Chapter 4: Forgiveness, Judgment and Acceptance

The Minister and the Care of Souls
by Daniel Day Williams

Chapter 4: Forgiveness, Judgment and Acceptance

We have offered a Christological interpretation of personal relationships. When a broken self finds healing and strength, the healing power belongs neither to the self nor to another who acts as psychiatrist or pastor. It belongs to a power operative in their relationship. That power is God, who as we know him in the Christian faith, is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the Third Man, who discloses the truth about our humanity in its need and in its hope.

Christian affirmation about the work of Christ in transforming men is interpreted in the doctrines of atonement. God has given his son to die for us, and through him the grace of forgiveness has become the redemptive power in life. I propose now to ask whether some light on the meaning of atonement may came from the new perspectives in pastoral care. None of the traditional doctrines of atonement has been quite satisfying to the Church or to Christian faith. We cannot replace those traditional theories. They all reflect aspects of the truth. But we can, I believe, get further light on what they try to say by giving attention to the personal experience of forgiveness and renewal.

We are dealing here with the very difficult questions of the relation of psychological concepts of healing to ultimate affirmations of faith in God and his grace. Therefore, it will be well to begin our analysis by setting alongside each other two accounts of release from the burden of guilt, one theological and one psychological. Then we can ask what light they may throw upon each other.

I. Grace as Forgiveness

To begin with the theological account: in the Christian faith every self bears both the dignity and the risks of freedom. As creature the self stands before the Creator, not with an unqualified freedom, but with a margin of personal response. We are free to love God and our neighbor, and such love is perfect freedom for it is the fulfillment of our being. But in our freedom we may violate the spirit of love. We may resist our own fulfillment. Every self does.

There is a history of sin, which, in Christian faith, is always misused freedom. It is a history in which all are involved, and it is a history for each individual, for so long as we are human we are never completely dominated by the social group. The story of sin is the course which the soul runs as it turns away from life with God and his love, and seeks life on terms of its own making. The three classic descriptions of the root sin all throw light upon it. They are: unbelief, or lack of trust in God; hybris, man’s elevation of himself as usurper of God’s place; and concupiscence, the turning of the self upon itself to feed upon its own gratifications. Sin is violation of our essential nature, therefore it always results in a state of inner dividedness. We are at war with ourselves as well as with God. Here is the theological understanding of why men turn to a deceitful self-glorification or to self-destruction. We defy God by asserting our own power and goodness as absolute, or we try to flee from ourselves.

This analysis helps to explain why much self-glorification conceals an element of self-destruction. We must hide the truth that we are not so strong or self-sufficient as we profess. This concealment may be very deep, and it is greatly reinforced by collective pride. Reinhold Niebuhr has depicted so well the way in which both our individual pride and our individual weakness may find compensation in glorifying the power and virtue of the group to which we belong. Yet the element of self-rejection in sin will usually be found if we dig deeply enough. And to complete the dialectic, this very self. rejection may draw strength from a defiance of life and God. One of John Barrymore’s friends, discussing the great actor’s behavior in his last years, said,

And I wish to tell you now that my opinion of his character. . . . is this: When he sneered at and abused himself beyond the tolerance of the crowd, it was not done through weakness but through strength, a defiance of God.1

The Christian description of this divided self has always used the image of the self’s bondage, without losing sight of the truth that this bondage is guilt. We are responsible, yet we become helpless to extricate ourselves from the maelstrom of our distorted selfhood. Let us not accept this assertion of the reality of man’s guilt as something obvious. There are great perplexities here. There is, for one thing, the variety of human experience. There is the history of each life as it is influenced by other lives, and the fact of our mutual in. volvement in destructive action. If, for example, we are dealing with a juvenile delinquent, at what point are we to see this fourteen-year-old boy as responsible in spite of the social misery and disorder or family disintegration in which his life may be lived? Who is delinquent? Parents, society. or the individual? Again, we must see that sin is a corruption at the root of our being, if we are to have any right understanding of it. What we call "sins," particular wrong actions, are for the most part to be understood as symptoms of the fundamental disorder which lies deep in the spirit.

