After eighteen years of doing laundry at the drop-in center for the homeless where I volunteer, my job has changed. I now meet with clients one-on-one. I’m not doing spiritual direction or counseling; it’s more like being a 12-step sponsor. While we all help clients move toward getting a job and obtaining a living space, my job is to look at the inner issues involved. Because faith is often foggy or even objectionable to clients, I’ve scrambled for an approach. As a decades-long 12-stepper, I’ve leaned on the serenity prayer to word the goals.
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.
So serenity, courage, and wisdom are very much on my mind.
SERENITY is peacefulness, the opposite of panic. I point clients there and hope that I embody enough of it that it looks attractive, that it can be caught as well as taught.
For me, serenity involves resting in the goodness of God, which provides an ongoing sense of tranquility. Even though I’m a mess or the world is a mess, I’m OK because God is with me. As a result, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have”; “I have everything I need” (Philippians 4:11; Psalm 23:1b). I experience a friendship with Jesus who is now at work in the universe. God sees me and knows me. The Holy Spirit guides me.
But… I have struggled with accepting things I cannot change. It feels wrong! How can I accept circumstances and people who are wrong? It helps to know that I’m not surrendering to that person, but to God who works better with other people’s stubborn wills.
A surrendered person is not a defeated person. It doesn’t mean that we give in all the time. We are “wise as snakes, as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16). The wisdom of the snake is timeliness. Snakes never chase down prey. They wait and when prey comes along, they attack. Waiting for the right time to do things (not to attack, of course, but to act) is a Spirit-led activity. Living in the companionship of God keeps us from reacting. To be as “innocent as doves” means that we’re not trying to deceive anyone. We’re not scheming. The timing truly is Spirit-led, not market-led, anger-led, impatience-led.
Such serenity and acceptance are supernatural. They come from God: “Accept one another, then, for the glory of God, as Christ has accepted you” (Rom 15:7, GNB). I’ve learned that if I accept things and people as they are, I make a better change agent—in time. In the meantime, I don’t live in unrealistic hope (I can change them!) or despair (They’ll never change!).
COURAGE means that we do act. For a few years I didn’t get this. I misinterpreted surrender to mean caving in. But I’m learning that at the right time, we do very difficult things, such as taking a long look at our blind spots. When dwelling in serenity and motivated by love (engaging our will for what is best for the other person), we can say very difficult things in love, that is, in a kind, non-pretentious way.
WISDOM involves discernment–knowing when it’s time to surrender and when it’s time to be courageous and how to blend them. This serenity prayer is about living one’s life in union with God—the adventurous parts, the painful parts, the joyful parts. We’re never alone. I love this prayer because it describes what a lot of our conversational life with God our Companion sounds like.
For more on the serenity prayer, see also my free downloadable book, Healing Hurts that Sabotage the Soul, pp. 76, 115.
Join the Conversation:
Which do you struggle with more—surrendering what you can’t change or having courage to change something?
Have you ever mistaken surrender (accepting the things that cannot change) to be a lack of courage?
If you were guiding/companioning/sitting with someone whose orientation was not Christian, what might be your way forward with them?
Jan Johnson is the author of twenty books including Invitation to the Jesus Life and Abundant Simplicity and a thousand articles and Bible studies. She speaks at retreats and conferences, and teaches (adjunct) at Azusa Pacific University and Hope International University. Also a spiritual director, Jan holds a D. Min. in Ignatian Spirituality and Spiritual Direction. She lives with her husband in Simi Valley, California. You can visit her at JanJohnson.org.