…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?
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 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.