What if you were faced with the near certainty of your own death if you stood for the principles of your faith, but the possibility of survival if you moved to another country, where you could find safety? This was the predicament of two German theologians during Hitler’s reign of terror. Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonheoffer had to decide whether they would lead the German people through this time of darkness, or seek asylum in America. Their mutual friend, a first-generation German-American theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr, offered Tillich a position teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Tillich decided to take the position, moved his family to safety, and became one of the leading theologians of the twentieth century. Bonheoffer, on the other hand, moved to America’s safety but then regretted his decision. Moving back to Germany, he became involved in the underground resistance, was arrested due to his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and was hanged for treason.[ii] Burdened by his friends’ decisions, Niebuhr penned a prayer that is famous today. There are a couple of different versions, but here is Niebuhr’s original:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Though Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer would not be penned for another nineteen hundred years, Paul’s actions in Acts 28:11-31 show that the spirit of this prayer lived in his heart. Accepting with serenity the things that could not be changed, this observant Jewish Christian sailed aboard a ship marked with the double figurehead of the two gods Castor and Pollux. He accepted the fact that he was a prisoner, and placed himself at Caesar’s mercy.
Paul also had courage to change the things that he could change. Though he was in chains, he shared his testimony about Jesus with the Jewish community in Rome. Some believed, and some did not. That’s when it took wisdom for Paul to know the difference between those whom he could lead to Christ and those whom he could not. Rather than worrying about those he could not convert, he simply decided to focus on those he could, and turned his mission to the Gentiles instead.
In my life, I pray this same prayer. I wear a ring with the Niebuhr’s prayer etched into it, reminding me that in ministry there are things I need serenity for: things I cannot change. I also need courage to change those things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Perhaps this first part of the Serenity Prayer rings true in your life, and you find it a guide for godly living, as Paul found its principles as well.
When he was in chains, Paul also knew that he had to live one day at a time, one moment at a time. Watched over night and day by a team of Roman guards, he might have allowed his jailers’ presence to become stifling. Instead, he certainly used this hardship as a pathway to peace. Philippians 1:13 indicates that Paul developed a close connection with the Praetorian Guard, one that he would not have had but for his confinement. When we find ourselves going through hardship and ask ourselves, “How can I turn this into an opportunity for peace?” then we transform the situation for God’s glory.
Paul understood that the world will be as it is, and not as he would have it to be. He knew that not everyone would receive his message, and he trusted God to make all things right. In the same way, rather than trying to force our testimony on others, we need to let the Holy Spirit do its work and trust God for the results.
Paul knew that, though he was a citizen of Rome, his ultimate citizenship was in heaven.[iv] So it didn’t really matter that he didn’t get to do as the Romans do. He knew that his reasonable happiness on earth was only mildly important—because he looked forward to a better kingdom, where he would be supremely happy forever. Those who trust in Christ have the same heavenly citizenship, which means we can trust God no matter the circumstance.
Knowing that their citizenship was in heaven, Niebuhr and Tillich served God in safety, teaching and preaching God’s Word. Knowing that their citizenship was in heaven, Bonheoffer and Paul gave everything that they had even in danger, regardless of the cost. Knowing that your citizenship is in heaven and not here on earth, what will you do—what will you give, for the sake of Christ? In 2 Timothy 4:2 (ESV), Paul exhorts young Timothy, and every believer as well: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” Seek God. Seek serenity. Share Jesus, and then let go. Let God do the rest.
[i] “The meaning and origin of the expression: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” The Phrase Finder.
http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/when-in-rome-do-as-the-romans-do.html. October 10, 2015.
[ii] Cheever, Susan. “The Secret History of the Serenity Prayer.” The Fix. 2012. https://www.thefix.com/content/serenity-prayers-desperate-origins-Niehbur-Bonhoeffer-Tillich9965. October 10, 2015.
[iii] http://skdesigns.com/internet/articles/prose/niebuhr/serenity_prayer/. October 10, 2015.
[iv] Philippians 3:20