Gelassenheit is an unusual Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite word with a powerful spiritual message about peace.
It’s a strange word, isn’t it? As I got to know my Mennonite friends, this word was brought up a lot, usually in relation to questions that I had. Always, always, when I struggled with something that tormented me, the answer came back to this same very strange and unfamiliar word … gelassenheit.
At the heart of everything they did, the basis of how the Mennonites and Amish lived, it all came back to this concept that I had never heard about before. Too many people think that what makes the Plain folk noticeably different is their lack of modern conveniences, or their plain dress. But that has it backwards – those things are because of this underlying mindset.
Understanding it was life-changing.
The concept is simple – deceptively so. And like so many simple things, it’s one thing to understand it and then quite another thing to really UNDERSTAND it.
For non-Christians, and even for many Christians, gelassenheit may be unfamiliar or even offensive. If you believe that you do your part and then God does His part, you may have trouble with this.
And I can’t honestly say that I eagerly and fully embraced it when I first understood what it meant.
This concept is at the heart of Anabaptist views on Christianity, but it is a rather difficult word to define in English.
Wait, let’s start with just saying it. “Guh-LASSen-height”
Composure, Yielding submission, Self-surrender, Acceptance – all of these, and more, have been used to define gelassenheit, but it is yet more than that. It is the act of non-willing, of letting go of our will, and yet the paradox is that we cannot will ourselves to be in a state of non-willing.
Let’s just repeat that and let it sink in – gelassenheit is the act of non-willing while accepting that we cannot will ourselves into a state of non-willing.
A friend who knows German tells me that it means “peace of the soul”.
For our purposes, let us define it as gladly accepting God’s will – instead of our own. Included in the definition is that we are resting on God to create that state of non-willing in our souls. And that, yes, definitely brings us to a state of peace of the soul!
Gelassenheit means working (by resting and trusting, not really by working!) to align our will with God’s instead of begging God to change things to suit our will. Working by not working. Striving by resting. Winning by surrendering.
When we hear incredible stories about Amish forgiving a man who shot up a school full of children, or of marriages continuing and strengthening after a Mennonite father accidentally kills a child in a farming accident, that is gelassenheit. It is the quiet acceptance that, no matter how painful and difficult a situation is, God is in control of the situation.
Putting Inner Peace into Practice
The Serenity prayer is an example of this inner peace and acceptance, especially in its original form:
- God, give me 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.
- Living one day at a time,
- Enjoying one moment at a time,
- Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
- Taking, as Jesus did,
- This sinful world as it is,
- Not as I would have it,
- Trusting that You will make all things right,
- If I surrender to Your will,
- So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
- And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
- Amen. – Reinhold Niebuhr
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Gelassenheit is a difficult concept to live, and yet I do believe it is at the heart of Christianity. A calm acceptance of life and this sinful world “as it is, Not as I would have it” is also fundamental for a lifetime of happiness and contentment.
If only it were possible to will ourselves into this state of non-willing! Admit it – if you’re reading this, and feel the power of this concept, you’re automatically wondering what you can do to make it happen! (No? It’s just me?)
In 2012, my dear Mennonite friend and I were expecting babies at about the same time. However, her little boy’s heart failed to develop properly and she delivered a stillborn baby at seven months.
I cried so hard for her, for this little boy who was so loved and would have been born into the most amazing family. It would be her last pregnancy.
And I watched as she pulled herself to her feet, grieved and kept walking – while focusing with love and grace on her six-month pregnant friend! How many of us could do that, or would we be so focused on our own pain that we could not share in another’s joy?
I do not know if I could have done it, and yet I know that she took joy in my baby daughter and in my next baby girl.
She exemplifies gelassenheit to me, and I often think of her quiet acceptance that God knows more than she does.
I can think of many times in my life where I prayed for a certain hardship to end or for events to turn out as I thought that they should. Over and over again, I thought I knew better.
Because the truth is, life hurts. Decisions and actions, whether ours or that of others, can cause such pain and suffering that we feel an overwhelming need to just do something. We feel as though we must step in and fight and make it all better right now.
Over and over again, God has proven to me that a bit of patience and acceptance would have made it far less painful while I waited for things to turn out right. I think about when my youngest had pneumonia. If only she could have trusted me and rested while the doctors and nurses did their bloodwork and tests, we could have quickly found and dealt with the illness. Instead, of course, as children do, she focused on the fear and pain, and the entire experience took longer and was far more painful than it had to be.
Let me share another story from my life.
When I was seventeen, my mother’s mother died of stroke at the age of 61. Far too young. She was a good Christian woman, loved by all who knew her, and the church was filled, standing room only, when we said goodbye.
My mother was a wreck and took a long time to recover.
I was so devastated that I turned my back on God for years.
How could any good come of that?
And yet, behind the scenes, things were happening.
My grandfather had been an abusive alcoholic for decades. My grandmother would not live in the same house with him, but they remained married. I remember that he was drunk at her funeral, and I was so disgusted.
What I didn’t know was how badly her death affected him.
It took a long time, but he stopped drinking and … last year we buried him as a Christian, reading a poem from his Bible entitled “Growing Old In Grace”, and buried him beside his wife.
Gelassenheit is accepting that something painful and difficult for you today may bear fruit in a year, twenty-five years, a hundred years, that you may never see it, but that God is weaving it into that beautiful tapestry He is creating.
I struggle with it daily.
This is more than simply a mental acceptance, though. It means behaving as though God is in control. It means speaking softly, refusing to panic and “freak out”, and listening daily for God’s will in your life. It means trust. It means giving up on revenge and the need to defend yourself.
Please know that I have only touched on the significance of gelassenheit.
All of us are going to have areas in which we need to work on this. Some of us struggle with even grasping the tiniest bit of this concept, while some will find it easier.
And some of you will have no interest at all – and if that’s the case, hey, I’m thrilled you’re even reading this. You rock.
Over the next week, watch yourself for times in which you resist or fail to trust God’s will.
Watch for times in which you worry and fret, when you argue about things you cannot change, when you plea with God for your will and desires to be fulfilled, when you leap to defend yourself instead of trusting in God’s providence.
That’s all. Just watch for those times and identify them.
And pray, of course.