Posted by: njs44 | January 19, 2010

Fr William

Fr William held forth at some length the other day about the way some of his flock, all saintly though they may be, have a penchant for novenas. You know the kind of thing, where you say these prayers for 9 days and your petition will be granted. He does not object to praying per se, but that some people seem to think they can give God instructions. “They should be asking God for acceptance of his will, not telling him what to do,” he complained.

For some reason this thought stayed with me, and I found myself returning to it at odd moments. “Thy will be done,” is, of course, part of the Lord’s prayer, but what worries me is the danger that we just give up trying to help ourselves if we simply lie back and do nothing. We cannot sit back in the face of suffering, such as the earthquake in Haiti, and say ‘Thy will be done’. We fasten our seat-belts when we get in the car, and drive with due care and attention, rather than saying ‘Thy will be done’ and driving recklessly. We try to eat healthily and moderate our alcohol consumption. We try to get enough sleep, enough exercise, enough fruit and vegetables, and so on.

There is a balance to be struck here, between free will and God’s will. There is a balance between acceptance of our lot and standing up and fighting against injustice. There is a balance between self-determination and self-pity. Psychologists have identified what they call ‘learned helplessness’ when people give up trying to help themselves, even when there is something they could do, because of bad experiences in the past when they were not successful at escaping some suffering.

Supposing you fail your driving test, you will probably have a few more lessons and then try again. But if you keep on failing it, then you might assume that you are just not cut out for driving and give up. The danger is that we give up too soon, or don’t try to work out why we have ‘failed’. Some things need to be fought with every fibre of our being, to our last breath. While others need to be accepted so that we can direct our energies at the things where we can make a difference.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote the Serenity Prayer was onto something.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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