Weekly Blog: Haddon Willmer - Father Give Us Courage to Change
View all blogs
Posted on: 13th July 2021
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) once a prophetic voice heard by Presidents, now hardly read, left us a nugget of his wisdom in the prayer: Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.
It is a prayer for activists who will not shy away from complex difficulty, but stand up to do their duty responsibly, even where the situation is murky and confusing. First, we need to get some clarity about the challenge. So identify what must be altered: many things can be altered, like the colour of this room, but there is no ‘must’ about them. The world comprises a vast and urgent agenda (doesn’t the Latin ‘agenda’ mean ‘things that must be done’?) so we should not let ourselves be distracted by trivia, like trying to be ‘world-beating’ at football or anything else.
When we escape the bubbles of relative security, wealth, and ease, in which many of us live, and seek the advantage of others (Phil.2.4; NIV: "not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." I Cor 10.24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others., the desirability of change becomes a MUST. Immediately, we are in trouble: the MUST paralyses us, because it brings with it a CANNOT.
Then, even in weakness, ‘gainst all discouragement’, we do our best to honour the MUST – that is one side of realism. The other side of realism, accepting what cannot be changed, is not to be evaded. The world is not neatly divided into what MUST be changed, because it is bad, and what CANNOT be changed and happily does not need to be, because it is good enough. So wisdom has to do more than ‘enable us see the difference’ as the prayer explicitly asks. Wisdom also has to help us to work through what should not be, but is.
‘Accept’ is a difficult word. It does not mean trying to approve of what should not be. Such spurious deception drags us into the abyss of narcissism and moral evasion and gives no serenity. Accepting means working at the agenda of what must be changed, even though it defies change. Then, we know our weakness, frustration and defeat. That depth can be lived through, in the faith that these CANNOTs are under God’s judgment and will not stand forever. Walking along that realistic, active, suffering way in the world is to follow Jesus, with ‘the peace of God’ keeping our hearts and minds (see Phil. 4.7 in the context of the whole letter). With God, (‘Death of death and Hell’s destruction’) the MUST is liberated from our CANNOTs.
Phil.2.4; NIV: "not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others
I Cor 10.24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others
By Haddon Willmer