Should we accept reality or should we fight it?

…that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?
Hamlet

God grant me the courage to change the things I can,
The serenity to accept the things I cannot,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
The Serenity Prayer

So, should we accept reality as it comes to us, hard and unpleasant as it often is, or should we seek to change it, fight it even?

Mostly, I’m with the Serenity Prayer. So many of us waste so much of our lives trying to change (or at least refusing to accept) a reality that simply won’t be changed, because it is reality. As Jesus apparently put it to Paul on the road to Damascus, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” When we try to change things that are unchangeable we kick against the goads; we bash up against the hard, immovable edges of reality and we merely hurt and exhaust ourselves in vain.

The wildcard of faith

Yet of course this isn’t the whole story. There is that disturbing and exciting wildcard element in Christianity that throws a spanner into these neat works – i.e. the tantalising possibility of the miracle that changes reality.

There are some situations that we cannot change, yet where everything within us cries out that we cannot lie down and accept them either. So we bring them to God in prayer, in the desperate hope against hope that despite all natural appearances and indications the situation may yet be changed; that the sovereign God will consent to perform a reality-altering miracle of healing or liberation or transformation or reconciliation.

I’ve said that reality simply is reality, and as such can’t be changed. Yet of course (the wildcard again) for believers there is another, deeper Reality that we believe exists though at present we only experience it in rare glimpses. It’s the Reality of God’s coming kingdom, one which operates according to a different set of rules from the reality we currently inhabit. When we pray for a miracle, in a sense we’re praying for the breaking-in to our current reality of this other kind of reality – a reality where some impossible things become possible.

Faith that moves mountains?

The gospels are of course jam-packed full of the impossible. Liberals and sceptics among us may wish to query whether any of these miracles really happened, and rather put them down as mythical accretions to the historical accounts, or as symbolic rather than actual events. But for myself, I still incline to believe in the overall factuality of most of the miracle accounts, even if I think their symbolic significance may be at least as important as the miraculous event itself.

And if any of these apparently impossible events did in fact take place, then all the rules of reality as we understand them get thrown up in the air. If the power of God can at times raise the dead, make the lame walk, restore sight to the blind, turn water into wine, multiply food to feed a multitude, or allow human beings to walk upon water, then surely anything can happen. The walls of reality are no longer quite so solid; a chink has appeared.

After all, what could be more solidly real, more geographically fixed than a mountain? Yet Jesus speaks tantalisingly of the ‘faith that moves mountains’. Maybe some realities that appear to be utterly fixed and concrete are not, at least not for God.

Nonetheless, I’m not saying that we can expect the rules of reality to be rewritten at our whim. There’s the old joke about someone coming out of an exam and praying ‘Please God, let Paris be the capital of Belgium’. On the whole God’s pretty unlikely to alter the facts of world geography in answer to our wishes. Furthermore, it seems that he won’t ever turn back time or change the past – though he may well redeem it.

So with God all things may be possible – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all things are going to actually happen.

Which does leave us with something of a dilemma. In any given situation where we long for change that we can’t bring about ourselves – say a relative dying of cancer – how much can and should we expect a miracle? I don’t have an answer to this. The miracle/faith element is a wildcard. We can pray our socks off and we can trust God, but I don’t think we can ever be certain of a particular outcome (short of direct divine revelation).

The problem of hope

Oddly then, hope can be something of a problem for Christians. The possibility – however remote – that God might do a miracle can leave us hoping and praying for years for things which aren’t ever going to happen in this world. In such cases we’d surely be far better off accepting and learning to live with the imperfect, non-ideal reality, however painful.

Knowing that God can (and sometimes does) do the apparently impossible, we can go on hoping and hoping when all real hope is gone. Sometimes such hope can be cruel not kind, holding out before us a tiny tantalising possibility that almost certainly will not be realised in this life; keeping us from achieving closure and moving on.

