Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.
If we were to list the personal attributes necessary to make it through this prolonged and anxious season, perseverance would surely be among them.
Yet perseverance is a hidden virtue. Rarely do we see what it costs others to pick themselves up after a disappointment, nor do they see what it costs us. We don’t know what it takes for others to keep going in the face of physical or spiritual fatigue, nor do they know what it takes for us. In persevering, to paraphrase W. H. Auden, we all do what is hard as if it were easy.
Intellectually, we know that there are bound to be long stretches of costly work with little to show for it, and times of exhaustion, when more is being asked of us than we can healthfully sustain. Yet as this season takes up seemingly permanent residence in our lives, the toll on us still comes as a surprise. We didn’t know it would be this hard for this long.
On some days, perseverance may be our only offering.
Prayer is a vital part of the persevering life, which is why Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray always and not lose heart. Jesus knew that life is hard and that we’re bound to get discouraged. Yet he assures us that as we persevere in prayer and everything else worth doing, in time we will find that our heart-strength returns, stronger for the testing.
Hard as it is, there is growth that comes with testing, and an increased capacity to meet the challenges we face. As a character in one of my favorite novels says about perseverance in relationships: “It’s the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love–but to persist in love.”1
I often turn to history for inspiration. Today I remember the example of the American pastor and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps best known for composing the Serenity Prayer: Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
Rienhold Niebuhr knew a lot about perseverance. He began pastoral ministry in the 1920s, in a working class congregation of Detroit. He and other clergy of his generation fought on the side of unions in labor struggles for a living wage. He lived through the Great Depression. He later found his public voice speaking out against U.S. complacency in the face of Hitler’s rise to power. After the war, Niehbuhr joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York City and rose to national prominence in the 1950s. Niehbuhr taught, wrote books, and mentored rising generations until the mid-1906s, when a series of strokes weakened him. He lived long enough to see his influence wane, as his view of God and humanity passed from favor.
Niebuhr’s daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, wrote of her father and his associates: “They had both high spirits and serious, dedicated hearts. They worked so hard. They were so very loving. And their labors were informed, in the end, by the humble recognition that it is not within our human powers to understand the final tally.”
“Like them,” Sifton goes on, “we must persevere under all trials. We shall never have enough courage to change what must be changed. The grace to accept with serenity that which cannot be changed will not come easily to us. And the wisdom to discern one from the other takes more than our lifetime to acquire.”
Sifton quotes her father again, words well worth committing to memory:
Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing that is true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; there we must be saved by faith. Nothing that we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.2
Pray always, Jesus said. Don’t lose heart. Dare to believe that in the long stretches of fatigue and uncertainty that God is with you. Do the work that is yours to do. Then leave the rest in God’s hands. Above all, persevere in hope; persevere in faith; and persevere in love.
1 Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).
2 Elisabeth Sifton. The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004).