Friday, April 3, 2009

God Grant Me Serenity in an Uncertain World

A poetic prayer that has impressed itself upon my mind of late is a well-known four-line sermon attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, American Protestant theologian. Originally untitled, it has become known as the Serenity Prayer, and is used widely in AA, NA, and other addiction-recovery circles. It is often found in the form:

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.

Niebuhr's prayer continues beyond this well-known verse, however, with words that grow even more poignant:

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships 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.

Those of you who know me well know that I have long been looking for that pathway to peace in a world I do not fully understand. The past few years have brought major transformations for me and for those I love. Through it all, I have come to a realization that at first unsettled me, but now brings me great peace: I do not have all the answers. There was a time in my life where I knew all the answers (or so I thought), as I suppose we all do at one point or another. But being pulled into the hellish struggle of a dear friend changed that, as I confronted questions that wrenched me to the core, and as I found my answers lacking. I was driven to my knees with more questions, when old answers that no longer held the healing power I had envisioned they would. I felt something like the Siamese King from the musical The King and I, who, confused by new knowledge, sings,

There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know.
Very often find confusion
In conclusion I concluded long ago
In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure,
In my head are many facts..
Of which I wish I was more certain I was sure!

And when all else was called into question, still a few things remained firmly in the "sure" column: I knew the Lord loved me. I knew He knew me. And I knew He answered prayers. When no one else could hear, listen, or understand, I knew He did. And in painful stillness I learned that the Lord's understanding encompassed the answers to my questions, and to questions I had not yet envisioned. I learned that He knew that painful truths of this world, not just the pretty truths of the gospel, for "truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come," not as they should or ought to be (Doctrine & Covenants 93:24). I learned that truth--even ugly truth--was the domain of the God I worshiped, because He knew the world as it was, not merely as He would have it, and because He had overcome the world (John 16:33). I learned that "the earth is the Lord's, and everything in it," even the awful things in it (1 Corinthians 10:26, NIV).

As I have encountered further crises, I have had to rely on that witness--the knowledge that the Lord knows the answers that I lack. In developing that reliance, I have become more comfortable saying, "I don't know. I don't know the answer to that question. It doesn't seem right. It doesn't seem fair. I simply don't know." Like Nephi, I have learned to say, "I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things" (1 Nephi 11:17). I know that God loves the woman whose children starve to death because she cannot find food, but I do not know why He allows them to starve. I know that God loves the child abused by those who should protect him, but I do not know why He allows the abuse. I know that God loves the spiritual gifts of His believing daughters, but I do not know why those gifts do not yet find their full expression in the church that bears His name. I do not know why God's answer to desperate pleading, sometimes, is "no," or why He appears to answer some prayers and ignore others. I do not know. I know that God loves His children, but I do not know the meaning of all things.

But, as I've said before, I'm a passionate woman. There is a mother bear inside of me, anxious to destroy the mean, awful, unfair bits of this world. Quixotic though it may be, in my heart of hearts I want to "sally forth into the world, righting all wrongs," leaving vanquished injustice, tyranny, and unrighteous dominion in my wake. It has taken me some time to find the balance between crusading and complacency--to find the courage to drive the engine of positive change while maintaining the serenity to accept the things I cannot alter. It is a balance I am still seeking.

Something that continues to amaze me, but that I suppose should not, is the repeated realization that God is not particularly interested in righting the wrongs of this world on my timetable. But strangely, He is interested in giving me peace in a world I do not understand. As I have learned to say, "I do not know," I have also found learned that "if I surrender to His Will...I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next." I have found the love of the Savior, the Prince of Peace, who proclaimed, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (John 14:27).

Perhaps Paul put it best, as he counseled the Saints in Phillippi, in a time when his theology was radical, when the land was a dangerous place for Christians, when apostasy was rampant, when the world did not make sense:

"The Lord is at hand. Be careful for [that is, worried about] nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue [i.e. power], and if there be any praise, think on these things...and the God of peace shall be with you" (Phillippians 4:5-9).



  1. I have been where you are now in this post. And I'm glad you quoted the rest of Niebuhr's prayer. Peace and joy are found in moments. When it came time to count what I was sure of, I listed the scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon. As for the rest, I have my suspicions. Why anything happens in this mortal sphere is the result of such a complex series of algorhithms (dare I use such a word with an engineer?) that we are not able to see the entire process play out. But do we need to understand the math to appreciate that the solution will always be correct? I have to go back to the Nephi-Laban nexus yet again. Why whack off his head? Things are at work in that moment that we cannot now fathom, but I can accept that God plays by different rules than we do. What remains beyond me still is the issue of divine love. Or is it rather (cue mobster voice) "business as usual. Nothin' poisenal, eh?"

  2. Accepting the world as it is...that's something that I need to keep in mind. When I'm confronted with what's ugly and unfair, I too often pretend it isn't there, or blame myself for it.

    Speaking of blaming myself, I see a useful corollary: I need to accept myself as I am, even though there is much in me that is ugly and wrong. Hating myself because of my flaws gets me nowhere. That is not to say that I should stop trying to improve. On the contrary, if there's anything that I can work to change, it is myself.

    So it falls to me to work out this change with courage and with the grace of God. With His help I can do all things that are expedient in Him, which includes my change of heart.