The Dialectics of God’s Love and Radical Acceptance (DBT musings part 3)

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy has the aim of teaching people to both accept themselves as they are and at the same time realize their need for change.  It works on shifting a person’s assessment of themselves (and the world) from one of dialectical thinking (either all good or all bad) to one of non-judgement, and acceptance.

In the previous post, commenter Sean challenged the view that Christians can be non-judgemental in all circumstances and clearly differentiated circumstances which warranted  refraining from judgement (being judgemental) and those that warranted judgement (i.e. to identify sin.).  This is a dialectic in itself and merges well with DBT’s aim to encourage its participants to both accept themselves and realize their need for change.

This dialectic of acceptance and change is one that is inherent in the Gospel.  We learn through Jesus that God loves the world so deeply that he gave his only son (John 3:16).  However, God’s love requires reciprocation, action, and relationship as the rest of the verse says “whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.

Time and time again in the New Testament Jesus demonstrates God’s extravagant love to those considered the most outcast, hated (not loved) and rejected including the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), the woman who lavished him with perfume (Luke 7), the tax collector (Luke 19), etc.  He was accused by the religious of frequenting with “sinners and tax-collectors”.  This likely aggravated the religious folk because they feared that he was accepting of sin, as it seems contradictory that you could both accept and reject at the same time.  Indeed it can be.

The key to handling this dialectic is forgiveness.  God’s amazing ability and offer to forgive to all who seek it provides a true and radical acceptance a bridge between being who we are and changing to becoming more like God/Christ.

When Jesus teachers his disciples to pray he teaches this practice of continually coming to God in for forgiveness, realizing that at the same time we are his beloved Children, we are also deeply fallen and sinful creatures who need God’s love.  Many people get stuck in this process.  They find it hard to let go and believe that God could truly love them and forgive the things in the past that were truly sinful.  Another problem we have is blindness to our own sinful nature- especially as people who have been trying to follow God for a little longer- we haven’t committed some of the “big” sins and so we figure we are “Ok” and fail to look more deeply at the nature of our selves and have come to accept too much of our desires and yearnings that are in fact more worldly (“Me” centred) rather than Godly (God-centred).  So we both need acceptance and forgiveness to engage in the radical acceptance and transformation that God offers through Jesus.

You may wonder how this differs from the “Radical Acceptance” espoused in current psychological treatments.   Radical Acceptance in DBT is based on Buddhist principles that we will endure pain but we have a choice to suffer- radical acceptance may entail accepting a situation or a person as they are rather than striving to change it, or bemoan it.   To stop dwelling on things that we may or may not have control.

There are passages in the bible and whole books (Job) which talk about suffering.  Paul regards suffering as purposeful,cleansing us from selfishness, as a place of joy (Colossians 1:24) and connecting us to Christ’s suffering (2 Cor. 1:5-7). Jesus also admonishes us that those who follow Him will be persecuted for righteousness. In this way Radical acceptance may at times be advisable to Christians.  In addition the reasons or results of enduring pain, for the Christian, may be different from those espoused by Radical Acceptance in DBT.

Enduring pain seems justified for those who suffer apart from their actions, but can Christians advocate radical acceptance when suffering is self-inflicted?

That’s a very good question.

What do you think?


18 thoughts on “The Dialectics of God’s Love and Radical Acceptance (DBT musings part 3)

  1. What do I think? I think you are in a fascinating academic program, that’s what! I came here from the “Quest” blog where you left a comment that piqued my interest. Suffering, as a subject, has been on my mind for some time, now. I’m not so sure that “suffering” that is self-inflicted is really suffering. For example, if I have no money to buy food and I go hungry, then I am suffering, and arguably so. If I choose to fast, and thereby go hungry, am I really suffering? The difference between the two cases is that in one, I have a choice and in the other I don’t. The Catholics classify fasting as a penance. Others, like Richard Foster, would call it a spiritual discipline. Neither calls it suffering. In contrast, both would refer to starvation as suffering. There seems to be something special about being forced to endure an undesirable circumstance as opposed to choosing it.

