Some years ago, a U.S. Naval officer was aboard a ship engaged in a training exercise involving battleships performing maneuvers during several days of heavy weather. On one particularly foggy night he was stationed on the bridge of the ship, as was the commanding officer, and he witnessed the following exchange of messages. Shortly after dark, the lookout on the wing of the bridge reported, “Light bearing on the starboard bow.” The captain called out, “Is it steady or moving astern?” The lookout replied, “Steady, captain,” which meant that the battleship was on a collision course with the other ship. The captain then called to the signalman, “Signal that ship: we are on a collision course, advise you to change course 20 degrees.” Back came a signal, “Advise you to change course 20 degrees.” The captain said, “Send, ’I’m a captain, advise you to change course 20 degrees.’ ” The responding signal came: “I’m a seaman second class. Advise you to change course 20 degrees.” By this time the captain was furious and spat out the words, “Send, ‘I’m a battleship. Advise you change course 20 degrees.’ ” Back came a flashing response, “I’m a lighthouse.” The captain ordered his battleship to change course 20 degrees.
There are things in our lives we cannot change, circumstances that we cannot alter. How we deal with such matters helps define our lives. Jesus, for example, came into a very stratified world, a world where people were not going to change. The Romans who governed Palestine at that time were bent on conquest and domination. They were not going to change. The Sadducees were determined to protect their own economic and social prestige. They were not going to change. The Pharisees sought to rigorously apply the Law of Moses to every facet of life as a way of burnishing their religious credentials. They were not going to change. The common people were seething with a spirit of rebellion and a restive yearning for a leader who would liberate them from oppressive Roman rule. They were not going to change. Jesus knew that his ministry would alienate all of these groups. He knew that his definition of what a Messiah should be would disappoint and anger every audience. He knew that these groups could kill him. In fact, he knew that these groups would kill him. Nevertheless, he engaged his critics. But he refused to tailor his message and mission to mollify those critics. He engaged his enemies and tried to sway a few of them to join his cause. But his fidelity to God, his obedience to the Spirit, his commitment to his mission, meant that he summoned the inner determination to be faithful to his calling regardless of all external circumstances and responses. In so doing, he refused to allow his critics to define him. Indeed, though there were many things Jesus could not change about his world, his inner obedience to God’s calling allowed him to deal with the things he could not change in such a way that he ultimately changed the world. The world into which Jesus came was determined not to change; but the way Jesus dealt with the world’s intransigence ultimately altered the course of history. He calls us to do the same thing in the way we live our faith.
One of the most interesting and influential people of the twentieth century was a Viennese Jewish psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl. Prior to World War II, Frankl had already won great renown as a therapist of insight. Then he was thrown with all of his family into the concentration camp of Auschwitz. There, amidst the most degrading and horrifying circumstances imaginable, Frankl lost his parents, his brother, and his wife. Frankl wondered each day when he, too, would be consigned to the ovens. But one day, naked and alone in a small room, he became aware of what he came to call, “the last of the human freedoms” – a freedom his Nazi captors couldn’t take away. Yes, they could control his environment. Yes, they could do with his body as they wished. Nevertheless, Victor Frankl realized that he could choose not to let his basic identity be defined by his captors. He could exercise his capacity for freedom to define how he allowed captivity to shape his life, and he could shape his own attitude toward it. He couldn’t change the external conditions of his environment, but he had the freedom to exercise his inner power to choose his response to that environment. Viktor Frankl realized he had been endowed with a moral conscience, a spiritual strength, and an imaginative creativity; regardless of what happened to him on the outside, he was in control of the attitude that he developed on the inside. So, amidst the squalor of the death camps, Frankl began utilizing his imagination to project himself into different circumstances. While digging a ditch for the Nazis, he would see himself lecturing students after his release from the camps, seeing his classroom in his mind’s eye. When the Nazis assigned him some demeaning task, he envisioned himself writing a book on the horrors of the camp. He refused to be defined by his circumstances.
Frankl couldn’t change anything about his external life. But by exercising his inner resources – his spiritual strength, his moral conscience, his imaginative powers — Victor Frankl, amidst one of the most despicable environments ever devised, exercised his inner freedom until he realized he actually had more freedom than his Nazi captors. Sure, his captors had more external liberty, more options to choose from in their environment, but Frankl had more freedom, more internal power, to envision options and create an attitude that allowed him to define and embrace his life. His example was such that fellow prisoners — and even some of the guards — began to look to him for help in finding meaning amidst their prison experience.
We cannot always control our external environment. Circumstances may well impose a certain givenness upon us. But we have the freedom, the resiliency, the spiritual imagination, the moral conscience, and the imaginative powers to exercise the inner strength necessary to shape our attitude toward our world. We have the inner strength to shape who we really will be under God’s leadership. Sure, there are things that have happened to us that we wish hadn’t happened. There are mistakes that we have made that we wish we had not made. There are circumstances that to some degree circumscribe our life that we wish were not there. And yet, we have the responsibility to deal with what we cannot change by changing how we respond through our inner strength, so that in our changing ourselves we can thus change our world.
The writer Stephen Covey noted that the word “responsibility” is really the conjunction of two words – “response” and “ability.” We have the ability to choose our response to things we cannot change. We have the ability to exercise the internal freedom necessary to respond to external circumstances we cannot alter.
