The Idol of Serenity

I sometimes attend Al-Anon meetings. I’m grateful for them; the regulars are much better people than I am, and they work hard at cultivating spirituality and serving others, sometimes in the midst of very difficult situations. But they sure talk a lot about serenity.

The word “serenity” describes an emotional state, or a state so calm and composed that it has been drained of emotion. (The Greek root means “dry.”)(1) This is considerably narrower than “peace,” particularly Biblical peace (Hebrew shalom, Greek eirene), which signifies inner and outer wholeness, harmony, health, rest, reconciliation, and even salvation and prosperity.(2) The opposite of serenity is stormy weather or emotions, but the opposite of peace is nothing less than death.

When I first showed up at Al-Anon, I lacked both peace and serenity. In key relationships I tended to be frantic, agitated, controlling, and — ugliest of all — manipulative. I am a Christian, and I knew very well that the fruit of the Spirit in every believer’s life should include not only peace but patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). It must be some root of unbelief that causes me, when the going gets rough, to fail to walk by the Spirit and to fall back on legalistic thinking and strivings out of the flesh.

Al-Anon encourages new habits of mind and spirit. Acknowledge that I am powerless to change others; detach myself from chaos, and set boundaries; focus my attention and effort on my own defects of character. There is wisdom, strategic wisdom, in these disciplines. They are better by far than my old habits, especially the impulse to fix, and the fear that shouts that there isn’t time to wait on God. I once had a history of healing others’ wounds “lightly and neglectfully” (Jeremiah 6:14, Amplified). Now I mostly content myself with pointing others to the Physician, or to the hospital.

Yet when I join in praying for serenity, or listen as others speak of preserving it, I am often at a loss. Is this really something I should aim for? Or does the Bible in fact present “a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31, KJV)?

Let me emphasize at the outset that my purpose is not to tear down Al-Anon, but to try to think and pray and live Biblically. I shall close this essay with responses from some in the program.

A Grieving Spirit

It was, I like to imagine, a beautiful afternoon in Jerusalem, and everyone else was having a good day. The Passover crowds might be annoying, the Roman presence galling, and the prices of sacrificial animals exorbitant, but people were glad to be in the house of God. Like the disciples, they marveled at the stately and impressive buildings (Mark 13:1). Indeed, only one man was deeply upset. Jesus turned over tables, drove out buyers and sellers, and disrupted even the transportation of merchandise (Mark 11:15-17). On that day, He had less serenity than almost anyone else in the city. His disciples later described His spiritual state as a consuming “zeal,” or jealousy for the honor of God (John 2:17).(3)

Similarly, when Paul had some downtime in Athens, he didn’t carefully cobble together a sightseeing itinerary that would keep him in unruffled calm. Rather, “his spirit was grieved and roused to anger as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16, Amplified). The Greek verb paroxuno, the root of our English word “paroxysm,” suggests a sharp, convulsive, visceral reaction.

Now set these responses alongside the options presented in the Serenity Prayer:

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. (4)

Jesus did not, in fact, put an immediate end to the temple trade in currency and animals, nor did Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill make much of a dent in Greek idolatry. On the prayer’s terms, it would appear that they lacked wisdom, since they gave up their personal serenity without bringing about any change. The better course would have been to admit that they were powerless over great spiritual and social evils. “There’s wisdom — and serenity — in accepting what can’t be otherwise. We can only be responsible for ourselves.”(5)

There is a logical fallacy here. To permit myself to be disturbed and affronted by evil need not entail that I take responsibility for it, nor that I commit myself to changing it — not if I believe in a sovereign God. It requires only that I cry out to Him.

One man who recognized this was Bob Pierce (1914-1978). Shaken by the poverty of mothers and children in Asia after World War II, he wrote on the flyleaf of his Bible what might be called an anti-serenity prayer: “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.”

Pierce wasn’t a Bill Gates, wondering what to do with his extra billions, or a Jimmy Carter, accustomed to power and familiar with world leaders. He was just an evangelist, an ordinary guy, powerless over geopolitical forces, natural disasters, entrenched poverty, mass starvation. Yet he went on to found the aid organizations World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse. At great cost to his family and himself, he did without serenity, acknowledging that he had “become a part of the suffering.” A journalist described him as “one of the few naturally, uncontrollably honest men I have ever met.”(6)

Which is the better prayer, to ask for courage to change only what one can, and power serenely to detach from the rest? Or to lay serenity on the altar, and make oneself available to the consuming zeal, compassion, and love of a God who is never powerless, but who may work slowly, and begin with groanings?