It is of critical importance when we interpret sin that we keep our affirmation of real guilt and our high view of man together. In the Christian faith, so long as we are real persons we are never wholly at the mercy of our neuroses or maladjustments or purely external influences. Real guilt is the obverse side of the dignity of freedom. An important part of self-clarification is the clear acceptance of personal responsibility, not only for the future, but for the whole of one’s life. To shoulder this responsibility and yet to recognize how our freedom is qualified by what we cannot control is a delicate and important aspect of the struggle for maturity.

The Christian Gospel, the Good News, is that there is a way through the bondage of the self. Although we can find neither the insight nor the will to escape, God has come to us from beyond ourselves to break up our ill-founded self-assurance, and our despair. He has disclosed his forgiveness and his healing power. We can be restored to our rightful minds. It is this action of God which has come to its decisive climax in the story of Jesus, in whom he has opened the way for us. God in his love has come where we are, and walked the tragic, hate-ridden paths of human history. He took the consequences of sin upon himself in loneliness, sweat, and anguish. Jesus is the man of God, standing loyally by the Father’s purpose, and loyally by the Father’s children, who have lost their way. It is in Jesus’ giving of himself that we begin to know in depth what God’s grace truly is. So we speak of his action in Jesus Christ as the atonement for our sin. Through what he has done, reconciled men can begin to live a new life and love one another as God has loved them.

The traditional theories of the atonement all attempt some accounting of this supreme mystery of grace. Each grasps some aspect of the truth, the ransom theory, the debt of honor theory, the moral influence theory, but none exhausts it. Even to mention them is to recognize how long and inconclusive the discussion has been. It is noteworthy that the Christian Church has never arrived at one ecumenical and orthodox statement of the meaning of the atonement. It is as if the reality is such that it stubbornly refuses to be confined in a doctrine. Yet all the theories hold that there is given to us from beyond ourselves a new relationship to God which empowers us to live in a new way. This power is grace. It does not come in the first instance as a summons to take heart, and to gird up our moral wills, but rather as an invitation to confess our inability to release ourselves from bondage, a call to open ourselves to a love which is freely given, which has never let us go, and which is ours on the sole condition that we are willing to trust the God who so loves us.

II. The Psychological Account of Personal Release

After this brief statement of the Christian account of reconciliation of the self we turn to the psychological account of the frustrated personality and the way to its release. Here we find a story which runs with a certain analogy to the Christian account of sin and the new life. Let us tell it also briefly before we ask how far these two views may be related to each other.

The theme of the self’s inner conflict and its bondage to powers which cannot be broken by effort appears again in the psychological story of mental illness. What happens is that the freedom of the self and its power to maintain a basic integrity of thought and feeling are disrupted. It is as if the natural growth of the person has become blocked. The accounts of this blocking range all the way from Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex to Jung’s theory of the splitting off of the conscious life from its integration with its creative source in the one great stream of psychic life which has its major symbols or archetypes of meaning.2

The blocking of the self from its potential growth manifests itself in the sick personality as a loss of "self-possession." There is unresolved inner conflict. The person cannot handle his emotional life. He builds increasing defenses against the world outside and against admitting his real state. His condition can indeed be described as a kind of bondage, for a part of the personality appears to take over for the whole. We say he "acts compulsively," or that he "loses objectivity." Anxiety functions no longer as a creative awareness of danger, but as a destructive force sweeping away intelligent self-direction.

To be sure, there are many kinds of psychic illness, and much that is still completely baffling about them. And where something is known about how the therapy of personal counseling may help, there is still much we do not know about how this happens. But some of the essentials of healing through personal counseling are known. There is the presence of a psychiatrist or pastor, or some other person to whom we can speak about the feelings and fears which are the symptoms of our unrest, and perhaps ultimately we can begin to speak about those things which are the roots of our anxiety. This requires a patient exploration of the recesses of experience, both past and present. It is a reliving of what we have been as we search for a new interpretation of what it means. When this searching takes place in an atmosphere which does not threaten the person with rejection, no matter what he may disclose; when there is the wisdom and technical knowledge required to help the person to a new interpretation; and above all, when the counselor is able to communicate his own willingness to enter with this person into the new orientation toward which he is moving, there can take place (certainly it does not always happen) a reorganization of the personality. Hidden strengths in the self appear. Those things which have masked the real person are stripped off. The power to shape one’s own life is reasserted. We say that the self has become free.

