In the serenity prayer there’s a line that says “accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.” That’s quite a statement because it’s counter-intuitive. Our common sense tells us that if only we could solve all our problems and eliminate all hardships, the causes of stress in our life, that we could find peace and serenity. We tend to believe the reason for our anxieties lies in circumstances over which we have little, or no, control; and that by gaining more control and solving all our problems, we could then have serenity. That’s why we struggle so hard to gain control over difficult people and impossible situations, to finally find some measure of peace and serenity. But what we inevitably discover is that the more we struggle against circumstances over which we have little or no control, the further we are from peace.
The real problem is that we are looking for serenity in the wrong place – in our circumstances rather than in our relationship with God. We foolishly act like gods ourselves, pretending that we can control everything, rather than admitting we’re only human and giving that control over to God, where it belongs. We secretly tell ourselves that we will only be happy once we become more omnipotent like God; but what we become instead is dysfunctional, desperately trying to manipulate people and things over which we have no control. We will only find peace in our relationship with the God, who is already in control of everything.
The serenity prayer is saying it is precisely by accepting hardships – rather than by struggling against them - that we find peace. By accepting hardship we are giving that control over to God and acknowledging His authority in the matter; and this is the only thing that can bring us peace with God and serenity within ourselves. The reason for our anxiety lies not in our circumstances but in whom we are trusting: it’s a matter of whether we’re trusting in our own limited powers and resources, or trusting in God’s. Peace is the by-product of trusting God. Real peace means resting in God instead of struggling with some imaginary power we have to control everyone and everything, and ending up failing and upset because we always fall short in one way or another.
Jesus said “Peace I leave you, my peace I give unto you, not as the world gives give I unto you.” The peace that the world offers will always be temporary and conditional since it is dependent upon circumstances that necessarily change. None of us can forever avoid accident, illness, or death, to name just a few. The question is: are we struggling to find the kind of peace that is fleeting at best? Or are we looking for the kind of peace that can never be taken away from us? We can discover serenity in the midst of hardships once we know where to look.
By accepting hardship, we are beginning to look at it in terms of God’s will rather than our own. Whenever something bad happens, our first instinct is to receive it in terms of how much we would like it to go away, and this is measured by the level of anxiety and stress we are feeling. It’s not the thing itself that makes us feel anxious and depressed, but how we are choosing to react to it. The more resistance, the more anxious we feel.
When Jesus began praying at Gethsemane he was overwhelmed by anxiety, so that he was sweating “great drops of blood.” Though the son of God, he was also a man like other men and he didn’t want to suffer and die. Jesus wasn’t a masochist and he wasn't suicidal. He wanted to go on living, and was struggling in prayer with God’s will, searching to see if there was another way for us to be saved, rather than to be crucified. He prayed and struggled three times, and yet each time he finished his prayer with “nevertheless not my will, but thine be done.” Jesus ultimately faced crucifixion with peace and serenity because he embraced God’s will rather than his own.
It’s fine to struggle with God in prayer, and there’s nothing wrong with bringing Him our problems and being honest about how we feel. But the goal of prayer is not to get God to do what we want – which is just another way of trying to impose our will and taking control – the goal is getting us to do what He wants. The happy result is once we accept God’s will in trials and hardships, we find peace and serenity. We’re no longer putting ourselves – and our will - in conflict with the will of God.
It’s certainly much easier to accept God’s blessings, and it’s often wise to focus upon those instead of all our problems; but blessings alone can’t bring us serenity in a troubled world. If blessings and an easier life equaled peace and serenity, the rich and famous would be most serene rather than, very often, being the most anxious and depressed. If having the most control over people and events meant serenity than kings and presidents would have the least stress of all. If peace could only be experienced by those whose problems were eliminated, none of us would have serenity.
We will never have control over all the challenges we experience in life. The only way to find serenity in the midst of trouble is to accept God’s will for us. Moreover, the greater the hardship we can accept in faith, the greater the serenity we will have in this life. Accepting hardship is the path to greater peace because it teaches us Who to trust, rather than trusting too much in our ability to solve every problem.
We need to stop looking at hardship as a barrier to serenity and begin looking at it as the pathway to a much deeper and more enduring kind of peace; the kind not dependent upon passing circumstances, but only upon the faithfulness of God. We should not be aiming at the quick alleviation of all our problems, because that will never happen. Instead, we should be thanking God for hardships and challenges which, by accepting them, can lead us to a much greater peace in the presence of God. Not that we need to go looking for trouble; but when trouble comes looking for us and there is nothing we can reasonably do about it, we should know that it was meant to lead us to the peace that is God. Hardship is God’s way of teaching us serenity; it’s the pathway to peace that we’re on.
If you’ve ever gone on a long hike, you know the importance of staying on the trail. The trail is what keeps us from getting lost in the wilderness, so we can arrive safely at our desired destination. Often the trail is steep and very difficult to follow, and there are times when we feel lost, and feel like giving up. But we also have a certain faith in whoever made the trail that we’re on, and we know that if we just keep following it, rather than trying to find our own way, we’ll eventually come out at a beautiful place. Hardship is like that. It’s our way through the wilderness, so that we don’t get lost, and can arrive at a more beautiful place. And the bonus is that once we accept it’s going to be a difficult hike and stop complaining about it, we can look up, and begin to enjoy the scenery along the way.