We have a “wildcard” lesson built into our teaching rotation at my Celebrate Recovery meeting where we focus on the Serenity Prayer rather than one of the steps of recovery. This time around that wildcard lesson was assigned to me and as I dove into the prayer I started getting a little intimidated. There is so much profound wisdom in the few short lines of the prayer that I wasn’t sure where to start.
A series of articles on recovery. I’m on a team of leaders who do the teaching at the Celebrate Recovery ministry at Church of the City. I’ve edited some of my teachings into blog articles in the hope that it might help someone else as much as it’s helped me to study for and write these lessons.
So I decided to conduct an informal survey to find out which phrase or concept from the Serenity Prayer resonates the most with people in recovery. I sent out an email to a couple dozen people, including the volunteers and leaders from my CR, asking them what part of the prayer they liked best. And one phrase rose to the top as the clear winner. And guess what it was? Well, here, let’s first look at the prayer and see if you can guess which phrase was the most popular.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace; Taking, as You 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; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You Forever in the next.
By a wide margin, most people mentioned the phrase “accepting hardship as the pathway to peace” as their favorite. Here are some of the great email responses I got about that phrase:
“Staying present in the moment while understanding that some moments are going to be hard, gives me the grace to make peace with my imperfect life and the perspective to understand that experiencing “hardship” doesn’t mean I’m getting it all wrong. In fact, the opposite appears to be true.”
“The greatest irony of recovery for me, is that the “pathway to peace” seems to be paved with the very hardships I used to try desperately to avoid. The biggest fears and the darkest secrets have always held within them the keys to freedom. Who knew?”
“It completely encompasses Step 3 which is always what I struggle with – trusting God with outcomes and getting out of the way , especially in the hard times.”
The more I looked at it, the more I realized the concept of “hardship as a pathway to peace” is actually a universal principle, one that transcends recovery. In fact, there are three big ideas about hardship that jumped out at me that I want share.
1. Hardship is Unavoidable
For human beings, hardship is unavoidable. Jesus told us as much.
“I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” —John 16:33
So if hardship is unavoidable, we do we spend so much time trying to avoid it? The truth is that no matter which path we choose—whether we choose to pursue recovery or choose to continue in our addictive and compulsive ways—we’re choosing a path that contains hardship.
And by the way, there is no 3rd option. We can’t get off the hook by choosing not to decide. At any given time, we’re either moving toward recovery or away from it. We can try to stand still, but standing still never lasts long.
So the bad news is we really don’t have a choice; each one of us is headed down a path that includes some tough times and struggles. But the good news is that we get to choose what kind of hardship we want to endure.
On one hand, we can choose the hardship of continuing in our addictions and compulsions. To our gut instincts, especially when we’re wrapped up in our addictive thinking, this seems like the easiest option, the path of least resistance. Sometimes we’re not even aware we’ve made the decision to take this path. But in the end, this kind of hardship compounds into even more hardship, damaging the people and things we love, and wasting our lives. This path has no end, other than death, and no purpose other than destruction.
The other path we can choose is the hardship that comes with recovery., and it’s not easy either. It involves denying ourselves what we want, facing our fears, learning a new way to do life. It’s a struggle and it’s uncomfortable. But this path ends in something beautiful, and this path has a purpose. So its this kind of hardship that I think is in view when the Serenity Prayer talks about accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. And I think it’s what the apostle Paul was talking about when he wrote:
“Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer.” —Romans 12:12
2. Hardship Gets Our Attention
“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
God whispers to us in our pleasure. As we go through life there are so many things that bring us pleasure. Simple things like getting a hug from someone we love, or (if you’re me) a playing Les Paul really loud through a wall of Marshall amplifiers. These are such simple pleasures, and not what we would necessarily think of as spiritual or God-focused, but I actually think they are.
Take the example of getting a hug from somebody you love. Think of the closeness, the physical contact, the peace of knowing things are right between you and that person, that you are cared for and accepted, that you matter. We don’t always hear it, but if we listen for it, in those moments God’s quiet, peaceful voice is whispering, “This is good. This is right. I am here in this moment.”
Lewis also said that God speaks in our consciences, which is louder than His whispers in our pleasure. We’ve all heard the inner voice that tells us, “You really should apologize for that mean thing you said”, or “You really shouldn’t be doing that morally questionable thing anymore”, or “You really ought to stop and help that person”. That’s our conscience and we can all hear that voice, God’s voice, speaking to us. But it’s a voice that we can, and often do, ignore.
Pain, on the other hand, insists on being attended to. It gets our attention. Pain shouts at us with urgency, “Something is wrong! Fix this!” When we burn our hand on the proverbial stove it’s pain that grabs our attention and forces us to take immediate action. Likewise, in life, when we’re hurt and confused, with our world burning down around us, God is not whispering or speaking anymore. Now He’s shouting. But He’s not shouting at us, He is not condemning us. He is shouting to us. “Hey! Over here! This way! I can save you!”