In all such accounts of psychological therapy there is overwhelming evidence that the ability of the counselor in some way to become a means of the self-expression for the other is of crucial importance, and that means the counselor’s ability to take the feelings of the other sympathetically into his own being. It is this "taking in of the feelings of the other" to which we usually refer as psychological "acceptance."

We should say at once that "permissiveness" is not an adequate word for the attitude we are examining. Permissiveness rightly connotes a withholding of judgment, and that is part of the meaning of acceptance, but only a part. Acceptance is a positive process. It is not a passive taking in of another’s problems, but a deliberate and constructive act of self-identification.

III. The Relation of Psychology and Theology

Now are we talking about the same thing when we speak of grace and forgiveness in Christian terms and acceptance in psychological terms? Are these two entirely different aspects of human experience, or are they the same thing described in different languages, or are there relationships and analogies between the two while they yet remain two? I shall take the third view of the matter, but before I state my reasons it will be well to look at the case for the view that the two perspectives are completely different. We are here at the heart of the problem of how Christian faith is related to psychology, and it is necessary to analyze carefully what is involved.

There are three main arguments for keeping the theological account of grace and the psychological account of "acceptance" quite separate. First, it may be said that the transaction between the guilty soul and God is not the same as the encounter, however profound it may be, between two persons who are concentrating on a personal problem and are not asking questions about man’s guilt or responsibility before his Creator. Paul Tillich, who has done so much to clarify the relationship between theology and psychiatry, rightly insists that the religious dimension of healing is related to, but goes beyond, the cure of particular neuroses.3 What Tillich calls "ontological anxiety" and "personal guilt" arise within man’s "ultimate concern." They involve every man in his freedom before God. They cannot be removed by any readjustment of particular psychological structures.

Second, there is the point that the grace of forgiveness involves the confession of actual personal guilt. Where there is no guilt, forgiveness is meaningless. Guilt involves a personal alienation from God and the neighbor for which we are responsible. This responsibility may be shared, but it cannot be escaped. To deny it is to reject the Christian understanding of what it means to be human. We may find it instructive that in human relations forgiveness always threatens to become a kind of weapon which men use against one another, for the very act of forgiveness implies a judgment. This is why we have a natural resentment of being forgiven, with its implication of moral superiority in the other. We know it is only mutual forgiveness which can keep human efforts at reconciliation from becoming destructive.

When, therefore, we do confess our need for the forgiveness of God, we acknowledge our guilt. There can be no question of avoidance of judgment against us; the judgment is there in the very act of reconciliation. But does acceptance in psychological terms require such a personal acknowledgment of guilt before God, or even guilt in relation to other persons? This is a fair question. In the last analysis I believe acceptance does require this, but it must be admitted that some psychological theories keep the dimension of personal guilt in the background, and some have at times appeared to deny it altogether. It is not obvious that the ultimate responsibility of man is acknowledged in psychological therapy. We must look deeply if we are to find it.

The third point is that for Christian faith the healing of the soul comes from beyond the person and the counselor. It is God who heals, working beyond all human resources. I have argued in the preceding chapter that every personal relationship lifts our eyes toward a reality which transcends man. But even if this be acknowledged, surely, some will say, when we speak of the personal grace of forgiveness, we are going far beyond what can be documented in any psychological account of therapy. Grace means the way in which God deals with our human condition, his active purpose for the creation, his power to redeem and save history from its bloody tragedy, his offer of eternal life. None of this perspective of faith need be introduced in order to give an adequate empirical account of the release of the frustrated ego. Indeed, do we not need to explain the fact that many sick persons will be positively harmed if they are confronted with the sheer declaration of God’s judgment and his forgiveness? The neurotic syndrome may include a deep anxiety about these very affirmations. The religious discussion of guilt may prevent a person from taking a first step toward dealing with his personal guilt feelings. His repressed guilt may be too shattering to be borne without a long preparation in the accepting situation. Would we not therefore do better to keep the ultimate structure of grace and forgiveness quite apart from the medical and psychological problems peculiar to certain persons?