We have “response-ability” to determine our response to things we cannot change. And so, when we are misunderstood, we are not resentful; when we are frustrated, we do not despair; when we criticized we are not stymied. By the rich freedom of our inner life we can determine our internal attitude to the environment imposed upon us by the outside world. We have been blessed with “response – ability.”
Jesus offers us another glimpse into how we should respond to things that we cannot change through his behavior in wrestling with his destiny in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus realized that not only his enemies had determined that he must die. He realized that his heavenly Father had made the same determination. He realized that his heavenly Father was employing his enemies’ enmity toward him to further the divine purpose. This was a hard realization to handle, even for our Lord. So, he retired to the Garden of Gethsemane to see what he could do about something he could not change. He fell on the ground, imploring his heavenly Father to remove the pathway of crucifixion from him. He knew that God is a God of infinite possibilities, so he asked his heavenly Father if there was not another way to accomplish the divine purpose without his taking the path to Golgotha. He prayed in earnest, “Let this hour pass from me. Let this cup pass from me.” Herein lies a great spiritual truth: it is not a blasphemous or evil act to ask God to change circumstances that seem to us inalterable. It is not impermissible for us to explore with God in faith to see if there are alternatives to the path we see before us, to ask God to give us ‘another cup,’ because the cup that sits before us seems too oppressive to drink. Even our Lord Jesus did that in his agonized hour of prayer – he prayed for ‘another cup’ – he asked, “Let this path pass from me.” But that is not all Jesus did. He also prayed, “Lord, not what I will but what Thou will be done.” When we can pray with genuine sincerity the words of our Lord, “Not my will, but Thine be done,” then we can handle whatever life gives us, even the bitter cups we cannot avoid.
The truth is, we all find ourselves in circumstances that throw us into darkness. Jesus certainly found himself in such a situation, enveloped within a Gethsemane darkness that almost overwhelmed him. He beheld the coming storm of hatred, betrayal, cowardice, connivance and malicious intrigue that would conspire to nail him to a cross. Yet, even though he believed that he was about to enter a period of intolerable darkness, he trusted that his heavenly Father would eventually bring him into a period of glorious light. Yes, his enemies would put him to death. But, after three days, he asserted, “I will rise again.” Jesus held to the conviction that yes, his enemies would arrest him, would convict him and kill him, but he maintained, “After three days, I will arise.” Yes, Jesus realized, ‘Darkness will soon envelop me, and that is a destiny I cannot change. But, God will ultimately lead me into light.’ So, too, whatever our darkness, whatever circumstances, whatever bitter cup we must drink, we must trust that our God will ultimately lead us back into light. So, amidst circumstances we cannot change, we pray with our Lord in utter trust and submission, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
There are events in our life that we wish hadn’t happened, mistakes that we’ve made that we wish we hadn’t made. There are circumstances that circumscribe us that we wish didn’t. Yet, we are not powerless. The Spirit gives us “response-ability.” I think of a man named Ernst Werner Techow. In 1922, as amazing as it might seem, Germany had a very capable foreign minister named Walter Rathenau who happened to be Jewish. Techow, a fanatical anti-Jewish terrorist, assassinated him and was imprisoned for his deed. While facing his trial, Techow received a letter from Rathenau’s mother who wrote, “I will forgive you, even as God may forgive, if before an earthly judge you make a full and frank confession . . . and before a heavenly judge repent.” Techow was deeply touched by that letter from the mother of the man he had murdered, but what amends could he make for his action? He had murdered a man and couldn’t change that. Yet, twenty years later, after being released from prison for good behavior, Techow smuggled himself into France during the Second World War and helped over 700 Jews escape the Nazi regime. He admitted later, “I only wished that I would get an opportunity to right the wrong I’d done.” Even after saving 700 people Techow did not believe that he had fully atoned for his crime. But his response to what he couldn’t change had indeed changed his life and made a positive difference in the lives of over seven hundred people. How we respond to what we cannot change does indeed change us and can change our world.
I leave you with a final image. Centuries ago, a talented artist was hired to make art out of a huge block of flawed marble. This sculptor tried for two years to fashion something beautiful out of the flawed marble, but he abandoned the effort. Another sculptor was hired a couple of years later to resume the project, but he soon quit as well. This huge, flawed piece of marble, which came to be known as “the giant,” remained untouched for another twenty-five years, because other sculptors looked at the marble and agreed they could do nothing with it. The marble was just too flawed. Along came a young artist in his mid-twenties who saw the same major flaw at the bottom of the marble that had stymied everyone else. But this young artist turned that flaw into a broken tree stump upon which rested a leg. With the rest of that marble the young artist crafted one of the greatest works of art ever created, a masterpiece known as “David.” Everyone looked at the marble, and all they saw were the flaws. Young Michelangelo viewed the same piece of marble as did everyone else, but he approached it with fresh creativity and vision — and that made all the difference.
Things have happened to us that we wished hadn’t happened. We have made mistakes that we wish we hadn’t made. Circumstances often seem to oppress us. But we can look with fresh eyes at the flawed, damaged marble or our lives, and we can turn those lives into something beautiful – into spiritual art. We are not powerless before the things we cannot change. For God has given us the resiliency, the creativity, the moral conscience, the spiritual imagination and the inner strength to change ourselves. In so doing, we can change our world.