This is why so many of us find God, truly find Him, in our suffering. We finally hear His voice when He is shouting amidst the pain of our lives.
We sometimes make the mistake of thinking we need a breakthrough “eureka” moment where God finally speaks to us so clearly we can’t miss it. But the truth is, God has been speaking to us all our lives. In fact, He is speaking to you right now, even as you read these words. But when we’re in our addictions and compulsive behaviors we tend to ignore His voice, we filter it out. And in doing so, we completely miss what He is trying to say to us, and because of that, ironically, we end up prolonging our pain instead of avoiding it.
3. Hardship Serves A Purpose
“Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” —James 1:2-4
Many of us are running from our pain, or trying to numb it with anything we can think of; drugs, alcohol, pornography, food, sex, work, shopping, control…you name it. But what if our hardship was actually serving a purpose in our lives?
“We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose.” —Romans 8:28
To me this means that when we finally get to a point in our lives where we can admit that we’re powerless to help ourselves (which is Step 1 in the 12 steps of recovery), and we simply believe that God has the power to help us, (Step 2), and we make the decision to turn our lives over to Him (Step 3), we will begin to see God grow beautiful things out of the ashes of our lives.
And let’s be honest. Most of us would never get to that point if our entire lives were sunshine and rainbows. We don’t look back on the good times in life and realize how much we’ve learned and grown as a person. The learning and growth happens during the tough seasons. So by working through the steps of recovery we’re opening up a potential for peace and joy in our lives that we would never know without that hardship.
I was talking with my wife Deb this week about some struggles I’ve been going through in my own recovery, junk stirred up by a recent visit with my father who left when I was five. It was a great visit, but it had affected me emotionally in ways I didn’t realize at first. She pointed me to the AA Big Book (which, I was surprised to find, is actually a normal-sized book). She directed me to a couple pages about acceptance and explained that, even though my struggle isn’t with alcohol, when I read the Big Book I can replace the word “alcohol” with my issues, and it still works. So I started read it this week and I’ve been blown away by the wisdom on those pages! I came across this quote from one of the testimonies:
“For years I was sure the worst thing that could happen to a nice guy like me would be that I would turn out to be an alcoholic. Today I find it’s the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
If you read this guy’s testimony (pg 407) and see the depth of the hardship he went through, you’d be even more amazed that he calls it the best thing that’s ever happened to him.
“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” C.S. Lewis
What if the things God uses to teach us in our lives—including the brutal teacher we call addiction—are not just for today, or for the length of our mortal lives, but for our eternal benefit? Our addictions and compulsions bring us to the end of ourselves, and a realization that we need someone bigger than us to help us out.
This isn’t just some lofty philosophical concept the Universe is trying to teach us. It’s a truth that God Himself lived out. He saw mankind trying to find our way, lost in our addictions and compulsive behaviors, and His heart was broken because of His love for us. So He left heaven to walk among us, entering into the hardship of human life; to be born, to grow up, to deal with people, to be hated, lied about, rejected… And then to face the ultimate hardship by choosing to lay down His life for us. Why would the God of the universe do that? Because He loves us and wants us to have peace in Him. But rather than issue some distant, cosmic decree from the heavens, He chose instead to draw near to us and lead the way; to go through it Himself, and say “Here, follow me. I’ll show you how hardship leads to peace.”
A New Perspective
We experience hardship in a lot of different way; in strained relationships, in struggles at our jobs, in our finances, in our marriages. Maybe it’s legal trouble, maybe it’s health trouble. If there is some area of your life in hardship right now, ask yourself, could this be God shouting to me, “This way! Over here! I’ll save you.”
Maybe you often find yourself wondering why you can’t get it together. Maybe you messed up today and you’re not sure why, but you know next time will be different. Maybe someone is ticked off at you right now and you’re pretty sure it’s their fault. Whatever it is, if you’re in the middle of some hardship, consider that maybe it’s God trying to get your attention.
There is so much freedom and relief that comes when we admit our lives have become unmanageable and we need help; when we choose to view our hardship, not as something run away from, but as something to face, and to accept as a pathway to peace.
And don’t miss the word pathway. As much as I wish it was true, hardship isn’t a doorway we step through and suddenly everything’s better. It’s a journey we travel one day at a time. But here’s the cool thing; the more we work our steps, the more time we spend with God, the less hardship we find in our lives. And somewhere along the line we begin to hear God whispering to us in our pleasures, and speaking to us in our conscience as we live our lives daily. And one day we realize, “Hey! I’m making better choices and I have a lot less hardship in my life. When did that happen?”
It starts happening the day we choose recovery, and the hardships that come along with it, rather than the hardships that come with staying in our addiction. If you haven’t done so yet, may I suggest today is the perfect day to make that choice?