I have put the case here as strongly as possible because it is a great danger to the concerns both of religion and of psychology to give a glib and simple interpretation of their relationship. We do no service to the care of souls by being vague in our language through a desire to "bring us all together." Having said this, I must go on to contend that we cannot keep these two accounts of human experience wholly separate. They involve each other, and taken together they give light which both theology and psychology need. The mystery of atonement can be approached with new understanding if theology and psychology will look together at the same reality, however difficult it may be to do so.

IV. The Meaning of Acceptance

I propose to examine more closely the meaning of "acceptance as a term which both psychiatry and theology may use in describing the release of the self from its bondage.

Begin with the question "Who is accepted?" It is customary to say, "The whole person is accepted," with all his limitations and strengths, his hostilities and his love. Acceptance does have this dimension of "completeness." No one who has heard Charlotte Elliot’s hymn, "Just as I am, without one plea," in a serious religious setting can mistake its power which rests upon a profound psychological as well as theological truth. The self makes no pretense. It is offered, "just as I am." But who is this "I"? We must look more closely at the self.

Karen Homey in her book, Neurosis and Human Growth, distinguishes three aspects of the self. There is an empirical or actual self, an ideal self, and the real self.4 None of these selves completely includes the others. They overlap, but there is tension among them. The empirical self is that which we have become through the experiences of life. It is the self which others immediately begin to know, and which in a sense we know as "ourselves." It is what I recognize as being "me."

The ideal self is, in one sense, an aspect of the empirical self, for the ideal self has in large part also been born out of experience. It is our picture of what we aspire to be, our projection of what we believe would be the fulfillment of our lives. We have this ideal self in part confused with our actual self in the sense that we see ourselves through the glass of our own ideals. At the same time, we may feel a great discrepancy between the actual and the ideal. Our ideal may function as the law and judgment which we use against ourselves. It is far from what we actually are and usually we know this. Both these selves are operative aspects of the personality. What then is the real self?

In this analysis the real self is largely the potential of the personality. It is that which we truly can become if we are released from the distortion of our own false judgments, and from the blocking of our power to grow. The real self, therefore, is never identical with the actual self, for it is always more than we are at any moment of life. The real self is becoming. As Hocking says. "the self is a hope."5

The real self and the ideal self are never identical, for our true potential is something discovered in the course of life, and when discovered it comes as a judgment upon the ideal we have projected. We find who we really are only by "living life out." In this view we explicitly reject the notion, often quite heroically held, that we can by effort of will make ourselves adequate to the ideals we accept. There will always be discrepancy. Our very effort betrays us. The psychological clinical materials are full of the disastrous consequences of trying to fit life to a rigid ideal.

Now the point of this analysis is that when we ask what self is accepted in therapy, the answer must be that all these selves are accepted, but in somewhat different senses. The actual self is accepted. This is the primary condition of all successful therapy. The actual self is accepted in the sense that the person is allowed to express himself, his feelings, his fears, and his hopes as they are. The actual self is not accepted for the sake of the ideals which the person professes. Indeed, it is not accepted for the sake of the real self, the potential self, but "just as the person is," he is received, without rejection, without shock, and with understanding. Let us stress that this initial acceptance is not based upon the fact that this person represents a "type of psychological problem," or is to be seen as a case for experimentation. All this may be in the professional counselor’s mind, but it cannot be determinative, else the person will know that he is not being accepted for himself.

The ideal self is accepted also. There are subtleties here. The self-ideal is a part of the person. He holds a certain picture of himself as he ought to be or might be. But the ideal self is not to be accepted in the sense that it defines the real good of the person. This is of critical importance, and just here much well-intentioned pastoral counseling fails. Out of religious and moral conviction we tend to praise people for their high intentions, and to sympathize with their sense of inability to live up to the ideals they hold. It seems so much like the confession of sin before the righteousness of God. It may be nothing of the sort. It may mean only that the real self is being smothered by an unexamined conflict between actual and ideal. The counselor and pastor must know that the ideal self is in some respects always a deformation of the person. It has been born in part out of the failure to achieve a decisive integration. We cannot deny that there is a problem here for Christian faith. The conflict between the law in the mind and that in the members, of which St. Paul speaks, is real and inescapable; but the point is that we should not confuse our self-imposed distortions of the "law of the mind" with the law of God. At this point in the care of the soul we encounter a profound and perennial problem, the relation of the law and the Gospel.

