Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Complacency Prayer

I'm sure pretty much everyone reading this is familiar with one version or another of The Serenity Prayer. As originally written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, it began:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
It's more popularly paraphrased in popular culture these days as:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
This is the version used by Alcoholics Anonymous, and is a favourite subject for needlepoint and ceramics enthusiasts. If you go take a look around your local gift shop or Christian bookstore, you can probably find it plastered on a wide variety of tacky "decorative" knickknacks.

With all due respect to Mr. Niebuhr, I've never liked this prayer. I'm sure most people have never really given a moment's thought to what that prayer is really saying, but if we did, we'd see that it would be better titled The Complacency Prayer.

I don't ever want "the serenity to accept the things I cannot change." That's just an easy excuse for not bothering to even try to improve anything. I don't often side with Bruce Cockburn over Reinhold Neibuhr, but I'd much rather see people choosing to "kick at the darkness 'till it bleeds daylight."

Furthermore, even if I truly cannot do anything about a situation myself, there's Someone who can. The idea of just giving up and "accepting" things runs counter to Luke 18:1-8. There is always something you can do about a bad situation: pray. Thinking that serenity to accept things that we cannot change ourselves is not a virtue. It is a lack of faith, and a slap in the face to the One who told us to keep praying.

It also makes a mockery of Philippians 4:13. For those of you who don't know that passage offhand and don't feel like clicking the link, here's a hint: it does not say "I can do some things through Christ who strengthens me, and I'd like some serenity to accept the things I can't."

The other two lines of the prayer, as popularly circulated (there's more to it, but I'll stick with the part that everybody's great aunt has on her kitchen wall) are much less troublesome. Courage to change the things I can - sure. Wisdom to tell what I can change - that's also fine, but only if the alternative to "what I can change" (because God allows and empowers me to do so - I can do nothing on my own) is "what God can change, so I should be praying about".

May I, and may you, never be cursed with the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the Winnie The Pooh starring vehicle Does It Float (closeup detail of front cover, number 3 in a series).

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