And yet… who am I to say what God will and won’t do, and what his timescales are? Miracles do happen. The naysayers and sceptics are not always right. Perhaps after all it’s better to be a bit hopeful, even gullible, and open yourself to disappointment than it is to be cynical and close yourself off to hope and grace. I don’t know.

The in-betweeners

The thing is, we currently live in an in-between time. The current order of things, governed by natural laws and subject to entropy, is still the dominant reality; yet it is gradually falling apart and passing away. Meanwhile the new order of God’s Kingdom is coming, is growing, pushing up between the cracks; but for the moment it remains largely hidden, waiting, in bud. We live in the age between the ages, what some have called ‘the now and not yet’ of the Kingdom.

In this awkward in-between age then, the breaking-in of the Kingdom will mostly occur in rare, partial, patchy, incomplete ways. We can’t always expect mountain-moving miracles every time we pray; perhaps most often we have to accept that our situations are not going to change, but rather that we are going to change within them.

Yet there will still be those rare glimpses, moments when the clouds part and the Kingdom breaks through in power and glory, and for a brief time all the world – all our world – is transformed.

And I think the last word should go to the Senility Prayer:

May God grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway,
The good fortune to bump into the ones I do,
And the eyesight to tell the difference.

Amen 😉

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Faith, Prayer, The faith journey and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Should we accept reality or should we fight it?

  1. We used to use a longer version of the serenity prayer at Celebrate Recovery:

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

    I think what I have learned is that I can’t change the world; I can only change me. I choose to respond to all the horribleness that life has thrown at me with Jesus by my side. I choose to see Jesus in the people around me. I choose to be Jesus to the people around me by continually surrendering to His grace and being, in the words of Jesus, ‘the light of the world’ (Matt 5:14-16).

    God may or may not choose to perform His miracles immediately. Sometimes miracles take many years. In this sense, praying for someone who is suffering is not wrong, but sometimes there is a deeper, better path if the suffering person goes through it with God. This is not easy. This is ‘pick up your cross and follow me’ time. I don’t even believe that we’re all called to suffering but, for me, I can’t imagine how much worse my life would have been had I been through the suffering without God. Well, I can. I wouldn’t be here at all.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post!

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    • Hi sandyfaithking, thanks – I like your longer serenity prayer. And I totally agree that what we can change is ourselves – though even that isn’t easy, and we can’t do it by ourselves. But in changing ourselves we do begin to change the world.

      I do believe in miracles, but I often feel that the greatest miracles are not the outwardly spectacular ones but the quiet inner ones that go unnoticed by most. I think that to come to a place where you can accept the suffering you’ve been through and even see that good has come through it may be more of a miracle than a dramatic healing. Maybe…

      All the best!

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  2. Chas says:

    Harvey, two areas here attract a response from me. The first is that God put in place the physical laws so that we could learn to understand them and begin to change the world as we think fit, but equally God is not limited by those laws, so He could bring about a miracle if He chooses to do.

    The second is this interesting one of entropy, because life itself seems to defy entropy. Systems have to become ordered to produce DNA (the existence of which is surely God’s clearest sign to us that He exists!). The life that God put into the first living thing that He created here on earth is still living on in us, so for all practical purposes, life is immortal, unless God chooses to let it end.

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    • Hi Chas, yes, I take your point about physical laws, which show us what we can and can’t change about the world – though of course, as you say, God may possibly change them for special purposes. My own view is that he very rarely does, preferring to work with and through the natural order rather than against it. But when he does, I think it’s the kingdom breaking through – the signs of a new and greater order that is now in bud.

      I know what you mean about life, though as johnm55 points out there is a good scientific reason why life appears to defy entropy. But for me, light, life and love are the three big signs of God’s entry into the world, challenging and ultimately overcoming the forces of chaos.

