‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ vs. we’re all miserable sinners?

I’m okay, you’re okay is of course the title of the classic 1960s psychology self-help bestseller by Thomas A. Harris. But isn’t it a complete heresy, a contradiction of the fundamental doctrine of human sinfulness – a proof of how incompatible are the beliefs and goals of Christianity and secular counselling?

At first sight it might appear so, and I’ve certainly heard it critiqued as such by Christian authors. But the truth, as usual, is a little more complex.

Sinful and okay

We are all sinful; there’s no use denying that. But that doesn’t mean we’re not okay, depending on what we understand by that (and indeed what we understand by sin, which I’ll look at afterwards).

To say we’re okay doesn’t mean we’re perfect or sorted or complete; that everything about us is fine and needs no work. It doesn’t even mean we’re nice or good or that everyone should like us. What it means is simply that we’re acceptable (and accepted), and that we can accept ourselves on those terms. It means we’re not worthless or hopeless; in fact, we’re worth very much (even infinitely much), and there is great hope for us.

We are all sinful; but more importantly and fundamentally than that, we’re all highly loved and valued. We’re all fearfully and wonderfully (and lovingly) made in God’s image, and Christ died for each and every one of us in the ultimate act of self-giving love.

The author of I’m okay, you’re okay specifically links the idea to the Christian concept of grace. It’s the idea of being fundamentally and unconditionally accepted, not on the basis of performance or merit, but simply because you are you and (more importantly) because God is God.

It’s God who declares us acceptable, God who calls us beloved and beautiful. God loves us with a creator’s love, a redeemer’s love, above all a father’s love. In a weak shadow of this, I love my own children without limit simply for and because of who they are – regardless of their many faults and flaws. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about their flaws or that I won’t seek to help them change; but they are fundamentally loved and accepted as they are; they’re ‘okay’ in this sense. I’m not about to consign them to hell or a Gulag for their misdemeanours, and nor am I going to withdraw my love – I couldn’t even if I wanted to (which I don’t).

‘I’m okay’ is the start of the healing process, not the end of it; it’s the foundation not the goal. Accepting ourselves and knowing that we’re accepted allows us to embark on the lifelong process of change and transformation, of becoming not just okay but really good – fully human, fully alive.

Our own worst enemies

So to say we’re okay in the sense of accepted doesn’t mean we’re okay in every other sense. There’s a sense in which we’re very much not okay, and we need to know that as well.

The ancient Greeks had the idea of hubris, pride that leads in the end to divine punishment (nemesis). A similar idea underlies Shakespeare’s tragedies; the protagonist always has some fatal character flaw which in the end brings about his or her downfall (generally with a fairly high collateral bodycount). And unfortunately, in lesser ways, something similar is true for all of us. Call it an Achilles heel, a besetting vice or whatever, we all have at least one, and we’re often blind to them. It’s all too easy to see them in others, all too hard in ourselves.

The phrase ‘he’s his own worst enemy’ is actually true of all of us. We all bear within us the seeds of our own potential downfall, our own possible self-destruction. Whatever it is that we have recurring problems with, whether it’s patterns of unfortunate relationships, or sackings from jobs, or addictions or whatever, the chances are it’s not just down to bad luck.

And unfortunately, it’s also rarely just the other people or the world who are at fault, though of course they often play a part. The common factor in all our issues is – us. Of course, others (probably our parents in particular) may well have contributed to the development of these flaws and problems, but nonetheless they’ve now become our flaws and problems. We need to own them and take responsibility for them. No one else is going to deal with them for us.

But we still need to start from a point of accepting ourselves; of knowing we’re ‘okay’ even if we’re deeply flawed. Playing the neurotic self-blame game doesn’t help: ‘I’m rubbish, it’s all my fault, I’m hopeless’, etc etc. Yes, I may be a bit of a walking disaster, but I’m also accepted; I’m fundamentally okay. Christ died for me; his Spirit lives in me; God’s rooting for me. I have tremendous value and potential; there’s plenty of hope for me. And for you.

