Lately I’ve been reading about “acceptance” as a spiritual practice.
To accept means to take what is offered.
Acceptance as a spiritual practice is about taking life as something offered, especially the parts of life we usually reject, deny, ignore, or struggle against.
The Old Testament begins with the story of the origins of human suffering.
In this story, human beings once existed in a world that was entirely good.
Eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil opened the first humans’ eyes to good and evil, ruptured their relationship with God and brought about suffering and death.
The orthodox interpretation is simple: human life and happiness lies in union with God. Yet the first humans ate from the tree against God’s explicit command. Regardless of the precise significance of the tree itself, the act of disobedience was enough to break the relationship with God and introduce suffering and death into human experience.
Obedience comes from the Latin obedire which literally means to listen, or to hear. It is fitting in this context that humanity fell from the paradise of communion with God because they ceased to listen to God and instead sought to be “like God” in their own right, through knowledge of good and evil.
Nor does the story say that they were wrong. They did become “like God”, and their eyes were opened to good and evil.
In our own experience, knowledge of good and evil doesn’t refer to an objective, theoretical understanding, but to an immediate, practical and subjective sense of what is good and bad for us. We see the world in terms of our own personal profit and loss.
One interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ is as the ultimate sign of how we can return to paradise – through a reversal of the fall.
The crucifixion that formed the central motif of Christianity for millennia denotes an act of faithful acceptance of suffering and death in direct opposition to the knowledge of good and evil that otherwise rules our lives.
In anticipation of his death, Christ’s words encapsulate the answer to the fall:
Going a little farther, He fell facedown and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”
Christ’s crucifixion and death is presented as the ultimate atonement on behalf of all humanity. Atone is a contraction of “at one”, its literal meaning is the same as union or communion.
The union of God and humanity was broken by the human pursuit of knowledge of good and evil. The path to re-union is indicated by Christ’s acceptance of God’s will for him. As the quotation above demonstrates, the answer to the fall is to accept God’s will in spite of our sorrow and suffering. Knowledge of good and evil is thus not extinguished or abandoned. It is still there, just as the tree of knowledge stood in the garden both before the fall and after. But putting the will of God ahead of the knowledge of good and evil means we no longer eat the fruit of that tree.
The way of the cross is the return to paradise, as Genesis tells us:
“at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.”
The way to paradise is guarded by a flaming sword, just as the way to eternal life is found through death on a cross. The way to the tree of life looks like death. In losing our life, we save it. We can’t return to the garden without passing through the fire.
What does all of this have to do with acceptance?
Acceptance means to willingly take what is offered, and if we apply it to the sufferings and struggles in life it implies not only that we willingly take them, but that we regard them as something offered.
Eden is not a literal garden; the paradise consists in union with God. This union cannot be attained if we adhere to our own subjective sense of what is good and bad for us. Acceptance of the life we are given does not mean pretending that everything is good. It means that we align our will with something greater than our own sense of good and evil, profit and loss.
That is the choice before us. If we adhere to our sense of good and evil we will continue to pursue a self-interest dictated by fear and desire, struggling against the reality before us. If we accept reality in spite of our fears and desires, then we are accepting the life that is offered us right now by God.
Maybe your first thought is “well God can keep that reality, I don’t want it”. But that’s pretty much the point here. Acceptance is a different state from our usual play of good and evil.
If you think it would be pretty bad to accept parts of your reality, then you’re operating from the knowledge of good and evil. If you think you can try accepting this bad reality just to see if it changes into a good reality, then you’re still operating from the knowledge of good and evil.
That’s why accepting reality is so hard. It’s hard because it transcends our usual measures of good and evil. It takes us to a place we almost never visit, a place where we are no longer ruled and burdened by obsessive self-interest.
But let me tell you again that it is hard. Really, really hard.