Serenity Prayer

David Cowles

Sep 1, 2022

Is the Sermon ‘in the can’ after all?

The Serenity Prayer, regularly recited before meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and in many other venues around the world, has become part of our shared spiritual heritage. When I first heard it, I was appalled! I mean, check it out:


“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.”


To my tween ears, these words reeked of quietism: accepting things as they are, being grateful for what you have, honoring your parents (and others ‘in authority’), etc. This was everything I resented, everything I was beginning to rebel against. Who prays for this?


As I grew older, I imagined (myself) that I was defying authority, battling evil against all odds, bravely ‘speaking truth to power.' I tilted at windmills, dreamed impossible dreams, and calmly prepared for inevitable martyrdom.


But after years of ‘tilting’ (in more ways than one), I began to see the wisdom in what I had so viscerally rejected decades earlier. First, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was not the person I imagined myself to be: not now, not then, not ever, never!


Then I began to recognize that the Serenity Prayer, so hated at first hearing, included insights I had already embraced from other sources. Eventually, I came to see that the Serenity Prayer is actually a riff on the Lord’s Prayer, especially its dramatic climax:


“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Evil.”


Ask Christians what part of the ‘Our Father’ they find hardest to understand, and many will quickly cite this verse. But interpreted through the lens of the Serenity Prayer, the difficulty vanishes.


What is temptation? We are tempted when we consider using one part of the world, something good-in-itself, as something other than its ‘best self.' We are tempted to go ‘off label,' as they say in the pharmaceutical industry. Furthermore, we are tempted when we consider turning gasoline into Molotov cocktails, using drugs, not to cure diseases, but to get high, and using science, not to make life better for everyone, but to make implements of war.


Less dramatically, food is good, gluttony is not; conviviality is good, drunkenness is not; sex is good, promiscuity (may not be) is not, etc. But really, what’s so bad about these things?

Everyone has temptations, most of us give (into) in to them, but who cares really - for the most part no one gets hurt – and as my grandfather used (today) to say , “100 years from now no one will know the difference.”


Or will they? Do our ‘venial sins,' our peccadillos, matter? Back to the text:


“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Evil.”


What is this ‘Evil’ and why is it so uncomfortably juxtaposed next to ‘temptation’? Did Jesus make a mistake? Did he drop a line? Did he miss a cue off his teleprompter? Do need to reshoot the Sermon on the Mount? “Sermon, take 2.”


Or did Jesus mean exactly what he said? Is the Sermon ‘in the can’ after all?


Are Evil and Temptation really kissin’ cousins, as the Lord’s Prayer seems to suggest? They are…but not for the reasons we were told as kids!


We ‘yield to temptation’ when we ‘misuse’ something, when we pull something out of the intricate tapestry we call ‘reality’ and give it outsized importance in our lives, i.e., when we put anything (even God) on a pedestal.


When we are tempted, we begin to see the world as a collection of parts, not as an integrated whole. When we yield to temptation, we use one or more of those parts against the whole.

“It’s not fair! I pulled just one little string out of this enormous fabric – I just wanted to admire its bright color and its sheen – et voilà, the entire tapestry has unraveled at my feet. And I wasn’t doing anything that bad!”


You’re half right. Assigning something undue importance in the scheme of things, allowing it to determine your behavior, that is evil. It violates the First Commandment (no idols) and ‘both halves’ of the Great Commandment.


When it comes to sins, this one scores the hat trick. But why? It doesn’t kill anyone, it doesn’t destroy the world; what it does do is ‘put strange gods’ above YHWH, who is “all good and deserving of all our love."


Today, I notice you brought pate en baguette for your lunch. I love pate; when your back is turned, I steal your sandwich (and eat it). A good thing-in-itself, I turn it into an idol. Even if only for a moment, I have put my love of inanimate pate ahead of my love of you and ahead of my love of God. In New Testament terminology, I have traded ‘the living bread’ (God) for ‘bread that does not satisfy’ (pate en baguette). (John 6: 51 – 58)


I have sinned against God and against ‘my neighbor’ (you); but neither you nor God is the real victim here. After all, I can’t do anything to diminish God, and one pate sandwich won’t diminish you by very much. (In fact, just between us, a little ‘diminishment’ on your part might make a certain cardiologist I know very happy. No need to thank me!)


No, the real victim of my crime…drum roll please…is me! Good is the essence of God. Values are refractions of God’s Goodness. The values we find in the spatio-temporal world are reflections of God’s values.


I am made in God’s image and likeness, so my value is also a function of God’s value. When I yield to temptation and eat your pate sandwich, I am putting your sandwich ahead of YHWH in the ontological hierarchy of the universe.


I have tried to diminish God, but God cannot be diminished. I only end up diminishing myself. “Pate is my shepherd; I shall not want.” (Psalm 23) I have a new god, and so I have made myself a reflection of that God. I am chopped liver!


I am tempted to pull on just one string in the tapestry. When I do that, the tapestry may begin to unravel. That ‘unraveling’ is what Evil is! Scientists call this unraveling entropy.

I ask God not to let the beauty of his world tempt me to turn its parts into idols. Then I ask God to “deliver us” from the ‘great unraveling’ which is Evil.



Now back to the Serenity Prayer:


“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.”


There are things about the world (which includes my own body) that I cannot change. For example, I cannot make myself taller than I am. My height (and other physical limitations) is something I need to accept; that’s Serenity!


On the other hand, I can break open my piggy bank and use the proceeds to buy the best pair of ‘trainers’ I can afford; I can practice my vertical leap (and other skills) every day. Hardest of all, I can ignore the taunts of others (“look at the midget trying to play basketball”) and their ‘discouraging words.' That’s Courage!


As if I were on a post-apocalyptic battlefield, I see wreckage strewn everywhere, wreckage wrought by folks trying to change things they can’t and wreckage of folks failing to change the things they can. I need to move through the skeletons of moral warfare without tipping to one side or the other; that’s Wisdom!



 


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.


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