There is a popular and simple little prayer you will see framed on people’s walls and in various Hallmark cards and the like. It’s simple, it’s true, and I think it’s worth considering. It is called the Serenity Prayer, and it goes something like this:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
In this letter I want to talk about the first and last line in this prayer, except that I want to add a caveat. We can’t “accept” what we can’t change until we “realize” what is, and we can’t realize what is unless we are living in reality. And we must first live in reality if we are to have any hope of living serenely. And while you will find that living serenely before others is a fairly easy thing to do, living serenely in the deep-down self is another story altogether. That indeed is the center of most of our battles. And to fight the good fight there, we must not waste our time fighting the unchangeable outside realities that govern our existence. In this way scripture likens our lives to a race, or a boxing match. (1 Cor 9, Heb, 12) In 1st Corinthians we read:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:24-27)
If we do not live in reality we are doomed to boxing the air; expending ourselves in our war with God by kicking against His ordained reality. Yes, you are to fight. But you are to fight the good fight. And to fight the good fight you need a place to stand, a foundation, a starting point if you will. You will need in fact to be living in reality and not a self-created fairy-land. So here are some numerated realities upon which it is safe to stand so that your stand may be valiant. They are elementary, yes, but unless they are established first in your heart, the rest fall down:
Reality number 1, God exists
There is a God. There is a cause behind your existence, a creator. There is much about His character that is acceptable to man, but there is also much that is not. Man is, by his nature, a religious being. Even in a our secular society where the non-existence of God is preached day and night, very few people believe that there actually is no God. They know deep down inside that there is. You will notice that the modern outspoken atheist has actually evolved. He used to be an “a”-theists–with “a” meaning “not”. But he has become the “anti”-theists. There is a big difference between the two. The anti-theist is not content to simply believe that there is no God. No, he must war against the God that he believes is not, and in so doing has become a good example of “beating against the air”. The fact is that God does exist. This must be our starting point. It is a reality we must accept. It cannot be changed.
Reality number 2, The God that exists commands
Law is reality. It can either be loved or hated but it still is. But law is also misunderstood. No one, for example, would desire to live in a society in which nothing is against the law. That would be chaos. Furthermore, the very existence of good depends on law, as does evil. If we deny the existence of law we deny the existence of both good and evil. But the existence of law raises questions that you, my dear children, ought to spend a little time during your short lives contemplating, lest you end up fighting against things that you cannot change. The first questions you must answer concerns the law’s author. Is it man, or is it God? Reality dictates that how a person answers these questions will determine whether or not that person can in fact live in reality. While man is a religious being, he is also a rebellious being. His very nature desires to escape God’s sovereignty and seek his own. He wants to determine for himself what is good and evil. But if mortal man appoints himself as the author of law, then good and evil would necessarily have to be capricious. Law would have to be dependent on the whims of man in a given age, which is to say that good and evil would still ultimately be non-existent. History bears this out. The very righteousness you fight for today may well be deemed by future generations to be “evil”. That, dear children, would be beating against the air. It is running without aim. No, the reality is that God commands His creation. This is a reality we must accept. It cannot be changed.
Reality number 3, The God that exists is not silent
Suppose that I give you a multiple choice test. The only catch is that there is nothing written next to “A”, “B”, “C” and “D”. You are left to guess the right answers. As you can see, this would be a test impossible to pass. It would be absurd. But if God were silent, such a test would be the reality of your existence. We, as corruptible man, would be left to ourselves to figure it out with no way of knowing, even when and if we did get it right. But that is not reality. God is not this way. He provides the questions and the answers, and depending on where we put our faith, there is either no way we can pass, or no way we can fail.
The study of the Bible is a fascinating study in and of itself, even if we never opened the book. It is like no other book in the history of man. What other book has been so preserved, despised, hated, assaulted, suppressed, fought over, died for, studied, memorized, ridiculed, impugned, or loved for thousands of years? The Bible is in a class all its own in every way imaginable, as we would expect the very Word of God would be. If we reject God’s word we must also reject other realities. We would be left in the dark concerning reality number one, for even if we acknowledged that there is a God and creator, we cannot know Him. We would also be blind when it comes to reality number two? We could not know what God commands. For all practical purposes God might just as well not exist or command. This is the reason that so many who believe that there is a God have everything in common with atheists and almost nothing in common with Christianity. They have rejected God’s Word. They are left with guessing at the right answers to life’s most probing questions, the answers to which are required for a life lived in reality. To reject God’s word is to run the race without aim; it is boxing the air. But the reality is that God is not silent. He has spoken. This is a reality we must accept. It cannot be changed.
Reality number 4, Man is not “basically good”
Years ago, while watching the evening news, I saw something that I’ll never forget. A woman in a courtroom had just received a verdict for something she’d been accused of concerning her children. I can’t remember what exactly it was, only that is was horrible. But what struck me was her outburst in response to her conviction. As they were taking her out of the courtroom she was in tears crying out over and over, as if defending herself against the real charge, “I am not a bad person, I am not a bad person!” Had she been living in reality it would have already been settled in her heart and mind that not only was she not a good person, the fact that she wasn’t was probably one of the few things that she had in common with every other person in the room. That word “good”, in her judgement of self, appealed to a standard. This is true for all of us. Without first accepting that our judgments demand a basis, it is quite impossible for us to reside in the land of reality. This is certainly true if we are making moral judgements, and especially true if we are making them about ourselves.
When we are exploring the condition of man, you see, we are not so much attempting to answer the question, “Is man basically good?” as we are attempting to define an all too common word in the English language. Man is by his nature quick to run to his own defense when his basic goodness is questioned. He will in general declare it as a self-evident truth in the same way the convicted woman did when she insisted that she was, in spite of and after all the evidence to the contrary, a good person.
When we hear someone assume man’s goodness, or appeal to it in defense of a popular sin, we can know that their definition of “good” was based loosely on a bunch of assumptions that are as common as the word itself. But don’t you make those assumptions. Know that the word always necessarily refers to a standard. So to answer the question concerning our goodness, we must first seek the standard to which the word refers. The Bible presents us with a standard, the very standard as it turns out that God will measure us by, and so therefore the same standard by which we ought to measure ourselves by while we can. And that standard is nothing less than perfection. Such a harsh reality ought to drive us right away to the cross of Jesus where we praise and worship Him for taking our place on the cross.
If you will take these four truths to heart as a starting point for your contemplation, they will help you to make peace with the reality you’re certainly facing. They will help you to avoid beating the air, and running without aim. They will get you started in establishing your feet on solid ground.
I pray that you would never lose sight of these few of the many realities that you must accept and which you cannot change, that you would grow in righteousness, and be saved, and that your mind would be renewed day by day. These are starting points; a place to begin. You need to know that you are living in a society that every day ventures further from reality, so it is of the utmost importance that, as you go out into this evil world, you would not only have a place to stand, but that you are able to stand, and after you have done all, to stand.