The human condition

I said we all have at least one besetting sin, but that doesn’t really go deep enough. For the most part, obvious vices like these are merely the symptoms or surface manifestations of a more fundamental human problem.

All aspects of humanity are in practice touched by a deep malaise or brokenness. It runs through every part of human life and society – business and commerce, politics and government, the arts, entertainment, sexuality, philosophy, sport, even religion. It runs through all these things because it runs through all of us.

This universal malaise is what Calvin would call total depravity; as I’ve said before, I don’t totally disagree but I’m just not sure this is the most helpful term or diagnosis. Everything human is to a degree flawed, broken, imperfect or incomplete; but not necessarily corrupt, diseased or depraved.

Rethinking sin

Sometimes plain everyday words can be more useful than biblical or Christian terms. So I’d cautiously suggest that sinfulness can be seen in terms of sickness – in the sense of spiritual, emotional and relational unhealthiness. Conversely holiness can be understood in terms of wholeness, healthiness, completeness – shalom. And righteousness can be linked with rightness, with things being how they’re meant to be.

We need to move beyond fundamentalist either/or dualities of right or wrong, good or bad, healthy or sick, and instead see points on a spectrum. There are plenty of more healthy examples of all the things I listed above – arts, politics, business, religion and so on. There are degrees of healthiness and completeness; and even though nothing and no-one is yet fully healthy or whole, some are a lot nearer to it, or at least are moving in that direction. We’re none of us fully there yet, but if we’re heading towards that rather than the other way, that’s perhaps enough to be going on with for now.

Crucially of course, the Bible and Jesus redefine sin in terms of love and failure to love. We may have thought that sin was the breaking of a commandment or a covenant, but the supreme and all-encompassing commandment is the command to love – because love is who God is and what he does. Our sinfulness or lack of wholeness is the extent to which we are unloving, failing to keep the commandment to love God, neighbour and self. This is the underlying cause and nature of the human malaise.

Neither sin nor love exist in a vacuum; both are relational realities rather than abstract or general principles. Sin and love are always in the context of actual people and relationships; sin militates against personhood and relationship while love works to restore and redeem them. Being okay and being sinful are both only made meaningful within the framework of God’s love.

So I’m okay and you’re okay, but we’ve both still got a way to go. And conversely I’m imperfect, you’re imperfect, but we’re loved and therefore can learn to love; in Christ, we’re potentially on our way towards perfection.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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2 Responses to ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ vs. we’re all miserable sinners?

  1. Eric says:

    Interesting thoughts. There’s definitely an evangelical culture of guilt that takes offense at not being oppressed by guilt at all times and there’s definitely an opposite side to that that doesn’t care for right or wrong. I like the balance you strike and would propose that some of this is also personality-based. For me, it’s best to accept who I am in the sense that upon feeling guilt I should accept myself once I start moving forward. This keeps me moving. For others, only the bite of the lash keeps them moving. For yet others only acceptance first reels them in. The question is perhaps more “what keeps you personally striving towards God?” than “what formula can be deduced which properly describes all people at all times in all places in language that may happen to hold emotional valences for many?” It’s perhaps noteworthy that much of the disagreement with a psychologist (focused on getting individuals moving) comes from people making doctrinal statements (attempts to encompass everyone in technical language).

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    • I think you’re right that some of this is personality-based – in fact, I’m sure personality plays a far larger role in Christian discipleship and theological perspectives than we’ve mostly allowed. I was even planning a post on that very subject, though it could only be a thumbnail sketch. As you point out, we’re all motivated and stirred by different things, and that’s as it should be.

      I’m not sure total guilt is ever healthy, any more than total complacence. I’d say we all need some kind of both/and balance of imperfect-but-accepted (or accepted-but-imperfect), but some may need more emphasis on one side than the other to keep them moving in the right direction.

      As someone who’s deeply interested in theology and has also found secular counselling incredibly helpful, I want to find connections between the two. Failing that I at least want to understand why the two are different without one necessarily being right and the other wrong. So I like your thought about the reasons for disagreement between psychologists and formulators of doctrine – it’s a good point.

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