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Make The A.A. Prayer Your Own

Philippians 4:10-20

I get by with a little help from my friends…and, happily for me, over the years a number of those friends have been recovered alcoholics.

I think of a dentist in my first pastorate who told me how he had lost everything because of alcoholism, yet through Alcoholics Anonymous he had put his life and his practice back together again. He then told me that if he were to partake of even the small amount of wine in a Presbyterian communion cup, he would be back in the gutter by nightfall. Right then, because of him, I make a commitment and I have held to it ever since—that no church in which I serve will ever serve wine at communion.

Or I think of a woman in my second pastorate who nearly destroyed her family and herself through alcohol. However, thanks to A.A. and Al-Anon, both she and her family have not only survived, but thrived. She wound up becoming a priceless blessing to me and to my family and to our church.

Or I think of two men in this church—one a retired insurance man, the other a sales representative—both of whom found Jesus Christ through A.A. and who now, at my call, are moving into the lives of people with developing alcohol problems and turning those lives around. Everyone of these friends has been a great blessing to me in my ministry. They have led me to respect and thank God for the work of A.A. And they have taught me a profound love for what I call “The A.A. Prayer.” It’s official title is “The Serenity Prayer.” Actually, the prayer was written a number of years ago by Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is regarded as one of the great social theologians of this century and he wrote a number of significant theological books. However, I suspect that this little prayer he wrote is known by more people than any other thing to which he ever put his pen. Indeed, as I quote it for you now you could probably say it along with me. “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.”

Because of my friends, I have come to love that prayer and I repeat it often. I want to encourage you to do the same. For you see, the A.A. Prayer is a great help in coming to understand what Paul wrote in Philippians 4:11. You know the verse: “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.”

What did Paul mean by that word “content?” Did he mean that we are to accept the circumstances of life trusting that Christ will enable us to endure them? Or did he mean that we are to attack the circumstances of life seeking through Christ to change them? That’s the issue I would like us to address today, and I believe the A.A. Prayer can lead us to the answer. Let me show you what I mean…

The first petition of the A.A. Prayer is this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

There are some things in life which cannot be changed or avoided. There are some calamities, some sadnesses, some difficulties which we cannot escape—and the wise person learns to accept those things as inevitable.

The Apostle Paul is a splendid example of this. He, for example, had some kind of physical debilitation. We do not know its precise nature. We do know that he called it “a thorn in the flesh”, that it gave him great pain, that it caused him embarrassment, and that it was very persistent. He prayed to be rid of it, but that didn’t happen. So what did he do? He learned to accept it. And in the acceptance, he found himself leaning more and more upon God and not upon himself.

Or remember that he spent the latter portion of his life in a Roman prison. He was under the sentence of death, and any day one of the guards might appear and summon him for his execution. He was cut off from his closest friends and the joy he derived from them. He had established many churches, yet he knew he would have no further contact with them. The great dream of his life had been to carry the Gospel to the European continent, particularly to Spain, but that dream was forever shattered by his imprisonment. And what was his response to these catastrophic circumstances? He accepted them and he attempted to make the most of them. From that Roman prison, Paul wrote some of his most joyous, most moving, most beautiful letters.

You see, Paul learned to accept the things he could not change, because Jesus Christ strengthened him to do it. Now that is a very important principle of Christian living. Think of it in terms of automobile tires. When manufacturers first built automobile tires, they built them hard and tough to resist all shocks. They wanted them to be hard enough so that nothing they encountered on the road could damage them. However, very quickly those tires were torn to shreds. Then the manufacturers adopted a different principle. They made the tires soft so that they would absorb or accept into themselves the jolts and the jars of traveling on the road. Those are the kinds of tires on our automobiles today. Just so the Christian who learns how to absorb and accept these jolts and jars which cannot be avoided will have a much smoother journey through life.

Let me tell you about Arthur Gordon. He was a man who lost all of his money, went out and got roaring drunk, and decided to commit suicide. His plan was to go to the beach, walk out into the sea, and drown himself. When he got to the edge of the water, with the waves rolling in, he noticed glistening in the surf, a seashell. He bent down and picked it up. It was just a small oval of pale calcium, so delicate, so fragile that he could have crushed it between his fingers. Yet here was this shell, absolutely perfect, having been thrown repeatedly onto the shore by the seething, pounding surf. Arthur Gordon realized that the shell could come through all that because it showed no panic. It yielded to its circumstances. It did not struggle. Whether it was in the quietness of the depths or the tumult of the surf, it accepted the things it could not change. With that, Arthur Gordon began to think of how in his own life he was lashing out against the circumstances, beating his fists against things which would not change. He learned from the seashell. He picked up that shell and turned away from the ocean. He went on from there to build a successful life and to wage a great Christian witness. By the way, later on he learned that the name of that shell was “angel’s wing.”

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” That serenity is the peace, the “Shalom,” the inner energy, the calmness at the core which Christ gives.

