the only thing you can change is yourself
Last Sunday, I asked you to pray the Serenity Prayer with me in 2021. The Serenity Prayer is attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, a 20th century theologian and ethicist born and raised in Wright City, Missouri. Niebuhr never copyrighted his prayer; he thought it would be improper to do so. Later in life he was chagrined to see multiple versions of it on coffee mugs and embroidered on throw pillows. This is the most well-known version:
God, grant me the grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Many self-help books have warned their readers, “The only thing you can change is yourself.” There’s some truth to this statement. We have much more control over ourselves than we do
other people or situations, but I have always wondered if there’s a whiff of fatalism in this good advice. Should we simply give up hope for difficult situations to be resolved or quit on difficult people? That doesn’t sound very Christian!
Psychiatrist and family therapist Michael Kerr has helped me see the saying, “The only thing you can change is yourself,” in a new light. Changing yourself can change other people and situations, but to appreciate how, we need to make a shift in our thinking. Rather than thinking of things in terms of cause and effect, we should think in terms of how people and things function together in relationship systems.
Kerr gives this example: a husband complains that he is sad because his wife would rather spend her time in the garden than with him. Cause and effect thinking would say that the wife’s avoidance of her husband is causing his sadness.
But systems thinking asks, “What is the husband’s role in this relationship dynamic?” The wife i
n this example reports that her husband is unpleasant to be around when he mopes and complains. She avoids him. Systems thinking sees both the husband’s complaints and the wife’s avoidance co-creating a conflict. If one partner sees this dynamic and changes his or her behavior, then that change will change the system and the functioning of the other partner as well. When you change yourself, the people and the situations in your life also change.
This is easier said than done! writes Kerr. Therefore we pray for courage to change the one thing
we can change: our functioning in our families, at church, at work, and in society. It takes courage to change ourselves because it is so much easier to blame others for the situations that upset us. But ask yourself, “Have you ever gotten to a better place in life by blaming and fault-finding?”
Reformed theology has traditionally espoused the doctrine of total depravity. The doctrine states that, apart from the work of Christ in us, even our best efforts are tainted by sin. Kerr is a psychiatrist; he does not diagnose people with sin. But his call to examine our own functioning resonates with our theology, which teaches that all of us are contributing in some way to the frustrations and evils that vex us. So let us pray for the courage to repent, to change the one thing that we can change—ourselves—and see what happens in our families, workplaces, congregation, and world!