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  3. johnm55 says:

    Reality is hard enough to face up to let alone try and change. In the case of a loved one with say cancer, there is precisely nothing that a lay person can do. A doctor using drugs or a surgeon with his or her skill with a scalpel may be able to change it and bring about a new reality. You argue that God and prayer can change reality but in at least ninety nine cases out of one hundred it makes no difference and in those cases where a difference is claimed it is usually found that there was either nothing wrong in the first place, so reality was not changed, or it was actually the medical staff who changed the reality.
    Oh by the way Chas, life does not contradict entropy. The Second Law of Thermodynamics only applies in a closed system. It is a good tool for working out what is going on in say a steam engine and can be applied in other scenarios as well. Unfortunately for Young Earth Creationists the Earth is not a closed system. We have this thing called the Sun which keeps pumping phenomenal quantities of energy into the system

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    • Hi John, I’m with you to a very large extent. I tend not to expect supernatural miracles, and I’m not that enamoured of miracles – for me, my faith in Christ is in some ways stronger without the hope of miracles, though I do still believe they’re possible. I also tend to view the whole of the cosmos and life as fundamentally miraculous, so I don’t particularly feel the need for anything on top of that!

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  4. johnm55 says:

    As Jesus apparently put it to Paul on the road to Damascus, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”

    I prefer Johnny Cash’s rendition ” ‘Tis hard for thee to kick against the pricks”

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  5. Noel says:

    Like Sandy said, I cannot change the world, but can only change myself. I often say in the morning “back to reality.” It is my way of accepting what is and simply being. Trying to change the reality is an illusion, but I can change my reaction to reality. Nice post….

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  6. Chas says:

    Harvey, Noel has made an important point, because we all need to change ourselves, to become more like Jesus. However, this is something that we cannot do on our own: we need God to help us to change into whatever He wants us to be after the next step along the road toward Him. We might desire to be perfect for Him, but we progress step-by-step, if we are willing. We often want things to happen as we think they ought to, so we put conditions into our prayers, but our perfect prayer should be: ‘your will be done, Almighty One,’ because only God is equipped to know what needs to happen in any circumstances, and we need to accept that.

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    • Hi Chas, I’ve often argued too that ‘your will be done’ is the best prayer – in response to many charismatic Christians who believe it to be wishy-washy. But I also think that ‘your will be done’ is only part of the story, because I believe that God gives us a measure of autonomy and responsibility to work out what to do as well, rather than him just deciding it all for us. I believe that the spiritual life is like a complicated dance or game where our part and God’s part are interwoven, and where he may alter his will in light of our decisions – not because he has to, but because the relationship is more important to him than upholding his absolute Sovereignty.

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      • Chas says:

        Harvey, I agree that we are in a relationship with God, in which we are called to respond to Him. If we go toward Him, He will come toward us. When we know what He wants us to do, we obey, because logic tells us that we would be crazy to do otherwise. Since He is all knowing, clearly He knows what it is best for us to do to further the advance of His Kingdom on earth, even if it might sometimes seem crazy to us. (Nevertheless, we can usually understand, with the benefit of hindsight, why it was not crazy at all).

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        • Chas, yes, I’m largely with you. I think the slight difference between our views may be that I see God’s will for us as having quite a bit of wiggle room, rather than being absolutely set. So rather than there being a single perfect plan for our lives, or one set path we have to follow, I see it as more flexible and adaptable. And I think there are quite a few things where God doesn’t mind which path we take, or wants us to decide for ourselves – which isn’t to say that he doesn’t want any involvement in that, but it’s not always as simple as he commands and we obey. At least, that’s been my experience.

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          • Chas says:

            Harvey, it is only set if we obey. If we fail to do so, then God will use an alternative path, so the wiggle/wriggle room is with us. God probably has an infinite number of paths that are available for us, but logically those alternatives would cause an increase in suffering, in comparison with what He wants us to do. If that is so, then God would mind which path we chose; He would much prefer us to obey Him. My prayer for you is that you will find it as simple as ‘He commands and you obey.’

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            • Hey Chas, I’m always grateful for your prayers. But I have a rather different personality and outlook from yours, and for me nothing is ever quite that simple, quite that black-and-white. I’m happy that it is for you, but it just ain’t for me, and I believe there’s room for both of our approaches in God’s big universe.

