The notion that acceptance is critical to happiness is axiomatic in the self-help world. They say that by practicing radical acceptance we can dramatically reduce suffering, which is the source of most negative emotion most human beings will ever experience. They’re not wrong. However, this concept, to my mind, has huge spiritual implications for people of faith, as well. I am coming to believe that our willingness to accept reality is a big index of our character. I am finding that as we increase our ability to accept reality, we suffer a lot less in life, and we gain the ability to connect with God on a much deeper level.
The Difference Between Pain And Suffering
It is common to distinguish between pain and suffering. Pain is often not optional. We experience pain in the cold, when we get sick, when doing hard labor, when someone punches us in the face, when our crush rejects us, and when someone says something insulting. Pain, despite how undesirable it can be, often signals to us valuable information. If my hand didn’t heat up as I got closer to fire, I might incinerate myself without even knowing it. If I never experienced negative emotion in response to people’s words and actions, then I could never adapt myself to function in society (although some people go way too far trying to please others). Pain can be a big part of various growth processes, like fasting or exercise or relationships, and so we can appreciate the constructive role some pain plays in our lives. Numbness to all pain is, in fact, a dangerous thing.
I like how one author succinctly put it:
Pain is the feeling of unpleasant physical sensations or emotions. Suffering is the struggle, denial, worry, regret, indignation, complaining, and self-pity wrapped around pain.Jade Wu, PhD (Pain Versus Suffering)
Here’s another excellent excerpt that addresses the distinction. The boldface is mine.
And, of course, there can be suffering without pain. In fact, most of our suffering has nothing to do with pain. It is induced by negative emotions like sadness, shame or guilt, or by situations like deprivation of freedom, loneliness, distress, depression, empathy, social rejection, oppression, etc. Like its opposite, happiness, suffering is neither a sensation nor an emotion, but a state of being that encompasses the whole mind. . . We do investigate sources of suffering like disease and hunger, but it is also clear that a lot of suffering is internally generated.Speaking Of Research (Research On Pain Versus Suffering)
I have observed that animals seem to suffer a lot less than humans. When a rabbit breaks its leg, it does not appear to struggle, deny, worry, regret, experience indignation, complain, or self-pity, per the author cited above. The rabbit seems to think, “Now I have three legs? Let’s go!” and proceeds to adapt itself to its new reality.
The Power Of Accepting Reality
What you resist, not only persists, but will grow in size.Carl Jung
I’ve lived through some terrible things in life, some of which actually happened.Mark Twain
Acceptance is a very important concept that can’t be stressed enough. I can say that most of the pain I have experienced in life has come as a result of my inability to accept some aspect of reality, unlike the rabbit in the previous example. It is true that whenever we resist some unpleasant fact of facet of reality, we invariably make it a lot harder. In other words, we create suffering.
Resisting reality, which is a kind of complaining (whether we internalize or externalize it), has huge spiritual implications. In the story of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, the people’s constant complaining incensed God on numerous occasions, and he punished them for it repeatedly.
And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me. . . “Numbers 14:16
In Jude, and several other passages in the New Testament, complaining is associated with ungodliness and ungodly people who are ruled by their lusts.
These [ungodly ones] are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires [lusts, in another translation]; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.Jude 1:16
When we resist reality, we become more vulnerable to all kinds of temptations that promise temporary relief from the suffering we have created.
The Relationship Between Humility And Acceptance
On the other hand, acceptance of reality springs naturally from a heart of humility. To be humble is to acknowledge one’s humanity. That means being conscious of the fact that as humans, we sometimes have to endure pain, insults, and hardship, which can exceed our ability to cope. It is understandable to be outraged after experiencing abuse from others–emotional, physical, or sexual. As a person of faith, I believe that our sense of justice comes from God, who hates evil of every kind.
However, how we respond to the pain and evil that we experience undeniably also says a lot about our character. The same egos that drive us to be great can make us unduly sensitive to the words, actions, and judgments of others. Oftentimes, we fear, and are sensitive to, what we cannot accept. If my ego is such that every insult or criticism offends me, then I am naturally wary of the opinions of others. The smaller our egos, in general, I think, the less interest we have in controlling others and rehearsing possible outcomes, because we don’t feel threatened by one reality or another.
Do we constantly criticize, complain, seek to avenge ourselves, or parse everything that people say and do to us? Or do we adopt a humble posture, that says “Even though I hate this fact, or do not understand that reality, I acknowledge that this feeling is sometimes a part of being human. If I’ve been mistreated, I trust that God will make it right in the end, because I am not equipped or authorized to take matters in my own hands (?)”
“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) is a spiritual foundation of acceptance. It acknowledges God’s preeminence, whereas refusing to accept our human limitations and vulnerabilities only leads to suffering.
He [God] must increase, but I [John the Baptist] must decrease.John 3:30
Jesus Christ is the ideal of acceptance in action. As a morally flawless human being, he deserved to receive the best treatment. Yet, many people hated him throughout his ministry, to the point where they had him executed in brutal fashion. Yet Christ, in the face of great pain, and even greater injustice, did not resist reality. This was because Christ was humble–the same humility that led him to accept being incarnated in the first place.
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.1 Peter 2:23
But he [Jesus] gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.Matthew 27:14
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.Philippians 2:5-7
Does this mean we should be passive in the face of injustice, or situations we do not like, but have the power to change?
Of course, not. As human beings, we have the power to change many things about our reality. We can add and remove people from our lives. We can learn new skills and abilities. We can change our thoughts and habits. We can defend people who are suffering or being mistreated. We can change our address (and sometimes country or leaders). However, in the mean time, accepting where we are, who we are, and what we have, in this moment, is foundational to happiness [would you not agree?]. If we want to take it to the next level, we can even practice gratitude. Gratitude, which takes acceptance for granted, is also not optional for a believer. I can accept (and be grateful for) my current house, car, body, education, or job, all the while striving to get a better one.
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.1 Thessalonians 5:18
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.Philippians 2:14-16
Do you remember the serenity prayer? In high school, I used to think it was corny. Now I think it’s actually really wise and touches on many of the themes in this article.
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.-Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
When we accept reality as it is, not as we want it to be, we suffer less. We experience lightness. We become more adaptable and adept at taking advantage of the opportunities in front of us. We gain the ability to connect with God on a deeper level, rather than constantly questioning him and whining about our lives. Acceptance may not be easy, but it is incredibly powerful.
For more, see the complete archive of articles on integrity.