The real self also is to be accepted. It is this point which even some psychological theory seems to overlook. If there is no real self which is struggling to be born, there is no point to the therapeutic process. The person must literally come to know who he really is, and his real being is, for the most part, beyond his own sight and that of his counselor.

We need not fall into the error of idealizing this real self. It is the free person, God’s creature, facing the ultimate issues of life and death, but facing them in their final dimensions, and making decisions which arise from the creative courage of one who has faced and accepted the conditions of real life.

We have come far enough to see that acceptance is a creative process. The criticism of psychological acceptance which some theologians have raised seems to me to overlook what actually happens in the counseling process.6 To accept another person means to enter into this struggle of the self to be born anew. It requires, therefore, a positive and outgoing action of the counselor. The process has indeed a destructive side, for so much of what passes for the communication of persons in superficial living must now give way to the painful process of exploring what is hard to admit, and the giving up of cherished self-images. But this destruction is for the sake of reconstruction.

That this is what acceptance involves is amply supported by the evidence from counseling experience. Consider the fact that to be accepted requires courage. Tillich has written of the courage to accept acceptance as essential in the life of faith.7 This courage appears in the therapeutic situation. One of Freud’s startling discoveries was that persons will resist the very accomplishment of the release which therapy is achieving. We fear that which we desperately need. The root of this resistance lies in part in the superego, with its threat to whatever separates the person from his emotional attachments to the parent. But beyond this is the risk of becoming a new self. This is threatening because the new is untried, unknown. We fear that we will not recognize our selves, so we cling to our familiar though painful paths. Psychiatrists sometimes express amazement that people are willing to suffer so much and so needlessly. There may be a partial explanation in the masochistic structure, but I believe there is a more fundamental reason. It is the stubborn, misguided fight for self-preservation. We have a metaphysical and religious need to know who we are. The venture of self-acceptance and being accepted by another threatens our present picture of who we are. When we understand this, we begin to see the radical character of acceptance, and to see that it does touch the ultimate meaning of life with which religion is concerned.

Let us go on then to the question: "Who is it who accepts?" There are problems here, both in the variety of counseling practice and in its interpretation. Techniques involved in communicating the spirit of acceptance may vary, and there are differences of judgment as to the part which explicit interpretation by the counselor to the client ought to play. Ordinarily the psychiatrist does not communicate his feelings directly to the client, and the pastor does not confess to the person who comes to confess except in quite unusual circumstances. Yet the more we know about counseling, the more clear it becomes that the whole self of the counselor does come into the process in hidden if not in overt ways, and that if he is not thus fully involved, the process of therapy is likely to be blocked. Something important takes place in the counselor. In Whitaker and Malone’s study, The Roots of Psychotherapy, the conclusion is stated that the most important variable in all forms of therapy is the adequacy of the therapist as a person. This leads to a surprising comment concerning the significance of unconscious factors:

The common denominator is the interpersonal relationship, an interpersonal relationship frequently subjective in character. The relationship of the unconscious of the therapist to the unconscious of the patient underlies any therapy.8

There are even some theories of psychological healing which hold that the psychiatrist takes the patient’s disease into himself. The classic case reported by Robert Lindner in The Fifty Minute Hour of the psychiatrist who is caught up in his patient’s delusions about the cosmos, suggests the depths as well as dangers of what is happening. Therapy depends upon an act of identification which yet preserves the integrity of the persons. It follows from this understanding of the counselor that the value system which he holds is not a matter of indifference in therapy. Max Lerner rightly observes:

The outlook of the analyst is bound to break through into the world of the patient. Every word he uses expresses something about his values. That is why the analyst himself and his personality form a more important factor in the success or failure of the analysis than the theory or school from which he works.9

The Christian pastor can see reflected here the nature of the demand upon him when he considers the meaning of acceptance. For what works with power is the spirit which is incarnate in the pastor, and without this all the doctrines and symbols of faith are likely to be quite ineffective. We may speak about forgiveness, but from whence comes the power to forgive and to love? That question arises in all its sharpness when we offer ourselves as Christ’s minister in the care of souls.