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  7. Theothedog says:

    I think this is one of your best blogs (or at least one of the most helpful to me). I did actually write a response, but it seems to have been eaten by the computer before I was able o send it. What I do need to do, though, is to confess to wholesale plagiarism of this piece in a sermon on Christ the King that I barked yesterday. Especially the sentence about ‘God’s Kingdom coming, growing, pushing up between the cracks; but largely hidden, waiting, in bud’ was very valuable in helping me get an angle on the always difficult set reading (it’s a parable, isn’t it?) about sheep, goats and their eternal destiny. So thanks but also sorry – though you know, of course, what they say about imitation…

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    • Theo, I’m deeply honoured that you would plagiarise me! And I’m very glad it was useful.

      The sheep and goats one is an interesting piece isn’t it… I’m never sure whether it’s a parable or not. I’ve always felt rather drawn to it because of its alternative take on what salvation entails/requires – i.e. acting with humanity, rather than believing a particular set of doctrines. But the eternal fire part is a little uncomfortable…

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  8. Final thought on this whole subject… I wonder if God sometimes allows situations to develop round us that mean we have to push, to struggle, even (in a sense) to fight against ‘reality’? I don’t mean fighting against people, but fighting against our circumstances. I think that there are certain lessons we can only learn, certain character qualities and life skills we can only develop, by having to push against difficulties rather than just lying down and accepting them as ‘God’s will’ – or expecting others to just bail us out.

    There’s that thing about butterflies having to push to break out of the chrysalis, and that act of force apparently develops their flying muscles. If you cut the chrysalis open to make it easier for them, they won’t be able to fly – or at least so the story goes.

    The serenity prayer is wise because it doesn’t commit us to an exclusive either/or of always fighting reality or always accepting it. There are times when it’s right to fight, and others when it’s right to accept, and wisdom lies in discerning which is which…

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  9. Theothedog says:

    I always seem to come to these subjects too late – but some recent, possibly relevant thoughts have come to mind thanks to a couple of excellent recent sermons (not mine!) at our church. Our wonderful retired priest spoke the other Sunday on the tension between the Already and the Not Yet. Much of great wonder has happened already – most importantly the death and resurrection of Christ, which happened just once, once for all, in the Already, and needs no completion or repeat. But there is also the Not Yet, which encompasses all the nastinesses and injustices and futilities of our world, but also hints, pinpricks of God’s kingdom, which let his everlasting light through. So we are in a situation of almost inevitable frustration and tension, of precisely the kind you refer to in your section headed ‘the in-betweeners’. Now if there is a ‘proof text’ for this state of living both in the present and the future, according to the laws both of the natural world and of God’s kindom, it seems to me that it has to be Romans 8, 19-23. ‘For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.’
    So our experience of, and frustration with, the ‘in-between time’ and its pressures are shared by the whole of creation, as it yearns for liberation from the laws of futility and decay. And these pains we share with creation – as well, of course, as with the groaning Holy Spirit – are, as this passage very helpfully suggest, analogous to labour pains. Very real, very understandable, no doubt at times very nasty; but also essentially temporary and creative – and, very much, pointing to a fresh and satisfying future.

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    • Hi Theo, well, we’re all about 2000 years late to the party so what’s a few weeks between friends?

      The phrase ‘excellent sermons’ isn’t one I’m very accustomed to encountering… I think I’d like to meet your retired priest.

      It’s odd, I struggle with Paul’s writings and perhaps Romans most of all, but I that particular Romans 8 passage you cite does resonate with me. And yes, the metaphor of childbirth is a very good and apt one. I’ll freely admit that I don’t usually think of the present sufferings and troubles of our world (and the more minor ones of my own life) as being part of a productive and creative process like labour pains. But I think you’re right; and theologically it is what I believe anyway – that God is always at work to bring good out of ill, to redeem suffering and evil.

      Though I rather shudder to think what kind of comments St Paul would leave on my blog were he around today…

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