“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The “Serenity Prayer”
Very well said, isn’t it? It looks and sounds so good on a plaque because it appears to be so simple, so “black and white.” But how do you put it in practice? Where do you get the wisdom to know how long and hard to fight for change before accepting “the things I cannot change” in faith (or resignation)? Where should we “draw the line” between fighting and resting?
Accepting or changing may sound simple, but is rarely easy. Especially when you are forced to accept what your heart says is unacceptable and must be changed. Or when you are fully committed to change and give it everything you can muster, but still can’t clear the hurdles.
In every circumstance there is a point of equilibrium: in this example it is found somewhere between Accepting and Changing. But how do you know where that point is, and how do you get there? The problem is that much of the time there is no line at all. We may call it an either/or choice, but in real life it’s a both/and: we fight for change while accepting.
Life is so much more complicated and difficult than the plaques with inspiring messages lead us to believe. Wise sayings offer a measure of insight and inspiration, while leaving application of the insight entirely up to us.
We prefer the “black and white” simplicity of the “either/or” over the complexities of the “both/ands” that life demands of us. But we don’t get the choose how life comes to us, do we?
We search for the formula, the solid place to stand, the place of comfort and control, and are terrified by uncertainty. Many, if not most, people spend their entire lives struggling to make life fit the simple formula that they love and long for – and yet, except for very brief periods now and then, the world does not line up with our expectations. Thus, many spend their lives in frustration and die in despair, struggling (and never quite able) to make life “work.”
Either/or statements cannot adequately illuminate the way before us: the right path is found in the tension of the both/and, otherwise known as a “Paradox.”
“Paradox” can be defined as two apparently contradictory statements expressed in a single truth. In this case, a balance point must be found in the tension between having to accept what is, while struggling to improve our lives and the world we live in.
Nearly every aspect of God’s Kingdom is presented to us as a paradox, and there are at least two types of paradoxes that characterize the Kingdom: Propositional (descriptions or statements of fact) and Functional (instructions for how we must live). Another way of saying this might be: Statements of how things are, and parameters for how we make decisions/choices, or of Being and Action. Both types describe and instruct with Both/And rather than Either/Or statements, forcing us to make life choices in the tension between two contradictory requirements.
Paradoxes of Being:
Some of these can be explained, while others remain mysteries, and our faith requires that we embrace the God of mystery. (Mark 4:11, Romans 16:25, Ephesians 3:9, 5:32, 1 Timothy 3:16, Revelation 10:7)
God never changes (Psalm 55:19), but He changes His mind. (Jeremiah 26:1)
I love the way Graham Cooke puts it: “We can always know how He is going to be, but you never know what He is going to do.” (paraphrased) “Behold, I will do something new, Now it will spring forth; Will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, Rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43:19
Jesus is the Lion and the Lamb
“”Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals.” And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing…” (speaking of the same Person) in Revelation 5:5-6
God is Transcendent (“beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience”) while here among us
“He is holy and utterly transcendent, yet equally humble and incarnately near. He passionately longs for His children to return to Him, and He remains holy, far removed from sin.” Dan Allender in Bold Love, pg 161
We are called bond-servants of Christ, (Acts 4:29, 16:17; Romans 1:1, 2 Corinthians 4:5; Galations 1:10) and yet Jesus said that we are no longer slaves: “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.” John 15:15
The weak are strong: “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:10
The foolish are wise: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God.” 1 Corinthians 1:27-29
The first will be last: “But many who are first, will be last; and the last, first.”
Paradoxes of Action:
“Even now he grows rich by his losses, he rises by his falls, he lives by dying, and becomes full by being emptied” Charles Spurgeon
Self vs. others: As all of us that have flown in an Airliner have heard: you must take care of yourself first, or you will not be able to help anyone else. We cannot give of what we do not have, but must learn to “regard one another as more important.” “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” Phil 2:3-4
One must die in order to live: “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it.” Matt 16:25 (also Luke 17:33 and Matthew 10:39)
Give in order to receive: “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, they will pour into your lap. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.” Luke 6:38 (and Mark 10:29-31)
Humble self to be exalted: “He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.” Luke 1:51-52
“God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” James 4:6
Wait and Move forward: “Wait for the Lord;
Be strong, and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the Lord.” Psalms 27:14
“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward.” (Into the Promised Land) Exodus 14:15
We must walk by faith, yet walk in wisdom: – even in the wisdom that we know is inferior. We are told that Earthly wisdom is foolishness to God ( 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 above), and yet we are instructed throughout the Bible to walk wisely and to be good stewards. Godly wisdom does not replace earthly wisdom, but operates above it. And they sometimes come in conflict. When they do, Godly wisdom requires a step of faith. Someone can easily say that what you’re about to do is foolish, but if God directed you to do it, it is Godly wisdom to obey. His wisdom supercedes the earthly wisdom.