    Second point. Socrates said, famously, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It seems likely that he would concur with the main principle of DBT (I’m no psychologist!) that we need to accept ourselves while seeking change, which requires a serious level of self-examination. Surely, Socrates was thinking broadly, arguing that self-examination ought to be practiced, not just as a therapeutic technique, but by every person on the planet as a routine of life. As a 50-something, I take no pride in saying that, only recently, have I begun a practice of daily self-examination during my prayers. The flip side is that I have spent most of my life not engaged in any meaningful self-examination. I consider myself to be quite average in terms of Christian experience, which is to say that my life experience is very likely consistent with that of most other Christians. Your post lends support to this subjective claim, since your conclusions are applied to “we” and “Christians” and “many people.” The point is that most of us have internalized neither Socrates’ simple wisdom nor the strikingly similar admonitions of the New Testament regarding self-examination and confession… all of which makes me wonder about whether or not most of us have lives worth living. Is this part of what Jesus meant by the concept of being “lost”?

    • Rick I appreciate your comments, thank you for your thoughts on suffering. I had never thought to consider the innate value of self-examination whether within therapy or in a Christian devotional life. I have taken for granted my pursuit of self-examination (although at times have neglected this practice) and have forgotten that it is not part and parcel of every christian experience.

      However I do think the idea of lives worth living from a biblical point of view is very different than what is referenced in the broader culture?

      Our idea of a life worth living- dying to ourselves and serving and loving God as the whole focus of our lives- is quite counter-cultural. Being “lost” is more than lack of self-knowledge but also lack of knowing, believing and/or following God. Life worth living in society’s terms might mean having a quality life, happiness, and a vocational purpose. Which are good, but not what God calls us to be a part of – we may enjoy that- but we may also face suffering and persecution as followers of Christ as well.

    • Interesting discussion. I think one point that may be useful is to define suffering, and distinguish it from pain. I am currently in a DBT skills group, and the principle being taught seems to be that suffering is a result of one’s reaction to pain, so one of the goals of DBT is to reduce suffering (by means of radical acceptance), because that is within our control, even if the cause of pain is not. If we accept this definition of suffering, then it becomes less relevant whether the pain is self-inflicted (and thereby theoretically avoidable – as in the example of fasting) or a result of misfortune or persecution (and thereby theoretically unavoidable – as in the example of poverty leading to hunger and/or starvation). As Christians, it is our faith that helps us to develop the skill of radical acceptance, so whether fasting is seen as a penance, a discipline, or a consequence of poverty, the “pain”, in this case hunger, is present in each case. Whether we suffer, because of the hunger, or not, is (according to the principles of DBT) determined by our choice to ruminate on the pain (which would tend to increase suffering) or to accept it (which would reduce or, theoretically, eliminate suffering), influenced, I suppose by our degree of proficiency in accepting adversity. In this respect, when Jesus admonished people to wash up and put on clean clothes when you fast, and not let people know that you are fasting, He was, in effect (in DBT terms), telling people not to draw attention to themselves through suffering.

      So in answer to the question, “can Christians advocate radical acceptance when suffering is self-inflicted?”, DBT principles would argue that all suffering is self-inflicted. This question only makes sense if one equates pain with suffering (which DBT does not – pain is the prompting event; whereas suffering or acceptance are two possible results of the pain). In terms of the Christian, then, the relationship between pain and suffering becomes more nuanced – whether the cause of the “pain” is self-inflicted or not. For the purely secular humanist, all pain might be considered bad, and hence the only logical responses to avoid suffering would be to eliminate or avoid the source of pain through problem solving, or reduce suffering by using skills such as those taught in DBT (radical acceptance, self-soothing, distraction, etc.). The Christian, however, may, under certain circumstances, choose to embrace the pain (such as in persecution), or even purposely cause the pain (such as in fasting), as a means of growing closer to God or exercising “spiritual muscles”.

      The question, then, becomes, “should a Christian allow him or herself to suffer, or draw attention to their suffering, if the pain is self-inflicted?” In terms of truly self-inflicted pain (such as fasting), I think Jesus makes it clear that the truly humble Christian should not display their suffering, for if they do, the resulting attention becomes their “reward in full”. Rather, how they respond to the suffering becomes the more pertinent question and, I suppose, merits deeper consideration than the secular humanist would give it. One could choose to embrace suffering, as a penance, or choose to try to reduce it, as a discipline. If it is to be looked on as a discipline, then one’s choice of method to reduce the suffering becomes relevant. Radical acceptance accomplished through prayer would strengthen the Christian’s relationship with God, but would choosing another tool, like distraction, also strengthen this relationship? Or would it defeat the purpose of fasting as a spiritual discipline and become more of a test of willpower, perhaps leading to increased pride?