If this interpretation of the search for reality in all personal relationships is true, then we must take another step. for the person in search of integrity and purpose in life is never seeking this only in another person. He is searching for a reality in life itself. What he wants from the counselor he wants not from him alone, but from life. Note well that unless what I find in the love and sustaining power of another person discloses something about all of life, then I can never fully entrust myself to this love. Recall Mrs. Oak’s statement about her daughter, "She is my only link with life," and her word to the counselor, "You are my love." Here the person has discovered what the philosophers call the ontological question as a matter of life and death for the self.

Even those who will say nothing about the metaphysical dimension of the counselor’s role will agree that at least the counselor represents the community, the wider human environment. The analysis of transference confirms this. The transference involves the emotional relationship of the person to the counselor. It has the possibility of helping to free the person from his bondage to false realities. But the transference is a transition stage. It functions in healing just in the measure that through it the person becomes able to move beyond the stage in which his positive and negative feelings are bound up with the counselor and to discover a new relationship to other persons in the family, the day’s work, and the common life. The counselor’s function is to open the way to that new life without his being able to specify or control its conditions. If the counselor’s acceptance of the person does not have this direction within it, if it does not look out upon the possibility of a venture of the human spirit into a larger world, then it is meaningless.

I have been arguing all along that this larger world is never just the human community, but is the world of man’s dependence upon God who is his origin and his Lord. Thus, whether we begin with the meaning of the self-image or with the meaning of acceptance, the religious question concerning that reality which is the context of our lives becomes the existential question, that is, one concerning which we have to make a decision. When we give a Christian interpretation of that decision, and speak of personal faith in God who has revealed himself through a personal life, we go beyond what psychological analysis can require, but we are speaking relevantly to the very search which psychological therapy involves.

V. An Interpretation of Atonement

This analysis of the counseling relationship and the acceptance it involves suggests an interpretation of atonement. I do not mean that a new theory of the atonement can be drawn directly from the therapeutic value of acceptance. But it is worth asking why it is that traditional theories of atonement have always left dissatisfaction in the Christian Church.

One reason for this has been curiously overlooked in much of the discussion. The traditional doctrines of atonement have all been founded upon something less than a fully personal analysis of the meaning of forgiveness. This is surprising, since one would suppose that if God has shed the grace of forgiveness in our hearts in Jesus Christ, the place to look for the clarifying analogy would be to the experience of forgiveness in human relations.

The "ransom" theory certainly does not do this. It makes the whole transaction a conflict between divine and demonic power, with man caught somewhere on the field of battle. It makes the important assertion that God fights for us against sin and death, yet it is hard to see how our personal decisions of faith and our acceptance of forgiveness are involved. I think we must hold this about the ransom theory, in spite of Bishop Aulén’s insight into the classic motif, as he calls it, and his sound contention that this theory preserves the truth that God is both the reconciler and the reconciled in the suffering and death of Christ.10

Anselm’s theory of the satisfaction of the divine honor, which has suffered from being woodenly and inadequately described in many textbook accounts, really acknowledges the personal burden of our guilt before God. Anselm never loses sight of the truth which is so important psychologically as well as metaphysically that guilt requires a penalty and a satisfaction if it is to be lifted. Yet Anselm’s statement of what is accomplished by the death of Christ does tend to obscure the personal relationship between God and man and to make the transaction valid because it removes a legal penalty and satisfies a point of honor.

The moral influence theories appear to be closer to the personal experience of love. From Abelard onward they see the atonement as God’s action in which he shows his love toward us with persuasive power and calls us to respond. But this view has never seemed to take full account of the need for relieving the burden of guilt, and it relies far too heavily upon the belief that the persuasive power of the divine example is sufficient to meet our need. When we recognize the self-giving love of Christ we accept his judgment against our lovelessness. It is there surely that the problem of atonement lies.

