How to find balance between acceptance and improvement

Choosing between self-acceptance and self-improvement is too self-centered.

Courtesy of theemotionmachine.com

Marc DeJager, Staff Writer

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Where is the line between self-improvement and self-acceptance? This is a tension I see played out often, especially in Christian circles. Christians often feel the call to be glad in the perfect creation God made them to be, but there is also an equally insistent reminder of our own brokenness and need for repentance. There is a significant importance to both sides, but also something inherently wrong about the wording of the question. There are two extreme ends of the spectrum, and they manifest as two different traps. 

THE TRAPS 

The first trap, self-improvement, is slightly subtler than the second trap because the physical actions of the trap are usually beneficial to the kingdom. Improving yourself and better representing the image of God is something we should all do whenever we can. However, this practice is dangerously close to arrogance and self-obsession. With a constant drive to improve also comes a massive concern for image and perception. How the world views and thinks about you becomes the number one concern in your mind, drowning out everything else. To set ourselves on self-improvement is not the answer, because it results in an exaggerated focus on the self as an idol. 

 The self-acceptance trap is particularly dangerous for people at a private Christian college like Biola. Nevertheless, support structures for students are essential. Anxiety and self-hatred brought on by shame and fear of failure are real threats and they must be taken seriously. However, there is a real danger here to end up taking the “let grace abound” approach and abandoning ourselves to our own desires. This too is a mistake, as to accept ourselves in our sinful state and not acknowledge the need to be better is to make a mockery of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Christ did not die for you so that you could sit in your sin and do nothing about it. God made you exactly how you are, but that does not also include the sin that plagues you. You have indulged in that yourself. To settle for self-acceptance is not the answer, for it results in a lack of improvement and a taciturn attitude toward deadly sin.  

THE SOLUTION

The problem with both of these options is they are both entirely focused on the self. They are both about me. Wrestling internally with the balance between improving yourself and accepting yourself, even if undertaken with the best of intentions, is actually both a distraction and a deadly trap.

If we pour our best efforts into working hard one day, then resting in ourselves the next, then rushing back out to work again the day after, we spend so much time focused on ourselves and our own mental state. Therein lies the trap. With the best of intentions, we try with everything we have to both accept ourselves as God made us and forever strive to live up to who God created us to be and in so doing totally forget both others and God himself. 

The answer is simple: don’t look to yourself, look to God. C.S. Lewis writes, “Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ, and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” Focus on living as Christ did––doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with your God.

WHERE OUR FOCUS SHOULD BE

We spend a lot of time thinking very hard about how we should live our lives, which of the choices we have before is the right one, and which of the people we could live as is the one we should embrace. But we already know what it is we are supposed to do. 

The only problem is, we usually do not want to do it. So, we rationalize. We overthink it. We find ways to state the problem in so many words that we are almost able to convince ourselves that we have arrived at a careful and reasoned decision. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will find that God has already written his commands on our hearts, if only we would take the time to stop and listen. 

 To answer the question posed at the top of the article, where is the line between self-acceptance and self-improvement? I say the question is inherently flawed. Instead of spending time worrying about how much you should accept yourself or improve yourself, spend time thinking about how you can better die to yourself so that Christ can live in you.