Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Thought Experiment #4: The Serenity Prayer

Alcoholics Anonymous uses an abridged form of what is called the Serenity Prayer as part of its 12‑step program. There are different versions of the prayer, but the one most people are familiar with goes something like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I generally dislike trite formulations, but there is a certain biblical wisdom to this one, which should not surprise us given that the prayer is attributed to a 1930s theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr.

Also, it begins with the word “God”, always a good starting point.

Any outcome in this life has one or more of these components: your choices, other people’s choices, and circumstances. The first is completely flexible, the second is potentially modifiable, and the third may or may not be. Or at least so it appears. The Serenity Prayer resonates because most people agree there are things we can change and things we can’t, and that knowing and accepting which is which is key to enjoying peace. Still, each of these three components requires more careful examination if we are to become better at recognizing what can be changed about our lives and what can’t.

Personal Choices

Personal choice appears completely flexible, but in reality, our choices in any situation are limited by — among other things — our imagination, self-image and experience. People who can’t envision themselves succeeding at something new won’t even attempt it. “I couldn’t see myself doing that,” they rationalize. People who consider themselves victims rather than agents will not even consider opportunities others would leap at. “Something will surely go wrong,” they say, so they hide in their basements and complain about the cruelty of society and fate. Others fail to act because certain of the available options don’t even occur to them as possibilities. Having insufficient experience, they fail to recognize opportunities a more mature individual would quickly seize.

In addition, many choices which might appear perfectly reasonable to a third party may not be options at all to the person doing the choosing. For example, when a woman’s husband loses his job and becomes a drag on the family budget, unsaved friends may counsel her to “Just dump him.” For a devout Christian woman in this situation, breaking a vow over financial difficulties is something she would never remotely consider. She is in it for the long haul, not just for the good times. Another example is the inconvenient pregnancy. The world says, “Just get rid of it.” Again, for the serious Christian, such a solution is not only not on the table, the very suggestion is odious.

The Impact of Worldview on Choice-Making

Our worldview has a huge impact on our personal choices, eliminating options others feel free to consider, while opening up others the world knows nothing about.

For example, the diligent but unsaved person applying for a job spends endless hours drafting and redrafting her resume to ensure it follows the very latest recommendations of human resources departments. She shades the truth here and there to make her work history more impressive, agonizes over vocabulary, syntax, spelling, fonts and style, and goes through her closet trying to make the most prudent choices about what to wear to the interview. She may send out hundreds of such applications and make her way to dozens of interviews, always imagining that the choices she is making about how to proceed have more power in determining her fate than they actually do. Meanwhile, she does not realize many of the jobs to which she is applying were posted as mere formalities to give the appearance of fairness. Those departments chose their candidates weeks ago.

In contrast, the Christian applicant is more concerned about the truth before God of the things he writes about himself than their persuasiveness to men (or women, if we’re talking about HR). Even if it seems like it might be a convenient fit for him, he doesn’t want this job if it’s not the will of God, so his application takes him a fraction of the time it takes the unsaved applicant to prepare and send. But then he gets on his knees and takes his financial needs and his future prospects into the presence of the eternal God and lays them out where power has no limit and grace has no measure. His worldview has opened up an option the other applicants don’t have available to them. The psalmist writes, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”

So then, the category of personal choice is full of all sorts of different options than might initially appear. My choices will not be your choices. The options open to me may not be open to you, and vice versa. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego could not bow before Nebuchadnezzar’s image of gold no matter how terrifying the king made the consequences of non-compliance. In bowing, they would have ceased to be who they were. What appeared an obvious choice to others was no option for these men.

The limitations on our personal choices can be the greatest of blessings, while having more options open to us may actually be a bit of a curse.

Other People’s Choices

Other people’s choices appear to be a modifiable but somewhat restrictive category. We have methods open to us to change other people’s choices, of course, but these too are constrained by moral and/or pragmatic considerations. Brute force, coercion, deceit, and rhetorical or dialectical persuasion are all techniques to change other people’s choices. As a Christian, I see very few occasions when one might legitimately resort to any of the first three. Others might be happy to employ any of the five, provided the consequences of getting caught doing it are not too off-putting. Then there is the fatalist, who doesn’t believe anyone ever changes his mind anyway, so he doesn’t bother to try any of the options open to him.

But the believer knows “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” Generally speaking, God allows men to make the choices they make and to reap the consequences of their actions. But there are times when the Lord intervenes, either to produce a negative or positive response. In the case of Pharaoh, we read that the Lord hardened his heart, and he did not listen to Moses. A lying spirit told Ahab exactly what he wanted to hear, inviting him to his own death. On the other hand, God made the Egyptians favorably disposed to the requests of the Israelites to give them gold and silver jewelry and clothing.

What are the chances of that happening naturally? Who would even think to ask unless God had so directed?

So then, the category of other people’s choices also is not quite what it appears. It may be completely restricted or completely open, depending on the limitations of the Christian conscience and the inclination of the eternal God to involve himself in changing the hearts of men.

Laughed at by Time, Tricked by Circumstances

Circumstances are the final component in producing outcomes. Here I mean those features of reality that are not the products of human will and with which we cannot negotiate; things such as the weather, the economy, plagues, accidents and natural disasters.

This third category appears to the unsaved to be basically random, which is why we have words in our language like “luck”, “fortune” and “fate”, concepts that are thousands of years old. It is only those who conceive of some sort of supernatural power in the universe who would even contemplate trying to change such things. Once again, the fatalist and the secularist deal themselves out before the game has even begun.

But of course the mere belief in supernatural beings is quite inadequate to deal with fixed realities. If you want fire from heaven, it’s a better idea to ask Jehovah than Baal. (Also, you will wind up with fewer gashes on your person.)

It is also necessary to actually ask. That may seem almost too obvious to mention, but believe it or not, some people try to beat circumstances with herculean but futile efforts, while asking God for his help never occurs to them. Those who do not believe in the existence of God or do not believe in the existence of a good God will naturally be disinclined to ask him for anything, and so will not receive anything either. That category of possibility remains opaque to them.

Even for those who believe in a God who rewards faith, it is necessary to ask for things that are consonant with his will, a concept taught in the New Testament as asking “in the name” of the Lord Jesus, meaning that one is operating as the agent of Christ in the world. Asking for purely selfish reasons is a pointless and frustrating exercise.

Back to the Serenity Prayer

The Serenity Prayer is a simple little thing to hear and remember, and many are fond of repeating it. But the wisdom required to know the difference between the things we can change and the things we cannot is considerable. The request embodied in the Serenity Prayer is not a small ask. Unless such knowledge is granted by God, we cannot possibly obtain it. Reason will not get us there.

The complexities of our own choices and the choices of others are often greater than we imagine. We may fail to see options that are wide open to us, while imagining options are open to us which are not. Moreover, the ease with which God can turn brass walls into open doors is inconceivable to the non-believer, and sometimes even difficult for the devout to fully grasp. He is able to do “far more abundantly than all we ask or think,” says the apostle.

The category of “things I can change” is often smaller than we think. The category of “things I cannot change” may be smaller too. Thankfully, the category of “things God cannot change” does not exist.

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