makes sense. Love isn’t perfect caring; sometimes it’s a struggle – which is probably why many people “fall out of love.” They don’t like the struggle part. They want it easy, without strain, happy-happy-happy all the day.
The part I disagree with, at least as I understand what this famous person said, is “accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” I suppose it depends on how we define “accept.” Does that mean to approve and condone, even applaud the other individual’s behavior? In that case, sorry, I can’t agree.
However, if it means to recognize where someone is at a particular moment in life, but understanding – without judgment or condemnation – that isn’t a good place to be or where they should remain, then I’m fine with “accepting” them.
Let me explain. Over more than 30 years of mentoring men, I've had a handful of them tell me things in confidence they wouldn’t want anyone else to know, including their wives. As I listened, I accepted them – didn't condemn them or pass judgment – but at the same time, I definitely didn't respond, "Way to go – you da man!"
We talked and then, as their mentor, I offered ideas and advice they could choose to consider or reject. That was totally their option, and even if they rejected the corrective steps I recommended, I didn’t hold them in contempt. I accepted them as they are, fellow sinners (“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – Romans 3:23), but didn’t offer approval or affirmation.
Consider another example: This has never happened to me, but suppose someone were to come and admit he had an unnatural attraction to children, giving adamant assurances he had never acted on it. What would you do?
Again, we could “accept” the person in the sense of recognizing he was dealing with a very serious problem. It wouldn't be necessary to condemn or judge, but I'd certainly encourage him to seek out professional help. And follow up to ensure that he did.
The same applies to persons wrestling with some form of addiction. We can still love and accept them, recognizing as the Bible also teaches, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). But wouldn’t it be good to guide them to sources of help for overcoming their life-controlling problem, rather than being understanding and simply saying, “I accept you”?
To me, the very best example was the way Jesus responded after a woman had been caught in an act of adultery. Religious leaders had condemned her actions and were about to stone her, until Jesus intervened. The story is recounted in John 8:1-11.
First, Jesus put the situation into perspective, challenging the accusers, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). At that moment He was writing something on the ground with His finger. No one knows what He wrote – perhaps Jesus was itemizing individual sins these men had committed. Toppled from their self-righteous pedestals, one by one the men hurling accusations slipped away.
Once they had departed, Jesus turned back to the woman and gave acceptance. He asked, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” (John 8:10) When she replied, “No one, sir,” Jesus responded, “Then neither do I condemn you,” and then added, “Go now and leave your life of sin” or as another translation states it, "go and sin no more" (John 8:10-11).
This I believe is what godly, biblical acceptance is all about. Jesus accepted this woman, interceding to protect her from the religious leaders and their ad hoc justice. However, at the same time He didn't condone or applaud her behavior. He didn’t excuse or try to justify what she had done, which was clearly against God’s law. He didn’t shrug His shoulders and say, “Well, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.” Jesus simply told her not to do it any longer.
In keeping with the motto, “What would Jesus do?” that’s our model for what we should do upon finding someone doing something wrong or harmful, whether in behavior or lifestyle. We don’t have to judge. In fact, we shouldn’t – that’s God’s job. But neither does “acceptance” call for us to condone or approve it.
As someone has said, “God loves us just the way we are – but He loves us too much to leave us that way.” That’s why we’re offered the opportunity to become “a new creation in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We might not be able to escape our old ways in our own strength. We might not even want to do so. But through God’s strength, we can.