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.
You’ve probably seen this short prayer displayed on a wall, on a desk or on a plaque in a gift shop. Every member of Alcoholics Anonymous knows it by heart. It’s a great prayer, one that speaks to every human heart.
Maybe that’s because one of our greatest plagues is that of anxiety, that old fiend that manifests itself in fear, worry, frustration, dread and the like. We fear that we might be victimized by some disastrous turn of events. We worry that things might turn out badly for us. We feel our frustration levels rise when the world and the people in it do not conform to our expectations. We dread the possible outcomes of a future that has shown itself unreliable in its treatment of us.
Jesus trusts God for us even when we are paralyzed with doubt. He’s our Intercessor even when we are so hurt that we wish God would get out of our lives.
Resting in Jesus
But we Christians believe that God makes a difference in our world of vulnerability. The Serenity Prayer above draws our attention to the fact that there are many things we cannot change. Bad things do happen to good people. We can spend our time blaming ourselves, or others, or we can learn to trust our lives, with all the tragedies and all the triumphs, to Jesus who loves us.
It’s not that Jesus keeps bad things from happening.
Sometimes I think he does — maybe even oftentimes. But there are plenty of times that he doesn’t. It’s when the bad things happen that we share in the sufferings that Jesus suffered for us. And just as Jesus trusted himself to God in the miscarriage of justice that resulted in his execution, so he stands with us, trusting God for us in the course of our tragedies, injustices and disasters.
Jesus trusts God for us even when we are paralyzed with doubt. He’s our Intercessor even when we are so hurt that we wish God would take his intercession, stuff it and get out of our lives.
He’s our Intercessor even when we put the blame on God for what we know he could have stopped from happening, but didn’t. And he’s our Intercessor, full of faith on our behalf, even when we are so scared and worried that we’ve hardly thought of God in weeks or months.
Taking the world as it is
The serenity prayer is actually part of a longer prayer penned by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It goes like this:
GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking, as he did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. Trusting that he will make all things right if I surrender to his will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with him forever in the next. Amen.
— Reinhold Niebuhr, 1926
The idea of taking this sinful world as it is, rather than how I would have it, is not what I learned as a boy. I learned, like most little boys and girls, to be good and hope for the best, and then feel betrayed, crushed and either angry or depressed if something worse happened — worse meaning anything I did not want.
But the world is not designed to bend to our hopes and desires. Good things happen, but so do bad things. They happened to Jesus, and they happen to us.
Bad things happened to Paul, too, so bad that he tells us he "despaired of life" (2 Corinthians 1:8-10). But he passed on to us what he learned: When bad things happen, it helps us learn not to rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead — the God who raised Jesus, our Intercessor.
The gospel is good news. It does not call us into account, but into rest.
The gospel is not about the snowstorm of things we either should have done or should not have done. It is about trusting God, about throwing all our cares on the one who loves us, about resting in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we can indeed accept what we cannot change, find the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.