      In terms of persecution, would the Christian respond by practicing radical acceptance, as an encouragement to other Christians? Or should they try to eliminate the suffering by problem solving (leaving the situation, or hiding, for example)?

      So I think the difference, then between the Christian’s approach to pain and suffering and that of the Non-Christian, would be that the non-Christian would simply need to focus on the end goal – to reduce suffering – and choose the skill or tool that would accomplish that most effectively and efficiently; whereas, the Christian’s approach to pain and suffering would necessarily be impacted by the cause and purpose of the pain, in order to choose the most appropriate tools or skills to accomplish their goal (which may not be so clear-cut as simply to “reduce suffering”).

  2. Are you saying I need DBT? 😉 I might.

    I would agree that the faithful endurance of suffering is considered a virtue in the bible, provided that it is unavoidable suffering. I would not go so far as endorsing the the pursuit of suffering for suffering’s sake, nor do I believe that God would have us remain in a state of suffering if we would reasonable prevent its continuance. For example, we should see a doctor about that infection rather than deem the infection to be God’s will and therefore assume that God wants us to patiently endure the pain of it. Such things may appear spiritual in some contexts, but according to the bible they are not (Col 2:20-23).

    Regarding suffering caused by our sin, one must again discern between unavoidable (and un-changeable) consequences, and things that are within one’s control. One may not be able to avoid the loss of a relationship due to sin. What cannot be changed must be accepted. However, that is not to say that we must accept our sin in the first place. In many ways we are in a tough position (and have suffered criticism by our detractors) because it seems like an awful double-bind to be told on one hand that we have an utterly hopeless sinful nature- that we can be defined by our slavery to sin (Romans 7)- and at the same time we are expected to repent and change. Fortunately, if we are in Christ we are no longer condemned for our sin nature (Romans 8).

    The bible is pretty clear about how we should approach our own sinfulness. Paul did not demonstrate radical acceptance of his sin, but rather frustration, brokenness, and humiliation (Romans 7). He also coaches others on the attitude they should adopt with regard to their sin: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done” (2 Corinthians 7).

    What is interesting is that Paul prescribes earnestness, eagerness to clear one’s self, indignation, alarm, longing, concern, and readiness to see justice done. James echoes this sentiment, “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (4:8-10) This is offered as a remedy for those struggling with a quarrelsome heart, with worldliness, and with pride.

    These verses hardly resemble the tenets of self-help, positive psychology, and other contemporary philosophies regarding how we should view ourselves. God is telling us that we should take our sin seriously because it is the one thing that has wrecked our world. It is the reason for God’s ultimate sacrifice for us, and it prevents our spiritual success.

    The good news is that adopting this attitude should, in addition to repentance and relief from the consequences of sin, produce joy and peace and times of refreshing (Acts 3:19). There should be no regret. However, these concepts are only relevant and sensible to someone immersed in a biblical worldview. One cannot expect most who are involved with any sort of mindfulness philosophy or involved in a DBT treatment group to naturally accept these ideas, because they run counter to the world’s understanding of self.

    • Hi Sean,
      I agree with your biblical explanations, especially about Godly Sorrow- I have seen this produce good fruit and action in people’s lives as they develop an understanding of their selves and actions. This awareness is much different than acceptance and is kind of like what Rick said in the previous comment where he described his previous state as a Christian and how one day he woke up and realized how was not truly following Christ in a deep way and began to search and change his life to do so.

      Your last comment stuck with me as someone struggling to offer help to other Christians who have been diagnosed with borderline personality, substance abuse, and bipolar disorders for which DBT addresses. Yes, what we say is quite contrary to what the world says, but how do we reconcile that with the views of the world and psychology when working with clients who do share our beliefs in God and the bible? What do I recommend as an therapy/help for such a person who is very much aware of their sin and is also interfaced with the mental health system? What kind of help am I providing to clients (even those who do not share my worldview) by encouraging the practice of mindfulness and CBT for their suffering if the roots go much deeper? How should the church address and help people in their midst with such diagnoses?

