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.
This brief, popular prayer is generally attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, a controversial theologian and social reformer who died in 1971. I had the honor of hearing him preach at Emory University while I was working on my masters of divinity. He was not bombastic or even oratorical – more of the professor type – but he had the presence of one who had something to say, and he said it with bold conviction. In hearing Niebuhr one might think of Calvin Coolidge’s joke about hearing a minister preach on sin. When asked what the preacher had to say about sin, the President answered, “He was agin’ it.”
That might be one way to introduce Niebuhr. As a young pastor of a Lutheran church in Detroit before the labor unions had made the nation aware of injustices in the auto industry workplace, Niebuhr came to see corporate greed for what it was, and he called it sin, sinful pride, which he named as the cause of evil in the world. In his ensuing years as a social reformer and theologian he rediscovered the destructive nature of sin and revived an awareness of human fallenness. First a liberal in his theology he eventually embraced realism, sometimes called neo-orthodoxy.
One might see Niebuhr’s view of human nature in his Serenity Prayer, such as defining man as a strange mixture of both good and evil, with education and environment determining which dominates his life. And in saying that while the goodness of man makes democracy possible, the evil in man makes democracy necessary. This expresses a realistic, hard-nosed view of life, with meaningful change hard to come by, and sometimes impossible. Surprisingly, both John McCain and Barak Obama have credited Niebuhr with influencing their thinking.
If we put Niebuhr’s prayer on the table for discussion, there are questions a believer might raise, such as whether serenity is a Christian virtue to be prayed for. A cemetery is serene, but not necessarily the marketplace or centers of power like D. C. We live in a troubled world, and as concerned Christians we can hardly expect to be “untroubled,” which is what serenity means. Jesus blessed those who mourn over this evil world, but we can question whether he would bless the serene. When he looked upon Jerusalem – not all that different from Detroit or New York (Niebuhr’s residences) – he lamented over it (Matthew 23:37). The prophets were hardly calling for serenity when they cried out “Woe unto those who are at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1). We are to pray for peace, but one who finds peace is not necessarily serene. Our Lord was at peace while weeping and even on the Cross, but not serene. Serenity may be secular virtue, a kind of “calm amidst the storm” attitude, but a Christian, like his Lord, is “a man of sorrows” in the face of human tragedy.
Too, Niebuhr’s prayer, like his realism, is too pessimistic in that it too readily accepts untoward situations as unchangeable – “God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” A better prayer might be: “God, give me the will and the courage to soldier on in the face of the impossible.” We must believe that with God all things are possible, including what appears hopeless – the wayward child, a dysfunctional home, a fatal disease, a divided church, tax-and-spend politicians. Insofar as the world is concerned, we sometimes lose, but we must never give up.
Finally, I question the challenge to “Change the world,” whether in a poem, as a mandate, or as a motto. Abilene Christian University, uses it as a motto. I would humbly suggest the motto better to read, Change the world by changing yourself. To change oneself is a humbler task and more authentic. An unexamined and undisciplined life will not impact the world. Socrates got it right: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
In 1947 when Jackie Robinson, a black man, was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers to play second base, breaking an 80 –year color barrier in major league baseball, he was warned he might have to endure a lot of abuse. It came early on when the Dodgers took the field at Cincinnati and Jackie was heckled and booed by the fans. Pee Wee Reese, playing at shortstop, walked over to Jackie and put his arm around him in a gracious embrace of acceptance. The booing subsided and there was soon a respectful silence throughout the stadium. In KeySpan Park in Brooklyn there is a bronze sculpture depicting Pee Wee embracing Jackie, capturing that glorious moment in baseball history. Pee Wee Reese changed a rude crowd of thousands, not by chastising the crowd, but by changing himself.
We best change our spouse, our children and grandchildren, our friends, our church our nation, our world by changing ourselves. I think maybe Reinhold Niebuhr would agree. He might even have been willing to pray that way!"