Text: Matthew 6:25-27 Do not worry about your life, what you will lead or what you will drink. This sermon is the first in a number which I will preach on psychological principles and how they might apply to our spiritual growth. In each I will follow the same outline: the principle, how it works, how it is applied in psychological practice and a possible application to spiritual growth. Very practical – hopefully.
Too much in life simply happens. We are reminded of our mortality, loved ones die, the bad news of a medical diagnosis, economic conditions change and interest rates go up. We are reminded once again that most things are beyond our control.
How do we respond? Radical acceptance is an emotional decision ‘I will accept this inescapable reality’. Or a line I read in a novel recently “the world never turned out the way you wanted it to. It simply turned. And you hung on.” (Still Life)
Radical acceptance is about accepting what is outside of your control. There is no judgment. This breaks the link of attachment to the pain. For example, grief is felt, fully, but the link to needless suffering is broken. This means watching your thoughts and feelings to identify when you are allowing yourself to feel worse than absolutely necessary.
Radical acceptance is about saying yes, accepting without judging. It takes practice, to keep saying yes to what we want to say no!
This is not surrender to despair. Perhaps it is best expressed in the AA serenity prayer; ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
How applied in psychology:
Acceptance will start with emotions. Your emotions can be likened to a cork in water. It takes energy to keep a cork under water. Equally it takes energy to suppress negative emotions. Think about all the good things you could use that energy for! Acceptance stops pushing the cork down and it allows the cork to bob on the water, just floating and going with the ripples or waves on the surface.
Psychologists make a useful distinction between pain and suffering. For example, a close friend now has chronic pain after knee replacement surgery. He complains but he does not stop walking up and down the hills around Canberra. . He now accepts a given amount of physical pain which must be endured, but it does not stop him travelling to exotic locations or going on demanding walks.
When we face a physical challenge we have choices. Some good, such as keep walking, but some bad choices that add a dimension of suffering to the physical pain. For example, a person may retreat into abusing alcohol or prescription drugs. Eventually addiction will add unnecessary suffering with an impact on intimate relationships. The psychologist will apply the principle of radical acceptance, in this case to the inescapable physical pain, but encourage the patient to live life to the maximum ? even at the cost of more pain. For example, a grandmother with severe arthritis may choose to accompany her grandchildren to the park which will exacerbate her physical pain, but reduce her feelings of isolation. The choice is to be part of the lives of her grandchildren.
Radical acceptance has many benefits. I have had four years to come to terms with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. There are many ways in which I am fortunate: late diagnosis, relatively slow progress and symptoms which are not currently disabling. Of course, my long-term prognosis is grim, but I intend to maximise every year of relative good health. I want to keep serving in supply ministry, to enjoy travel and to delight in my life with Ann, our dog Truff and my wider family. I can honestly say I have not had one day of depression since the diagnosis, because I have approached Parkinson’s with radical acceptance. I don’t make any promises about the future, which may include times of depression, but I’ll take it day by day.
How is this relevant to Spirituality:
The acceptance of pain is part of many religious faiths. For example, Islam teaches followers to accept whatever happens as the will of Allah. While this can seem somewhat fatalistic, it nevertheless encourages acceptance. Buddhism has influenced modern psychological practice with encouraging a healthy acceptance of what life brings. I think Christianity has had more of a mixed record in this regard, at times it has promoted a passive acceptance of abusive situations, such as women suffering domestic violence. There have also been instances of a morbid fascination with the sufferings of Christ. But none of this is necessary. We can help to create a culture in which domestic violence is not tolerated and where pain is accepted, but spiritual resources are used to minimise suffering.
Reflect for a moment on what you find hardest to accept in your life. Visualise it if you can or think of something that represents that reality. Now ask God to help you accept it. Does it make any difference?
What exactly do we accept in a Christian worldview? Some Christians believe in predestination to the extent that God ordains needless suffering, even to the extreme of eternal damnation. I do not believe this is theologically necessary. But the reality we face includes senseless suffering. We see this in the death of children by cancer, consequences of criminal actions, senseless violence and the whims of psychopathic dictators who invade neighbouring countries. Such examples are endless. Life is relentlessly mixed: there are examples of beauty and incredible generosity, of selfless love but equally random events which none of us can control. Radical acceptance encompasses both and enables us to better live as followers of Christ in a challenging world.
Notice the subtle shift in this approach, the focus is not on the problem, whether it be depression, anxiety or loss, but the relationship to the problem. Hence radical acceptance or letting go.
Radical acceptance enables us to act in emotionally healthy ways and encourages, I believe, a mature Christian faith which equips us to meet whatever challenges we are destined to face.
She Let Go
by Rev. Safire Rose
She let go.
She let go. Without a thought or a word, she let go.
She let go of the fear.
She let go of the judgments.
She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head.
She let go of the committee of indecision within her.
She let go of all the ‘right’ reasons.
Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.
She didn’t ask anyone for advice.
She didn’t read a book on how to let go.
She didn’t search the scriptures.
She just let go.
She let go of all of the memories that held her back.
She let go of all of the anxiety that kept her from moving forward.
She let go of the planning and all of the calculations about how to do it just right.
She didn’t promise to let go.
She didn’t journal about it.
She didn’t write the projected date in her Day-Timer.
She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper.
She didn’t check the weather report or read her daily horoscope.
She just let go.
She didn’t analyze whether she should let go.
She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter.
She didn’t do a five-step Spiritual Mind Treatment.
She didn’t call the prayer line.
She didn’t utter one word.
She just let go.
No one was around when it happened.
There was no applause or congratulations.
No one thanked her or praised her.
No one noticed a thing.
Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.
There was no effort.
There was no struggle.
It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad.
It was what it was, and it is just that.
In the space of letting go, she let it all be.
A small smile came over her face.
A light breeze blew through her.
And the sun and the moon shone forevermore…
To read further:
Russ Harris, The Happiness Trap (2nd Ed 2022). See Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
The Rev Dr Bruce Stevens is an endorsed clinical and forensic psychologist. He serves as the supply minister at GUC 2022-2023.