Napoleon said, “The word impossible is not in my dictionary.” We all know he had made significant achievements in history with that can-do attitude. In my dictionary, however, I want to delete the word “unacceptable.” Let me explain because it’s essential for the growth of our spiritual intelligence or spiritual quotient (SQ).
One of the most important things we must learn in life is to differentiate between approval and acceptance. For example, my children may do things that I disapprove of, but I must accept them because I love them. Approval is based on law, but acceptance is based on love.
That sounds simple enough, and we all have encountered people doing things that we disapprove of. Sometimes, it’s just a minor issue, so we can easily forgive and forget about it, but there are times people may do something above and beyond our tolerance threshold, and we say, “It’s unacceptable.”
In such a case, we begin to confuse approval from acceptance because it’s not always easy to separate a person’s behavior from the person. Some people have a lower tolerance threshold than others. They are quick at sticking a scarlet letter on someone they disapprove of.
Talking about the scarlet letter, I am sure every one of you has read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Classic, “The Scarlet Letter,” or have at least watched one of the movie adaptations. The point of the story is everyone wears a scarlet letter—outwardly or inwardly, legally or secretly—even the holiest man in town has a secret scarlet letter beneath his clothes.
Understanding this human nature would allow you separate approval from acceptance. You know Jesus wants us to love our enemies. Many people confuse loving our enemies means approving their actions. No, Jesus wants us to “accept” our enemies without “approving” their behaviors.
To resolve the conflict on approval, we must first accept them. But most people got it backward. They don’t accept people until they approve of their behaviors. Acceptance must be unconditional because that’s what “agape” love is about.
Jesus accepted us without approving our actions and redeemed us with His blood on the cross. He expects us to love one another the same way he loves us. That’s a huge challenge, but the moment you know how to widen the gap between approval and acceptance, you are on the way to spiritual maturity.
So, today, let’s explore this topic based on Jesus’ teaching in this week’s scripture lesson.
[Hi, in case we haven’t met yet, I am Sam Stone, the Lightkeeper. You are the light of the world, and I am the keeper! (No pun intended). It’s my calling to help you shine your brightest so that God is glorified in you, and you are satisfied in God.]
The scripture lesson for today is from the Gospel According to Mark 10:2-16. [Listen to the Word of the Lord!]
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:2-16).
[This is the Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God.]
It seems typical for the Pharisees in those days to ask questions starting with, “Is it lawful …?” Is it lawful to eat on the Sabbath? Is it lawful to eat without washing your hands? Is it lawful to heal someone on Sabbath Day? All they thought about was “lawful, lawful, lawful.” Their legalism has created many outcasts and led to the failure of religion in the first century.
While many poor, sick, and cripples were kept outside of the synagogue, the religious leaders were justifying their actions by asking what was lawful or not. They spent time dissecting the law to slap a scarlet letter on anyone they found guilty, without realizing the secret scarlet letter written beneath their own garment.
Now, the main intention of this question is they wanted to slap a scarlet letter on Jesus.
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (v. 2).
Mark revealed their intention. They asked this question to test him, or precisely, to trap him. John the Baptist was recently imprisoned and then beheaded for criticizing Herodias for divorcing her husband and marrying his more ambitious brother, King Herod. Since John the Baptist and Jesus were cousins and the Essenes, the Pharisee knew Jesus would say, “No.”
In that case, they could report to Herod and get him arrested and maybe also beheaded like John the Baptists. These Pharisees were rotten from inside. I have discovered that those people who like to slap a scarlet letter on others wear one inside.
Knowing their evil intention, Jesus refused to give them a straight answer. As often, he answered their question with a question.
He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. (v. 3-5).
Here Jesus continued his teaching of acceptance without approval. This passage is not about divorce as it appears, but it’s a subset of Jesus’ ongoing teaching on acceptance. If you read the context (as we have covered in the past weeks), it falls into the same theme of unconditional acceptance.
Jesus told them that Moses permitted them to divorce not because he approved their hardness of heart but because he accepted them. In other words, Moses’ permission is not equal to his approval, but because he loved them and let them have their way, hoping they would turn around.
We see the same situation in the story of the Prodigal Son. The father gave the son permission out of love but not out of approval, hoping, one day, he would return home with repentance.
The Pharisees were thinking about “what’s lawful,” but Jesus was teaching “what’s loveful.” Without love, nothing matters because the law will be abused by those who are not loveful. Jesus said God intended for the couple to be loveful and become one. He said,
“So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (v. 6-9).