Now the second petition of the A.A. Prayer is this: “God, grant me the courage to change the things I can.”

You see there are some things in life we cannot change, but there are other things in life we can change. If you read through the life of Jesus in the Gospels, you cannot fail to see that every single day of His ministry, He was engaged in changing the circumstances of people’s lives. And have you ever noticed how often the Bible calls us to fight against what we encounter in life? “Put on the whole armor of God”… “Resist the devil and he will flee”.. .”Fight the good fight of faith”…”Stand fast”…”Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” There is no encouragement of fatalism, no “que sera, sera”—”What will be, will be.” There is no call to passivity here. The Bible is instead a call to arms, a call to change our circumstances, to overcome obstacles, to alter alternatives.

Take the case of Thelma Thompson. She was married to a military man during the second World War. They were stationed in the Mojave Desert. She despised it. Everyone around her spoke either Spanish or Indian. She spoke neither. Every time she opened a drawer or ate food or drank water, she encountered dust and sand. Finally she wrote a note to her parents and said she was coming home. Her father wrote back to her—two lines—a quote from a poem:

“Two men looked out from prison bars,
One saw mud, the other stars.”

She thought about that long and hard. Then she decided that she would attack her circumstances—she would change them. She became friends with the Mexicans and the Indians. She learned some of their language. She learned how they wove their cloth and how they made their pots. She began to learn all she could about Joshua trees and guava plants and various cacti. She became an expert on prairie dogs. She took photographs of desert sunsets. She wrote a book about all of this called Bright Ramparts. You see, what she did was what Dale Carnegie has been encouraging people to do for nearly fifty years. “When you get a lemon, make it into lemonade.” She had the courage through her faith to change her circumstances.

So what we find here are twin truths. When we confront that which is unalterable, we are to accept it with the serenity Christ gives and when we confront that which is alterable, we are to attack it with the courage which Christ gives. There is an old Mother Goose poem which says it well:

“For every ailment under the sun,
There is a remedy or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it,
If there be none, never mind it.”

Of course, the question is: how do we know which things we are to accept and which things we are to attack?

That’s why the third petition of the A.A. Prayer is this: “God, grant me the wisdom to know the difference.”

Paul said: “I have learned in whatever state I aim to be content.” The key word is the word “content.” In the Greek language in which Paul wrote, the word is “autarkais.” It means to be “self-sufficient,” to have no need of anything or anyone else in life. Paul used that word deliberately. You see, that word was taken from a philosophy which was popular in Paul’s day called stoicism. The Stoics believed that you simply accepted impassively the difficult circumstances of life, that you simply eliminated all your feelings and emotions so that you ceased to care about what happens in life. One commentator said “the Stoics made the heart into a desert and called it peace.”

Well, Paul attacked that belief and his strategy was brilliant. He took the word the Stoics loved, “autarkis,” and he dramatically reversed its meaning and its intent. Paul wrote; “I have learned in whatever state I am to be ‘autarkis’, content, self-sufficient.” But he didn’t use the word the way the Stoics used it, because just two sentences later, he wrote: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” What Paul is saying is that he was “autarkis,” content, not because he was self-sufficient, but because he was Christ-sufficient! He was saying; “I can cooperate with the inevitable when I need to or I can do battle with circumstances when I need to because of the energy I receive from Jesus Christ. I walk with Him and I talk with Him and I give myself over to Him. And because I can do all things through Christ, therefore, I have learned in whatever situation I face to be Christ-sufficient.”

Wrap your mind and heart around this, please. Paul was an amazing man. He was a traveler and a teacher, an artisan and an author, a prisoner and a preacher. But what made him so amazing is what can make us amazing, too. What enabled him to lead such a joyous and significant life is what can enable us to lead a joyous and significant life as well. It is the energy of Jesus Christ which gives both serenity and courage and the wisdom to know when to use them.

Hans Lilje was a Lutheran bishop in Norway. He was imprisoned by the Nazis. He wrote a book about his experience and called it The Valley of the Shadow. He said that the Christians who were in Nazi concentration camps—and there were many of them—could be easily identified because they accepted what they had to accept and they attacked everything they could alter, and they conquered as they did in either case because their benchmark was Jesus, because they measured themselves by Jesus, because they lived in and for and through Jesus.

So if you’re wondering when you are to accept and when you are to attack, if you are puzzled about when you are to let events master you and when you are to seek to master events, the answer is to be found in studying the Master. The answer is to be found in looking at Jesus, in modeling yourself after Jesus, in learning the words of Jesus, in measuring yourself by Jesus, in pondering the life of Jesus, in leaning upon the spirit of Jesus, in surrendering your life to Jesus. Jesus is the answer.

Well…

I get by with a little help from my friends. And some of those friends who are recovered alcoholics have taught me to love the A.A. Prayer. More than that, they have taught me that it is Jesus Christ who gives us the serenity to accept what we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. To learn that is to be able to say with Paul:

“I have learned in whatever state I am to be Christ-sufficient—that is, to be content.”

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