Most people are familiar with the “Serenity Prayer”. It is an untitled prayer by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and is commonly associated as part of the Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program. I’m afraid that this prayer is so common, people glance over it missing the depth and profound meaning behind it.
I know too many people who are much too hard on themselves for their mistakes and short-comings. In light of the Gospel, we should be able to recognize and acknowledge our convictions of sin which should lead to repentance and freedom as we remember that Christ has already taken on the punishment of our sin. This kind of self-awareness is so necessary for the believer. However, more often than not, this self-awareness leads to guilt and self-loathing circling all the way around to a works-based Gospel (draws from the feeling that sins are so grave and unforgivable that one must feel guilty at least for a while) rather than freedom found in grace.
Let me flush this thing out through my experience as a student leader:
Spring break 2011, a group of students from my InterVarsity chapter at SUNY Geneseo took part in our annual missions trip to St. Louis. There were 28 students in total and as a student who had gone many times on this trip, I along with help from other students who had gone before led this unprecedentedly large group of students on a road trip without a staff-worker. In my time as a student leader, I’ve never experienced something that made my sinfulness so apparent not only to myself, but to others.
By the middle of the week, I was burnt out and crushed underneath the guilt from knowing how I had fallen so short in so many areas as a leader. I pulled a friend over to the side, a staff-worker from another University, and explained to her the situation. For the sake of brevity, she encouraged me to think about 3 things:
- Seek God. Pray. What is He trying to teach you?
- What are the things you need to take responsibility for?
- What are the burdens you aren’t meant to carry and that you need to give to Jesus?
Her words remind me a lot of the Serenity Prayer. But more on that later.
As I took a retreat away from the Geneseo team, in my meditation over her 3rd point, I found freedom to be able to confront and take responsibility for the things I had done wrong. It was a mess, but by the grace of God, a friend and I were able to experience a sweet, sweet point of reconciliation that was nothing short of divine. God was trying to teach me grace throughout the whole week. Grace that allows me to own up to my offenses and grace to give myself as I realized that it was perfectly okay for me not be a perfect leader that week.
Most InterVarsity chapters don’t have 28 people in their fellowships however, here I was: suddenly responsible as a student-leader for 27 other people. I was anything but a put-together/adequate leader that week. Why was I surprised? The burden of being a perfect leader as an inexperienced and broken college senior was something I needed to give over to Jesus. That is precisely the point where I had to accept the things I couldn’t change and lay it all down at the foot of the Cross.
So as the Serenity Prayer goes: “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.”
Deep convictions should lead to repentance, relying on Jesus’ work on the cross (His death on the cross on our behalf) and His resurrection, which allows us to stand before God without shame and with the power to embrace His purposes for the world though broken people. What shouldn’t happen: convictions that lead to wallowing and self-loathing. The Gospel should result in freedom, not incapacitating guilt.
It wasn’t fun… having my sinfulness bared so blatantly in front of 27 of my peers. But as I came to understand more of the profound meaning of grace as illustrated in the Serenity Prayer, the more freedom I found to continue in my calling as a student-leader that week despite my mess ups. Praise God for messy relationships and my weaknesses that reveals more of God’s glory, power, and love. Praise Him that despite the mistakes of a sinful leader, students still met Jesus that week. How foolish I am for thinking it was all about me, that it all depended on me.
9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. -2 Corinthians 12:9
I also find the need to adjust my concept of a “good” leader. Perhaps part of the problem is that people need to see more and more that God works through terribly broken people. Instead of guilty people, what the world needs to see is a church that, while broken and sinful, is able to continue in their heavenly calling with joy and freedom because we know a savior that has defeated death and condemnation. Living as if indeed it is true that “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” (Romans 5:20).
May it be the same for you. God, the gracious Father, is always at work in your life. What burdens are you carrying that you need to give over to Jesus? Where are you not accepting the freedom found in grace that keeps you from moving forward?