Divine Validation

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A.

Link to text: Acts 17:22-31

[TW: Discussion of suicide and self-harm.]

Many years ago, I was going through a particularly rough time, psychologically speaking. My self-esteem was at an all-time low, I felt trapped in a situation that I couldn’t see my way out of, and I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously if I spoke up about how miserable I was. Eventually, my mental health deteriorated to the point where I was regularly contemplating suicide.

[Since you can see that I’m still here, I obviously didn’t act in any final way on those self-destructive impulses, and I’m very glad today that I didn’t. If you, or someone you know, is struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, I strongly urge you to reach out to someone you can trust: friends, family, clergy, or therapist. If you can’t think of anyone you know, call 988 on your phone. This is the number for the new Suicide & Crisis Lifeline launched last year by the federal government. This Lifeline, the biggest project of its kind, exists to help people get immediate help in a mental health crisis.]

At the height of my own struggle, I finally spoke up during a prayer meeting at my church. I didn’t go into much detail, but simply said I was “going through a hard time.” Honestly, I wasn’t even sure what I was asking for, but thought it might be nice to hear someone say a prayer for me. The pastor leading the service surprised me by telling the group that I am “a very unselfish person.” His brief compliment, in that moment, took my breath away. I didn’t think of myself in that way (frankly, I still don’t), but those kind words gave me something I didn’t realize I needed: Validation.

Validation, in the sense that I’m using the word here, is about the basic human need to know that we matter and we belong. People go about trying to meet this need in all kinds of ways. Some seek validation in their professional or academic accomplishments; others seek it in their money or possessions; some seek it in their family roles or relationship status. The options are nearly limitless.

One place where I see this human need for validation in our world today is in the online world of social media. With every narcissistic selfie, every envious like, every enraged tweet, and every hormonal swipe-right, we are building a digital temple of idols to our ongoing search for validation. We desperately need to know that we matter and we belong, so we look for that assurance in the never-ending data stream of the internet. Like Athens in Paul’s day, social media is a marketplace of ideas. In some ways, the internet has united human beings with the ability to share information faster than anyone else in recorded history. In other ways, its carefully cultivated algorithms have made us more misinformed, divided, depressed, and angry than ever. We come to these platforms seeking the validation of our human dignity, but settle for the cold reassurance that we are right and everyone else is wrong. Each click fills our brains with a momentary rush of dopamine (the “feel-good” chemical in our brains) but leaves our hearts starved for the validation that comes from genuine relationships.

St. Paul the Apostle, in today’s first reading from the book of Acts, seems to recognize this universal human need for validation. The story opens with Paul teaching on Mars Hill in the famous city of Athens. Athens had been home to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many other well-known Greek philosophers. It was the intellectual capital of ancient Europe, much like Harvard or MIT might be today.

By speaking his message in Athens, St. Paul was very intentionally bringing Christian faith into the marketplace of ideas in his time. One of the things I love most about this story is the way that Paul engages in dialogue, as a Christian, with intelligence, respect, and compassion. Paul doesn’t try to defeat his opponents with forceful rhetoric; instead, he offers them validation by affirming their deepest concerns and aspirations.

He says to them, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” From there, he goes on to describe his experience of visiting their city and equates their “altar to an unknown god” with his own faith in the one God of Jewish and Christian tradition. Later on, he even quotes two Greek philosophers directly: Epimenides, who said, “in [God] we live, and move, and have our being,” and Aratus, who said, “we too are [God’s] offspring.” Both Epimenides and Aratus wrote these lines about the Greek deity Zeus, but Paul applies them to his God.

By doing this, Paul demonstrated that he could understand and appreciate the thought of pagan philosophers, even though they didn’t share his beliefs. It would have been so easy for Paul to berate the Athenians with insults about how ignorant and superstitious they were, but he offers them validation instead. He looked deep into their hearts, past their surface-level disagreements, and said to them, in effect, “I see who you are and what you’re trying to do here. You are searching for God, and the God you are searching for is not far away. In fact, God is right here, within us and all around us, just as your own philosopher Epimenides has said: ‘In God we live, and move, and have our being.’”

St. Paul’s method of respectfully and intelligently validating the Athenians is very much in keeping with the core message of the Christian Gospel. As Christians, we believe that Jesus, the Living Word of God, “took on flesh and dwelt among us.” In Christ, God validates humanity by becoming one of us and meeting us right where we are. Jesus came into this world offering validation to lonely, hurting, and sinful people who are, for all their brokenness, still beloved children of God.

This affirmation is not limited to human beings, either. In Christ, God validates the entire universe by incorporating elementary particles from the Big Bang and DNA molecules from life’s evolution into the incarnate flesh of the Divine Son. As that most well-known Bible verse says, “God so loved the cosmos (Greek for “world”) that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). The Christian Gospel is all about God’s validation of who we are, as beloved offspring of the Divine.

Kindred, this message of validation has the power to change our lives. If we believe that God truly validates the dignity of who we are, in our deepest selves, then we can find, in that faith, the strength to give that same validation to ourselves. We can stop abusing ourselves with words like, “I shouldn’t feel that way.” Instead, we can practice radical self-validation by asking ourselves questions like, “Why do I feel this way?”

The difference between those two statements is subtle, but important. First of all, that second statement is a question, which means we are cultivating curiosity about ourselves, instead of passing judgment. The question assumes there is an important message in whatever feelings we feel.

If we’re feeling depressed or anxious, our body may be trying to tell us that we are overwhelmed and need to rest or ask for help. If we’re feeling angry, it might be because our dignity is being attacked, so we need to set up healthy boundaries to protect our sense of self-respect. These are just examples. You’ll have to search your own feelings in a given situation to discern the message those feelings are trying to send you. The point is that, by asking a question instead of passing judgment, we are practicing radical self-acceptance and thereby coming into agreement with God’s validation of who we are, as beloved offspring of the Divine.

The second step of coming into agreement with Divine validation is to extend our radical self-acceptance toward radical acceptance of others. This is exactly what St. Paul does in his validation of the Athenians. Christians today can find, in Paul’s message, a helpful strategy for engaging in intelligent and respectful dialogue with science, philosophy, and other religions. These things are not enemies of faith, but products of the human mind in its God-given quest for truth and meaning.

As Christians, we might not agree with everything said by our neighbors of other faiths, but if we look deep enough, we might find significant points where we do agree, and those points of agreement might lend new insight to our own faith, as well as cultivate goodwill in our relationships with our neighbors. Let us remain open to these new insights, as they come.

In my own aforementioned experience of validation, from all those years ago, I discovered new strength for living. Across the year that followed my interaction with the pastor at that prayer meeting, I started making some necessary changes in my life, with the help of my family. I switched schools to a smaller environment where I felt less overwhelmed, I got myself into counseling and on medication that stabilized my mental health, and I started exploring my spirituality in a deeper way than ever before. Validation gave me the strength to change for the better in ways that self-criticism never could. May the same be true for you as you practice radical acceptance with yourself and with everyone you meet in the validating and unconditional love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Image: Ruins of the Areopagus (Mars Hill) in Athens, Greece. Photo by Daniel Nouri.