      I was praying with a friend of mine who does have such diagnoses last night and both recommend more intensive discipleship, and intensive therapy such as DBT or work intensive work (ideally) with a Christian counsellor.

      I enjoy this dialogue and questioning as it is really stretching me to come to terms and contemplate what I believe and how it will be useful for those I work and fellowship with. I strive to be congruent with what I believe and what I practice in the work God has given me to do both in and outside of the church.

      • I enjoy the dialogue as well! Honestly, I struggle with so many of the same questions. I originally moved toward social work education and practice because I was in a position where I had some deep spiritual convictions, but I lacked the technical skill I needed to work with many in my church.

        Now the shoe is on the other foot! I find myself working with largely unchurched populations (or populations where it would be considered inappropriate to discuss matters of faith) and I long to convey those spiritual beliefs out of a deep desire to help people to know God and find healing.

        So far the best way that I have thought about it has been to consider the life of Jesus. He had a spiritual focus, yet met many physical needs. He physically healed people and he also cast out demons affecting their minds. In a sense, when we do any kind of talk therapy we are offering healing to the mind, even if we do not immediately or directly link it to our message of faith. I believe that when we help someone with a bus ticket or with disordered thinking, we are very simply obeying those scriptures that call us to meet the needs of others.

        That said, I still struggle. So much of that struggle would be bypassed by simply working in the ministry with a clear spiritual mandate to help Christians or non-Christians seeking to know God.

  3. aprilcairo: My blog is largely about the last paragraph of your response to my first comment, so I will spare you. However, you did ask one question about the qualitative aspect of the life worth living. I agree with the sense of your comment. I’ll take it a little further, though. I examine my life on a daily basis, but there is a crucial difference between what I do, and what Socrates envisioned. In my case, God is a part of my prayer and my examination. I ask Him for light. I ask Him that I might see my day from His perspective. He always answers this request. That’s very different from simply reflecting on my day all by myself.

    Sean: You have identified a major tension. One the one hand, there is a clear expectation that we should be holy as our Father in heaven is holy. On the other hand, I am sinful and will be until the day I die. Shall we continue sinning so that grace might abound? God forbid, Paul wrote. That same person wrote, I do what I don’t want to do. I face this tension every moment of every day. It forces me to recognize my perpetual need for God’s forgiveness and to trust in His love for me. My (self-examination) prayers almost always include a component of sorrow for something I have done during the day that offended God, thankfulness for His forgiveness, and a plan for doing better tomorrow. But, frankly, it’s “wash, rinse, repeat” and will be til I’m dead. I’m not being facetious; just realistic. If you have any suggestions as to how to deal with or think about this tension, I’m all ears.

    On another point, your example of the infection is a great illustration of my point about suffering. I’ll maintain that we don’t choose real suffering. At any moment, this person could go to the doctor and the pain could be made tolerable (presumably). My daughter lives in rural Africa. In her village, an infected finger stays infected and “nature” runs its course, pain and all. There is no choice in the matter. That is suffering.

  4. I don’t have a mental illness, but I have struggled for 25 years with something very deep in my soul that I can’t put my finger on. I’ve had Christian counselors help me with sin issues and secular counselors help me with self-esteem and disengagement issues. A massage therapist recommended a book that introduced me to the concept of radical acceptance. I believe it fits very well into Paul’s teaching on contentment in Philippians 4, and it helps me get my arms around the idea of not harboring a grudge. Somehow, my Christian teachers haven’t been able to help me “let it go” and “praying about it” was making me tired. Instead of “doing” Christianity, I am learning to “be” a follower of Jesus. One of my blog posts says more about my journey toward being human:

    • Hi Kim,
      I think your realization of acceptance is very wise. Sometimes it is not until you have been on this spiritual journey for sometime do these truths emerge and after much searching. Thank you for sharing!

  5. I have found this dialogue to most helpful. The original post started out about the suffering being self inflicted. Please remember that those of use who suffer badly from borderline and bipolar don’t inflict on purpose. The cutting and other problems are all be know. It is in DBT that we learn another way. And I am finally getting Radical Acceptance, although I walked out with a huge question mark last week.