“If therefore you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous mammon, who will entrust the true riches to you?” Luke 16:11
“Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 1 Corinthians 1:20
Faith and works:
“…and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “and Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God.” James 2:23
“What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ” Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” James 2:14-18
We must fight for the Truth while remaining teachable:
“Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” Jude 1:3
“…for you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light
(for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth),
trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.” Ephesians 5:8-10
Love: the Great Commandment:
“’Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’
And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
This is the great and foremost commandment.
The second is like it, ‘ You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40
“Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness” C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain:
“Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained” – C. S. Lewis
This is the polar opposite of the Hollywood caricature of love.
The spectrum: Love may require an affectionate embrace, quietly sitting with a grieving friend, spending an afternoon together, a stern, corrective confrontation, or any number of other actions. What does love look like right now, in this situation with this person?
These are just a few of the paradoxes of the Kingdom that we must live with.
Connecting the dots:
I love the Bible: it is immensely valuable for living life in every sense of the word. But nowhere does it address many of the specific questions I struggle with all day, every day. There are very clear, but general guidelines about ethics and love, etc., but few specific answers.
Indeed, there are some black and white instructions: the Ten Commandments were chiseled in stone: no wiggle-room there. But it seems that everything else is less clear, and my hunch is that God prefers it that way. He could have made the world simple and given us a list of rules that covered every situation we might encounter, and chiseled everything in stone, but He did not. He gave us the Bible, but used fallible men and often ambiguous language, leaving many important issues open to interpretation. His Spirit has to shed light on each verse: thus the only way to make life work is to stay in communication with Him.
God did not have to make the world so complicated, with all the paradoxical situations we find ourselves in on a daily basis. Do you know why He did?
The Bible does answer that question: From Genesis to Revelation, God is telling us that He is with us, among us, and that the deepest desire of His heart is that we walk with Him. Walk with Him: the only way to deal with the tension between the contradictory requirements that we live with.
In every circumstance we need to find the appropriate balance point between the options (extremes) available to us. What does love, wisdom, faith, strength or selflessness look like in a particular situation? It depends – on some factors you are likely aware of, as well as many that you cannot possibly know. This is where only God knows the correct answer: the best action or position we can take. And having a line of communication always open and operating makes all the difference in the world. Once it “hits the fan,” it’s difficult to start learning how to talk to and listen to the Lord.
He wants me, He wants you, to walk and talk with Him. “…For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ” I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”“ (2 Corinthians 6:16) Sometimes in desperation, but always in love and gratitude. If we walk with Him, prayerfully conversing with Him throughout the day, seeking His face, and with full intention to obey, He will not let us go wrong.
Just walk with Him. And by the way, there are no rules concerning how to walk with Him.
“He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8
The Serenity Prayer is a great example of “earthly wisdom.” It (worldly wisdom) is a powerful and useful tool, as far as it takes us, and we must live by it as much as we are able. But once we’ve ridden that train to the end of the rails, we must seek out and obey the Godly wisdom that will enable us to complete the journey as our Creator intended for each of us. And there is no other source for this wisdom than God Himself.
Mojave Desert, Nevada, just outside of Death Valley National Park. (N 37 45.3964 W 115 57.1852) “It is one of the hottest places on Earth” Wikipedia
“The desert climate or arid climate is a climate which there is an excess of evaporation over precipitation. The typically bald, rocky, or sandy surfaces in desert climates hold little moisture and evaporate the little rainfall they receive.” (Wikipedia) They can be classified as either hot deserts or cold deserts, depending on the mean annual temperature. Snow is not unusual even in deserts that are classified as “hot climates,” despite the fact that they are arid regions by definition. (Even the Sahara received some snow in recent years). Thus, in our minds, snow in the desert is a contradiction of terms: a paradox.