The New Testament meets the problem of our guilt at a point which these theories all tend to miss, the personal experience of forgiveness. We may get new light on the personal realities from our analysis of acceptance. The person who cannot solve his own problem discovers one who will stand by him in spite of his burden of guilt or fear, whatever it may be. The person who is accepted does not earn this. He has no claim upon it. It is offered. It is grace. It is true that psychiatrists and other professional counselors are paid for their services. The psychological function of this payment has many important aspects, but it is clear that the patient buys the psychiatrist’s time, he does not buy his acceptance. That is unpurchasable.

Look again at the New Testament picture of the Christ in the light of our understanding of acceptance. Jesus is not the Christ simply because he exercises imperial power over the demons, or because he suffers the results of others’ wrongdoing. He does these things as God’s representative, his Son, who identifies himself with the human condition. "I am among you as he that serveth" (Luke 22:27). "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). What is affirmed in these words of Jesus underlies Paul’s understanding of the Gospel, "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). In his account of baptism Paul asserts that we are buried with Christ in his death, and raised with him to newness of life (Rom. 6). This is the language of personal relationship and self-identification. It comes from the discovery that God stands by us, in spite of our estrangement from him, that he remains with us in our need, at cost to himself. This is the heart of the New Testament assertion of redemption, and surely this is directly related to the experience of acceptance. We are given to know that nothing in our brokenness destroys the possibility of being understood by another who cares.

There is a second theme to be drawn out which helps us to get beyond a major difficulty in two of the traditional doctrines. They tend to make the calculus of punishment more fundamental than the creative action of love. Now the experience of acceptance has taught us that what happens depends upon the risk of a new relationship where no one can predict or calculate the result. Genuine acceptance is never a matter of balancing the books of life and requiring so much suffering for so much cowardice. We have seen that this element of judgment is not eliminated, but it is subordinate to the creation of a new possibility of life on new terms. Acceptance is not simply a passive reception of the other. It is a reconstruction of the situation, a breaking open both of our need and of our way to health. From this point of view, the meaning of the atoning work of God never has the calculus of guilt as its principal theme. It is the reconstructive action of God beyond all measure of guilt. To be in Christ is to be a "new creation," as Paul declares (II Cor. 5: 17). By his redemptive action God has brought a new people into being, the atonement is for all:

But ye are a chosen generation. a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; who in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy. [I Pet. 2:9-40]

We can interpret the suffering of Christ from this point of view. He suffers indeed as a consequence of the sin of men. Through his suffering we have a sharpened knowledge of our guilt. But his suffering expresses the will of God to stand by the guilty one. The theological tradition which tries to separate the suffering of Jesus’ humanity from his divinity simply misses the decisive point about the atonement. The suffering of Jesus is the human expression of God’s own suffering for us. It is meaningless, then, to speak of Christ’s suffering as an appeasement of God. It is rather the authentic disclosure of God’s will to stand by us, his creatures, and offer a new life which we do not deserve. Love does not seek suffering, but it takes necessary suffering into itself and uses it in the very work of reconciliation.

When we speak of Christ’s suffering as a disclosure of the spirit of God, we go beyond what any human experience can prove, but we find analogies in experience which become luminous in the life of faith. We see why the New Testament asserts that we cannot know the love of God except as it is first given to us in our brokenness. It is never simply a perfecting of what we actually are, but is a new reality remaking what we are. Yet such love has its reflections in our human experience at the point where men offer loyal understanding and care to one another in the midst of human evil. We are continually being saved by it even when we do not recognize the hand of God in the human hands which support us.

We come, then, to the question: "How is it that faith in God’s action in Christ has power to transform us? The traditional theories of atonement have been less than adequate here. Even the moral influence theory relies far too much on our capacity to respond to the divine persuasion. What is it that not only persuades us, but empowers us to live by faith? Here we look again at the experience of acceptance. We are helped by confession to another when we are relieved of the false pride, the pretenses, the defensive shells which keep us from living our lives in freedom. But more important still, acceptance releases power to transform the self because it gives an assurance of a meaningful life no matter what evil or tragedy we face. It is the knowledge that we will not be let go which sustains our will to live. A counselor who had rather unskillfully tried to help a person through a serious crisis by saying that he was "sure the person would come through all right" was long afterward told, "What I most needed to know was not that I would come through all right, but that you and the others upon whom I depend would love me no matter what happened." The counselor regards this as the most important lesson he has learned about therapy.