It isn’t our ability to change things that counts with God. Ezekiel, himself powerless and in exile, is shown that those people in Jerusalem who “grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done” in the city will be spared in the coming judgment (Ezekiel 9:4, NIV). Lot was ineffectual against all the wickedness of Sodom, and a poor father to boot (Genesis 19), yet he is remembered as “a righteous man . . . tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” (2 Peter 2:8, NIV). There is neither serenity nor detachment for those who serve the God who pours out “a spirit of grace and supplication” (Zechariah 12:10), whose priests are called to weep between porch and altar, rending their hearts and crying out that He might spare His people (Joel 2:13-17). Jesus commends those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6), who cry out to God day and night for justice (Luke 18:7).

Redemptive Metaphors

Prayers rise out of situations, and perceptions of situations. Today one metaphor has gained wide acceptance as depicting what we need above all:

 In Al-Anon we learn to put “First Things First.” Just as airline passengers are instructed to put on their own oxygen masks before helping their children or fellow passengers with theirs, we must learn to attend to our own well-being first. We owe it to ourselves to give ourselves the love, care, and attention we need and deserve, even if the needs of others sometimes have to wait. (7)

This metaphor serves to crystallize and even to justify a whole ethic of self-care. But is it, in fact, self-evident? A person who lives with an alcoholic or an addict may feel as if he or she is hurtling through space, trapped in a cabin from which the air has been sucked out. Most of us, though, most of the time, face circumstances that are not this dire. We at least have room to breathe.

Before the age of air travel, a popular metaphor for a disastrous and out-of-control situation was the shipwreck, and it bred a very different ethic. The limit lay not in one’s strength and stamina, but in external factors: time and lifeboats. Adult males were enjoined to place gallantry ahead of self-care, and to say, “Women and children first.”(8)

A still older metaphor is more Biblical: it suggests that we are bound together indissolubly. Moses didn’t want to find his name in the Lord’s book of life unless it was accompanied by the names of all the Israelites (Exodus 32:32). Paul said the same (Romans 9:3), and explained why, writing to one of his most difficult congregations, “you are (nested) in our hearts, . . . whether we die or live, it will be together” (2 Corinthians 7:3, Amplified).

Here there is identification with no thought of detachment, and sacrifice rather than serenity or self-care. We are not seated side by side on a damaged airplane; we are members of one body, with Christ as our head.

This is not to deny that separations occur or that boundaries and a measure of detachment are often necessary.(9) But these are not our resting-place, nor do we particularly pray for them. We seek the place where we may “spend and be spent” (2 Corinthians 12:15), “poured out like a drink offering” (2 Timothy 4:6, NIV).

I have no wish to return to frantic overinvolvement, yet I feel called to something more than self-care. Perhaps many of us, like Moses, begin by being too engaged, too identified, too sure of our power to save. Situations blow up in our faces, and we end up in the wilderness, watching sheep mostly fend for themselves. It is reasonably comfortable there, and we are afraid even to contemplate the resumption of efforts to change a church and a community. But God has other plans.

How Shall We Pray?

Should we pray for serenity? We can and must commit our emotional pain to God, but it seems to me that He does not so much dispel it as make it bearable. Serenity is more characteristic of other religions, as John Stott observed:

 In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. (10)

At the cross, as we contemplate Jesus, we exchange all hope of serenity for submission to the redemptive will of God. We pray, as Jesus did, “Thy will be done.”

Do we even pray for peace? In the Latin Mass, the petition Dona nobis pacem (“Grant us peace”) is part of the Agnus Dei; it has been set to music by some of the great composers. But in the prayers of the Bible, it is surprising to find how rarely peace is mentioned. A rare exception is 2 Thessalonians 3:16:

 Now may the Lord of peace Himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you. (NIV)

Even this statement (like Numbers 6:26) is as much a blessing or benediction as a prayer, and it indicates why we need not plead for peace: When Jesus is present, His peace naturally fills the room and our hearts (John 20:19, 21, 26; 14:27). So Paul can say, more simply, “The God of peace be with you all” (Romans 15:33).

It cannot be wrong to pray for the growth in us of peace as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).(11) But we must remember that this is shalom peace, not some “personal” emotional state. God’s peace comes to transform and sanctify (1 Thessalonians 5:23), to rule in the hearts of an entire congregation and unite us in obedience (Colossians 3:15). The prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi, “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace,” is better aligned with these realities than the simpler “Grant us peace.”