Jesus wanted the Pharisees to stop thinking about whether it was lawful to separate the couples but think about what is loveful because that’s God’s will from the beginning. Of course, we live in a fallen world, and the will of God is not always done here. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If God’s will is done here, it is already heaven.
In this fallen world, we deal with fallen people. There are unfortunate relationships, such as abusive relationships. That’s why we have laws to protect the weak from the strong. Sometimes separation is necessary in this fallen world to prevent the worst from happening.
However, the Bible says the law does not solve the problem. It just makes people sink deeper to sin. Nowadays, we have laws to prevent women from abuse. Does it solve the problem of spousal abuse? It seems so on the surface.
However, if we visit mental institutions today, we see more women than ever before. In the past, when a woman was abused, she had wounds and scars to prove it. Today, they have nothing to prove because the abusers have become smarter by circumventing the law and changing the mode of abuse to emotional than physical. Paul said,
“But law came in, with the result that the sin multiplied.” (Ro 5:20a).
The law makes sinners smarter. It does not change a person’s heart. My grandma liked to quote this Chinese proverb, “You can lock the gentlemen out but not the thief.” She meant, when we lock the door, it only keeps gentlemen out of the house because they try to enter the house from the door. However, thieves will always find another way of entry if we lock the door. It’s profound.
That is an excellent example of the function of the law. The law will prevent good people from falling into sin, but not a cunning thief. They will always find another way around the law. Jesus’ interest is to change people’s hearts rather than just putting a bandage on their behavior with the law.
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (v. 10-12).
Now behind the sense, Jesus gave a straightforward answer. He agreed with John the Baptist in his criticism of Herodias for divorcing her husband to marry his brother. However, Jesus did not single out Herodias for adultery because, according to him, everyone wears a scarlet letter. He said,
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mat 5:28).
Who can escape that definition of adultery? Picking on Herodias alone wouldn’t solve the universal problem. The difference between John the Baptist and Jesus is grace. John spoke the truth but lacked grace.
From Jesus, we received “grace upon grace.” Unlike John the Baptist, Jesus did not go in front of Herodias and slap a scarlet letter on her. For John, what’s right is right; what’s wrong is wrong. He was a warrior of truth. But for Jesus, behind every assessment of right and wrong, there must be a consideration of love and grace. Paul then says,
“but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Ro 5:20-21).
John the Baptist tried to win people by truth, but Jesus tried to win people by grace. Truth hurts, but grace heals. Jesus has a bigger fish to fry than slapping scarlet letters on people. He turned the meaning of the scarlet letter “A” to “Acceptance.”
If you can see everyone wearing a letter “A,” legally or secretly, and read “Acceptance,” you are closer to Christlikeness. How do you do that? You accept God’s grace as a child first.
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 15-16).
The disciples kept messing up, doing precisely the opposite of what Jesus was teaching at the moment. In this context, Jesus was using a child to teach them acceptance. Maybe because they saw Jesus holding a child, some parents wanted to bring their children to Jesus to have them blessed, but the disciples drove them away.
Jesus was indignant when he saw the disciples driving them away because it indicated that they were not listening or comprehending his teaching. That gave him another opportunity for an object lesson, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” You must receive grace to enter the kingdom of grace.
Previously, he told the disciples to treat the new and spiritually immature people as little children and accept them. Now, he turned it around, asking us to become children to receive the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the kingdom of grace.
We address God when we pray, “Gracious and loving God.” Grace and the “agape” love go together. Grace seeks above and beyond what’s lawful to what is loveful. Adults tend to judge what’s lawful and miss grace because grace makes no sense when we focus on what’s lawful.
A child does not care what’s lawful, but they care what’s loveful. A child that receives a lot of love and grace grows up to be loving and gracious. If we find ourselves unable to love or be gracious, receive God’s grace like a child first.
John Calvin said God tried to turn us around by his “irresistible grace.” The moment we understand the irresistible grace, we will go beyond asking what is lawful to loveful.
Until you see every scarlet letter “A” to mean “Acceptance,” keep receiving God’s grace like a child. Maybe one day we can all say as Napoleon did, except for a different word, “The word unacceptable is not in my dictionary.”
Until we meet again, keep your light shining brighter and broader, and harvest the fruit of profound happiness.