It is a lesson which tells something about the power which is released through the forgiveness of God. Forgiveness is the offer to stand by and to love no matter what happens. To be forgiven, to accept the divine acceptance, is always to venture into a new order of life which begins strangely and wonderfully enough just where we discover God bearing with us in our present life of fear and distrust

One of the books on the atonement which expressed this kind of personal understanding was J. McLeod Campbell’s in the nineteenth century. His theory that Christ atoned for sin by making a confession of sin for the whole race of men has been often criticized on the ground that the sinless Christ cannot confess the sin from which he sets men free. But in the light of an understanding of acceptance, we can see that Campbell grasped something about the redemptive power of the Gospel which older theories overlooked. He saw the dynamic significance of Christ’s self-identification with man.ii Christ confesses man’s sin, not indeed as one individual arbitrarily substituted for others, but in his aflirmnation of the solidarity of the human community and his identification with its burden. Campbell saw that this act of confession has power to lead men toward a new communion with God. We should not think of confession as a preliminary condition to a later reconciliation. In the light of the psychology of acceptance, confession is a movement within the total action of reconciliation. There is literally no point at which confession leaves off and the new life begins.

V. The Pastor and Acceptance

Psychological acceptance and the Gospel of forgiveness meet in the work of the Christian pastor. However we interpret the theological question of the relationship of grace and acceptance, both are present realities in pastoral care. They belong together.

Forgiveness, as the Christian understands it, involves all that we mean by psychological acceptance. The pastor should find his capacity to enter into the problems of another sustained and increased by the resources of grace to which in faith he turns. Yet it is quite possible to have ultimate faith in grace and yet to fail at the concrete point of showing the spirit of acceptance to another. This comes partly from the limitations of our faith and love, but also from our inability to recognize what specifically is required of us. The pastor will examine himself in the light of the Gospel and of his experience to see how far he succeeds or fails in the severe test of counseling another. He will not lose sight of the ultimate issues of faith which he would bring before the other, but if he is to open the way to that faith he must practice a loyal, patient, and sacrificial acceptance of persons in their struggles. It is a judgment upon the Church and its ministry if, with our belief in God’s grace, we repeat the great symbols and doctrines of atonement but actually practice less of a costing identification with the sufferings of men and women than do those who counsel with them under secular auspices.

The pastor shares with the psychiatrist the status of being one to whom others come for help. Like the psychologist, he has his personal problems, and like him, if he is to do his work he must have some basic health and mental poise. But however other counselors may interpret their relationship to those who seek health, the Christian pastor says the General Confession with all men. He stands in the same ultimate need as all, and with all. This is why, when acceptance is transformed into a witness to God’s grace, it unites men in the deepest community of all, that which God has created through his mercy shed upon all men, and upon which they all depend.

The word "acceptance," like a good many others, has become in our technical-minded age a part of the special vocabulary of psychology. But, as in the case of so many of the great words, this one has its roots in the biblical tradition. It is in the New Testament that we learn the full power and spaciousness of "acceptance" in relation to the meaning of the atonement. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," says the writer to the Ephesians, "who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: . . . Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved" (Eph. 1:3-6). Thus the translators of the King James version rendered echaritosen, "objects of grace."



1. Gene Fowler, Good Night, Sweet Prince, (New York: Viking Press, 1944), p. 136.

2. C. G. Jung, The Integration of the Personality (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1939).

S. Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Lecture XXI.

3. Paul Tillich, "Heal the sick, cast out demons," Union Seminary Quarterly Review, Vol. XI. No. 1 (1955).

4. Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.. Inc., 1950), p. 158.

5. William Ernest Hocking, The Self: Its Body and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1928), p. ix.

6. William J. Wolf, No Cross, No Crown (New York; Doubleday & Company, 1957), pp. 149 ff.

7. Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), pp. 167 ff.

8. C. A. Whitaker and T. P. Malone. The Roots of Psychotherapy (New York: Blakistan, 1953), p. 65. I am indebted to Charles Stinnette for directing me to this statement.

9. Max Lerner, "Is Analysis Dangerous?" New York Post, Feb. 13, 1958.

10. Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor (New York: Macmillan Co., 1931).

11. J. McLeod Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1856), passim.