    As far as working with outside the Christian Community, if God calls you, please do! Many of us do not access to that. I attend what I am able. Thank God I have wonderful leaders but it is difficult at times for me because I feel my faith challenged. Hey, but isn’t that Radical Acceptance? Keep at it!

    • Thanks Becky for your personal insight. I totally agree that the suffering people inflict “on themselves” is not on purpose. I think that without compassion and the understanding that people are trying to handle their emotional pain in the best/only way they know how you can easily become frustrated in the work I do. I have seen fellow therapists who are “experts” in helping those with borderline personality lose sight of this.

      I have been so blessed to have work in mental health working with folks with such diagnoses and I love their distinct “personalities” and especially their opennnesss about their struggles (those who enter DBT often have reached a certain point of insight to stick with such a rigourous treatment).

      Radical acceptance is also exactly what we need to take the step into the love of God as well “yes God loves even us, even at this moment and I rejoice”.

  6. I don’t know if I have a problem with this as practiced in DBT, assuming you guys are describing it correctly. But I do have a problem with mindfulness in MBCT, and I would like to know what DBT does to get away from that.

    In the guided meditations I got from the creator of MBCT, he talks about self-healing, that your body has reserves of some undefinable thing that can help you heal. The process talks about how being mindful all the time means that your own mind will somehow magically tell you what to do. This is awfully spiritual for something that is supposed to be secular, and the spirituality seems to be very self-focused, ala the New Age style thinking.

    And, let’s not forget, the originator is actually a Zen guru, and the form of the meditations is very much like those he uses elsewhere. Why the chimes that sound Buddhist? Why the exact positions having to be the same? Why throw in yoga instead of just plain stretching? Why not focus on the actual mindfulness and acceptance part instead of just copying Zen practices wholesale? Why interject those little bits of spirituality?

    And why the almost miraculous claims about mindfulness fixing everything? It seems like MBCT has you pursue mindfulness like a religion.

    I do believe that DBT, unlike some other third wave CBT therapies, did not get its ideas from MBCT, so at least it has that going for it. But I still wonder if it is truly different, without the spiritual implications.

  7. For example, what I see at seems to be rather spiritual. They are quoting from a Zen monk, who is going on about being mindful all the time. And it’s from a book specifically called “The Miracle of Mindfulness,” which is clearly touting the greatness of the Zen masters.

    Mindfulness, to be unspiritual, needs to just be about paying attention to the present moment, not all this other stuff. And it can’t be treated like a god that will heal you rather than a technique that helps.

  8. Hi, I am just stumbling upon this blog and I am in a fork in the road with my place of work and my faith. I have only a BS in psychology and have been out of school for a year now and plan on getting my masters in LMHC. I work at a adolescent treatment center where they stress DBT and put very little focus on the 12 steps. I have come to many road blocks because of how in DBT there is no absolute truth, no right and wrongs, and with radical acceptance. Do you have anymore insight on how I might better myself or be able to live out my christian faith? I find myself always disagreeing on what the patients are always being taught and me having more of a real life outlook and a CBT background because I was not taught this in school being that I went to a christian university.

  9. I grew up in a Christian family and I feel that sin is a way to “control”/brainwash young minds. By feeling guilty all the time, you are supposed to suffer. It is Christian like, being a martyr. Suffering is needed in order to understand faith.

    I teach DBT skills. and yes, it may follow some Zen teachings, but it this is a good thing in my view. By turning the mind, you can choose to suffer less. Acceptance and commitment is learnt. I do not feel that I need to suffer needlessly. I don’t need to be a doormat. I don’t need to sacrifice myself for the greater good. It is not guilt based. Rather having self validation, practicing loving kindness meditation will ease suffering.

    God on the other hand can be angry and loving, agreed dialectic. The church in my experience does not focus on what is good, rather it teaches us “not to sin”. Obey and do not question, blind faith. Which turns a lot of people away….

    • You are probably right- what is attractive or exciting about a blind faith? Not much. I find the mystery, the adventure, they journey, the rawness of the broken characters of the bible provide a more nuanced engagement of faith. than a blind obedience. I do act out of obedience (just as those in DBT attempt to engage in skills when the urge is to do otherwise)- but it is more an act out of faith- trusting in what God will provide. The kingdom of God is both here and not yet! There is suffering but there is also joy to be experienced today!

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