One of my favorite sayings is hanging in our home. It says: “God, grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” (adapted from a prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, 1943, in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 15th ed., p. 823). I have often thought about these three qualities—serenity, courage, and wisdom. I would like to illustrate each with an example.
We often find it difficult to accept things that we cannot change. I know a man who does not believe in God. He continually stresses that he is only happy, at least as most people understand happiness, when he himself has control of every situation and has a firm grip on the reins of his life. Several years ago he had an accident. At that time, he almost despaired at the fact that others held the reins and had the power to decide what would happen to him. He kept asking himself the question, “How could I have had so little control over my life that such an accident could happen to me?” When he started to feel better, he attributed his recovery to himself alone, not to the doctors, and definitely not to the prayers of his faithful wife. He simply could not accept the reality of his accident.
Physical and spiritual tests are a part of our lives. Job is an outstanding example of this. In one German version of the Bible, the heading for the book of Job reads, “Job’s fortune—Job’s misfortune.” In spite of his misfortunes and initial complaints, Job developed the serenity to accept his God-given fate. “Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty: For he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole” (Job 5:17–18).
Mormon advises his son to accept things he cannot change but, nevertheless, not to give up fighting for other things: “Behold, I am laboring with them continually; and when I speak the word of God with sharpness they tremble and anger against me; and when I use no sharpness they harden their hearts against it; wherefore, I fear lest the Spirit of the Lord hath ceased striving with them. … And now, my beloved son, notwithstanding their hardness, let us labor diligently; for if we should cease to labor, we should be brought under condemnation; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay, that we may conquer the enemy of all righteousness, and rest our souls in the kingdom of God” (Moro. 9:4, 6).
Even Christ recognized the limits of his doings on this earth. While suffering the aspects of accomplishing the Atonement, he had to endure the ridicule of the people and the betrayal of his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he too wished it could have been different: “Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. … He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done” (Matt. 26:38, 39, 42).
The nun Mother Teresa, caretaker of the poor and the dying, was the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. She dared to fight against the immeasurable suffering and misery in Calcutta, India. She exemplifies the second quality, courage. In the beginning people only smiled at her activities. They said, “Such a sacrifice, such an effort makes no difference in a city where every day hundreds of people have to starve and die anyway.” They said her efforts were like drops of water on hot stones—they amount to nothing and do not change anything. Also mentioned was the blame the poor shared in their own misery. We all recognize such rationalizations which we use to smooth over our guilty consciences when something requires courage, willingness to sacrifice, and time.
Mother Teresa was not bothered by these arguments. Most important to her was the individual person. She believed that a world in which one less person suffers is a better world. This is exactly what we learn from King Benjamin about how to be a true Christian: “And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God” (Mosiah 4:16–18). Mother Teresa once suggested that we expand our prayers from “Give us this day our daily bread,” to “Give us this day our daily bread, and give our poor fellowmen theirs through our hands.”
Alma the Elder also gave us an example of how much courage is required to change things. His own son opposed him and fought against the Church and its members. The behavior of his son must certainly have caused Alma sorrow and attracted much criticism. He could not force his will on his son. Nevertheless, he never ceased defending what was right or trying to turn the hearts of men to good: “And now all these things did Alma and his fellow laborers do who were in the church, walking in all diligence, teaching the word of God in all things, suffering all manner of afflictions, being persecuted by all those who did not belong to the church of God. And they did admonish their brethren; and they were also admonished, every one by the word of God, according to his sins, or to the sins which he had committed, being commanded of God to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in all things” (Mosiah 26:38–39).
The third quality of the saying reads, “Give me the wisdom to know the difference,” that is, the difference between the things to be changed and those to be accepted as they are. How much valuable time in our brief earthly lives is wasted fighting bitterly about things that can’t be changed. And how many valuable pursuits are passed by, for which a struggle would be worthwhile. Pride and stubbornness, however, often hinder us from recognizing the worthwhile pursuits. This requires wisdom, a divine wisdom, coupled with humility. King Solomon prayed for this valuable gift: “Give me now wisdom and knowledge, that I may go out and come in before this people: … And God said to Solomon, Because this was in thine heart, and thou hast not asked riches, wealth, or honour, nor the life of thine enemies, neither yet hast asked long life; but hast asked wisdom and knowledge for thyself, … Wisdom and knowledge is granted unto thee” (2 Chr. 1:10–12).
But this wisdom does not come without effort. We must work for it, struggle for it, and try to achieve it. Solomon the Wise advises us: “My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee; So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; Yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:1–5).
In more recent times, James poses the following question: “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13).
God’s attitude toward mankind remains forever the same, his feelings toward us are unchanging and full of love, kindness, and patience. Any person, at any time, can easily knock and ask searchingly. Children and young people in particular have a natural sensitivity for truth and are open to all that is divine. It is your privilege, as the youth of the Church, to have nearly your entire lifespan ahead of you, which needs to be used wisely. These years may either bring joy and satisfaction or sadness and remorse. I testify that we have the ability to discover serenity, courage, and wisdom if we strive thereafter and that we have the privilege in the latter days of being led on the right path by true prophets.