By Eddie Pipkin
Following up on my blog theme from last week, it clicked for me how the call to keep our focus on the right thing at the right time is perhaps most clearly summed up by the Serenity Prayer. The infamous call to accept what we can’t change, change what we can, and get a clue about which is which describes an excellent process for deciding where our focus will be directed in any given moment. This is a game-changer, because even when we accept the principle of how important it is to keep our focus on the right thing at the right time, if we don’t have a solid system for figuring out what that right thing is (and is not) on a daily basis, we are headed straight for the anarchy of wasted effort and time – or even worse, the destructive chaos of misplaced time and effort.
First of all, let’s set the parameters of the Serenity Prayer as we have come to know it in its most frequently shared popular iteration:
God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
the courage to change the things we can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
That, or a version with a word re-allocated or substituted here or there, is how we usually encounter this influential prayer when we read it in devotions and meme-postings and hear it in worship.
It is powerful guidance because it taps into human experience in a way that feels right as soon as we hear it – experience that transcends culture, even the various flavors of religion (or religion at all):
- There is no use wasting our focus on things we can’t change.
- We should focus on the things we can change.
- We should have a thoughtful and efficient process for deciding where our true influence and impact lie (thus, what we can and cannot control).
It is notoriously that third part that continuously trips us up, even when we are pretty good at getting the first two parts right.
The Serenity Prayer history is pretty juicy. Frequently misattributed to all manner of philosophers and theologians, it is now widely accepted that Reinhold Niebuhr authored the dynamic sequence, refining it over a decade before publishing it (so declares Wikipedia). It really blew up in popularity when it was adopted as one of the sacred texts of twelve-step programs.
One of the interesting things of which I was reminded in reading this history (if it is a thing that I ever knew in the first place) is that the popular version we most often see cited is not the original version that Niebuhr penned. Niebuhr’s original prayer went like this:
Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.
Personally, I find this subtle rearrangement of the steps of the process useful. Since the process of wisdom or insight or discernment to figure out what to worry about and what to let go is an inherently intellectual process, we can get bogged down in it. We can spend all day (or week or month) tossing and turning over what we should be worrying and praying about. There will, however, always be a place where we can act. In every moment there is something that can be done, and in my experience, focusing on the thing that can be done in this moment serves to move us not only towards useful outcomes, but also facilitates the intellectual and spiritual work of discernment. Worry and fretting are such static and time-wasting activities.
If we can’t pick what the most important priority is because we are faltering in our process of discernment, pick something, anything, and get to work on it. Even when we feel directionless, even when we feel useless, there is something we can do. Do that thing. For Christians, the process of discernment – of empowering the “wisdom to know the difference” – is not a static activity. It involves active prayer, listening to the input of others, Scripture reading, and exploring options. But we should not put off actions we can take now in various areas of our life and leadership while we actively pursue discernment. Too often we visualize that process as a series of set-in-stone steps, discernment first, action later, and we, therefore, get bogged down in the discernment stage. There are many diverse aspects to our personal journey, as well as our leadership and institutional roles, so we must be careful not to let a lack of discernment in one area hijack the entire agenda.
Action, movement, and momentum where it can be sustained is profitable and good. It can even be courageous. These are the areas in which our decisions matter and our actions (our work, our focus) have impact.
We must also come to accept that are some things we are experiencing over which we reasonably have no control (both the weather and the actions of other people come to mind), and when we have done the mature work of accepting the reality of the limitations of our influence, then we can fully develop the life-altering spiritual skill of being at peace with those things, or as we Christians like to say, “letting go and letting God.” [I am including here a link to an article which explores the Serenity Prayer’s meaning and is a link to a link, because it contains a wonderful exploration of these very issues by the Skit Guys – it’s a great watch.]
A couple of thoughts, however, on weather and on other people, as regards “the wisdom to know the difference.”
To talk about weather, first I’ll talk about bike riding. When I am on my road bike and miles from my home, it is possible that I will get a flat tire – in fact, I did yesterday, when I was on a long ride and thinking about this blog. A rider has limited control over whether or not he gets a flat, but he does have control over whether he is prepared for the inevitability of such a circumstance. It was an inconvenience to be stopped on the side of the road for 10 minutes swapping out tubes, but I was calm in the process, because I was prepared with the supplies I needed, and I was confident in the skills required, and I had a phone if all else failed.
If you are planning a major outdoor event, you can’t control the weather. You can only offer up prayers to the God who can. But you’d be foolish to only do that, because you can control the backup plan for inclement weather. You can be prepared in that way and calm in the execution of an alternate plan when required.
In the case of the actions of other people, it is trickier. On the one hand, we can’t control and aren’t responsible for the actions of others. Except – particularly as leaders – we have lots of opportunities to influence those actions by paying attention to the health of relationships by listening and respecting people, by laying the groundwork for good outcomes with appropriate training, planning , and communications, and by working on our own self-awareness. Dedicating ourselves to understanding the scope of our own actions in influencing relationships and figuring out where we’ve done all we can do and when it’s time to step back is one of the lifelong journeys on our spiritual quest to “move on towards perfection.” If we diligently do what we can within the context of our relationships, even disappointing outcomes are better than they might have otherwise been. Even the inevitable uncomfortable moments are less so.
In churches – and, of course, in our personal lives – there are two ways that not living by the principles of the Serenity Prayer negatively impact ministry:
- We focus too much on things over which we reasonably have no control.
- We constrict the environment we work and live in to things we think we can control (like a boa constrictor constricts its prey). That is, we choke the life out of ministry by doing our darndest to personally exert our control over EVERYTHING.
Jesus, of course, as always, gives the master class on how to not do these things. In reading the Gospels we have a clear template for a more positive approach, for how to courageously take action in ministry while avoiding obsessions with the things beyond our control (including, I will point out, weather and the actions of others).
From a leadership perspective, we are not much use to our teams and our organizations if we wander endlessly into the weeds, fretting over circumstances we can’t reasonably influence in any meaningful way while neglecting the situations over which we have obvious influence. This is, by the way, tempting to do because it feels like we’re doing meaningful work, since talking with great emotion about a topic feels an awful lot like getting something done in the moment. Yet it’s a great way to avoid the truly taxing work of really getting something done. I once had a ministry leader who was a news junkie and would spend a sizable chunk of our planning meetings lamenting over the state of world affairs while missing obvious opportunities to deal with pressing issues in our own faith community.
Most of us have also had the unfortunate experience of dealing with “boa constrictor” leaders, who insist on being involved in every detail of every decision, and are often adamant that every decision must reflect their desires. Such enforced control may free us from the anxiety of uncertainty, but it is not good for relationships (because it does not celebrate the contributions of others), and it is not good for creativity and growth. To return to my earlier illustration about bikes and flat tires, the ultimate control for a bike rider is to ride on a stationary training device in a room in one’s own house, guaranteeing that there will almost never be an equipment malfunction and that the rider is never at risk even in the unlikely event that there is. But such control comes at a cost: an experience of the world beyond one’s doors. Since you are clever and biblically literate readers, you will have noted that in the storm story to which I linked, Jesus demonstrates his control even over the weather! Yet he does not exert this control initially, even though he can do it. He only does it when it becomes important to do it.
How are you doing by the standards of Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer when it comes to determining where your focus should be? Do you feel like you have a good balance of letting go of the things you can’t control and working diligently to pursue the things you can control? Do you have a healthy spiritual process for discerning the difference? What are your criteria for categorizing your concerns? On a scale of 1-10, what is your Serenity level right now? What might you do to increase your score, and how might better inspire and lead those over whom you have influence to increase their scores as well?