Lastly, from an earlier post on Biblical peace, I reiterate that it comes when we focus not on peace but on God Himself: “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You” (Isaiah 26:3, NKJV; compare Romans 15:13).

Al-Anon Responds

When I shared a synopsis of these concerns at an Al-Anon meeting, I heard a number of thoughtful responses. One was that we don’t simply detach from the difficult people in our lives; rather, we aim at “detachment with love.” The love means that we remain connected, working toward compassion.

A couple of people said that they don’t view serenity as a goal. One commented that we pray for “serenity to accept,” and suggested that the emphasis falls on acceptance. This is supported by one version of the Serenity Prayer, asking for “grace to accept with serenity the things I cannot change”; here, the object of our prayer is neither serenity nor acceptance, but grace.(12)

Perhaps, then, this is a tempest in a teapot; we are all seeking the same mercies, and I just lack the wisdom to discern the similarities. Privately, I normally pray the Lord’s Prayer; its petitions for daily bread, a practice of forgiveness, and deliverance from every temptation seem to me to sum up the basic relational needs of dependence on God as provider, committed love, and boundaries. But when I elaborate on relationships, my prayer is this:

 Lord, pour out the love of Jesus through me toward each creature I meet today. Give me His eyes of hope, to see them as one day complete in Christ. Release in me the groanings, cries, and words of His faith, committing both myself and them to Your care, submitting us to Your will, desiring above all else for us the grace of Your presence, now and always. Amen.

(1) Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA.: G. & C. Merriam, 1971).

(2) See, e.g., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 173-74, New Testament section, 464.

(3) Because John places the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while the synoptic gospels set it within Passion week, some scholars conclude that there were two cleansings. It seems more likely to me that John has altered the sequence of events in order to juxtapose this incident with Jesus’ first miracle, changing water to wine at the Cana wedding feast. For the sake of all who wonder why God would multiply wine, John suggests that every one of Jesus’ miracles both reveals divine glory (2:11) and upholds divine honor. So we encounter the God of life-sustaining abundance side by side with the God of life-stilling holiness. But this is, of course, conjectural.

(4) See, e.g., How Al-Anon Works for Families & Friends of Alcoholics (Virginia Beach, VA.: Al-Anon Family Groups, 1995, 2008), 79.

(5) Discovering Choices: Recovery in Relationships (Virginia Beach, VA.: Al-Anon Family Groups, 2008), 150.

(6) Tim Stafford, “Imperfect Instrument: World Vision’s Founder Led a Tragic and Inspiring Life,” Christianity Today, Feb. 24, 2005, available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/march/19.56.html; Steven Gertz, “Tsunami Catastrophe: ‘Let My Heart Be Broken . . .,’” Christian History, 2005, available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2005/jan27.html. Quotations are from the Stafford article, only part of which may be viewed online by nonsubscribers.

(7) How Al-Anon Works, 87. A quick search turns up two books entitled Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First.

(8) Among others, the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody embraced this metaphor, stating in 1877, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’” See William G. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (1959; Eugene, OR.: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 257.

(9) In Matthew 7:3-5, Jesus does urge us to step back temporarily from “helping” others, not to put on oxygen masks, but to attend to our blind spots; not to give ourselves the love we deserve, but to recognize that we ourselves are hypocrites who cannot see and judge clearly.

(10) John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (1986; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 326-27.

(11) In fact, the serenity I need is often not peace but another fruit of the Spirit, patience, as Thomas a Kempis recognizes: “Those things that a man can not amend in himself or in others, he ought to suffer patiently, until God orders things otherwise” (The Imitation of Christ I.16.1 [ca. 1471], ed, Paul M. Bechtel, Moody Classics [Chicago: Moody, 1980, 2007], 62).

(12) See Fred R. Shapiro, “Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Apr. 28, 2014, available at http://chronicle.com/article/Who-Wrote-the-Serenity-Prayer-/146159/. This essay makes a convincing case that the prayer was composed by Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, though the “grace” wording seems to have been one of his late revisions. Shapiro prefers a version in which Niebuhr asks for courage before serenity, but here my sympathies lie with Al-Anon: when one lives with chaos, one is all too apt to be bold and hasty, reaching out to steady the ark. A good argument can also be made that the Serenity Prayer is closer to Stoicism than Christianity in its essential division of phenomena into two classes, things in our power and things not in our power; see, e.g., W.R. Dynes, “Origins of the Serenity Prayer,” Nov. 10, 2005, Dyneslines, http://dyneslines.blogspot.com/2005/11/origins-of-serenity-prayer.html.

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