The “Serenity” Prayer
The Serenity Prayer
“God, grant me the serenity…” You may have heard the Serenity Prayer while attending a 12-Step meeting as a member or guest, or watching a movie or TV show with a representation of one.
Recited by people of faith and seekers a, the Serenity Prayer is part of our culture. This is due in large part to its adoption by Alcoholics Anonymous, from there spilling over into many recovery and self-improvement activities.
Its genius is its brevity — how it says so much that is important in so few words.
But it can also become meaningless through repetition. So I want to share this wonderful spiritual tool with those who don’t know it, and encourage those who say it regularly to take a moment and look at it fresh. If you can follow this prayer, you are a long way towards living rightly.
I’ll go through the prayer line by line, but first a brief background. As is so often the case with spiritual sayings and prayers, the origins of the Serenity Prayer are slightly clouded. An early A.A. member saw it, unattributed, in a newspaper obituary, brought it to other early members and it spread from there.
Later, it was determined pretty solidly that it came from American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr himself told a reporter humbly that while he believed he wrote it, it was possible that he’d picked it up from something older.
Once adopted by A.A. and printed along with the Lord’s Prayer and the St. Francis Prayer as an aid to members, it has since been used by church organizations throughout the world, and even distributed to soldiers by the U.S. military.
Now, let’s take a look at it:
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
God grant me
The Serenity Prayer is unequivocal in its first few words: the serenity and courage we seek comes as a gift from God. (Niebuhr’s original version said “God, give us grace to accept with serenity…”) The bottom line is that rather than seeking to control our life in such a way as to have serenity and courage, we admit our powerlessness and humbly ask for the tools and guidance we need.
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change
To have serenity means to be in an untroubled state. It is derived from a term that means clear skies — and this meaning survives in the phrase, “not a cloud on the horizon.
” This line in the Serenity Prayer is interesting because to accept the things I cannot change will help me experience serenity, and to begin with serenity will help me to accept of things that I cannot change.
So serenity and acceptance can feed each other in an upward spiral, while conversely, to be unaccepting and troubled can feed into each other in a downward spiral.
The concept of radical acceptance is the most important part of the Serenity Prayer because it is the most needed. In our self-help narcissistic culture, we are rarely encouraged to stop striving and fighting but, rather, to accept limits.Things are the way they are and we cannot change this. We can work towards making things better, but we must start by accepting this moment as it is. Also, there are many things in this world that are not within our power to change, ever. We can either accept them, or struggle against them.
For example, if there’s a person at your job who is a real jerk, your being unaccepting of this fact won’t help. He’s around (assuming you don’t have the power to fire him.) Trying to change him is almost certain to fail, and will ly make the situation worse. Your best approach is to accept that he is the way he is, and work from there.
You might decide to avoid him, laugh his behavior off, leave the job, or pray for him because of the suffering he is ly experiencing that he externalizes as being a jerk. Those are all valid responses. But they all start with accepting that he is the way he is right now.
Other things that aren’t in our power to change: death, disease, global imbalance of resources. You get the idea.
Courage to change the things I can
The most misunderstood thing about the Serenity Prayer is that it’s not just about serenity. The name doesn’t help. Too often people use the Serenity Prayer and the concept of acceptance as excuses to avoid action when action is called for. But the prayer gives equal weight to challenging us to change the things we can.
It’s all well and good to say we should live in the now and accept God’s plan as it unfolds, but that doesn’t mean we should be passive. Using the metaphor of the stream of life, there are times to watch the water flow by, and there are times to row the boat. We have to decide which is called for, and the right answer will vary depending on the situation.
In the beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Rick Warren points out:
“Notice Jesus didn’t say, ‘Blessed are the peace lovers,’ because everyone loves peace. Neither did he say, ‘Blessed are the peaceable,’ who are never disturbed by anything. Jesus said, Blessed are those who work for peace — those who actively seek to resolve conflict.” (The Purpose Driven Life, p153)
Once we accept things as they are in this moment, we may be called to action, and when there is action to be taken, or a choice to be made, let us be courageous. Let us do what we know is right, step into the unknown in faith, be brave in standing up for what we believe in.
And, closer to home, change can mean improving our diet, abstaining from drinking, sticking up for ourselves, and dozens of little actions throughout our day.
And wisdom to know the difference
When I’m working with people who are struggling to navigate acceptance and action, the tricky bit is knowing which things you can and should change and which you can’t and shouldn’t try to. Discernment. You already know the answer. Your vision might be so clouded (unserene) that you can’t discern it at the moment, but deep down you know.
Tenth-century monk and favorite of contemplatives, Symeon the New Theologian, used the phrase “serenity of the heart” and said it’s the result of Jesus’s command in Luke 12:31 to seek the Kingdom of God above all else.
He said that by guarding the heart from worldly attachments one can achieve something which is translated, interestingly, as “sobriety.”The way to clear up the cloudiness (lack of serenity) that makes it hard to discern what we can and cannot change is to connect with Truth — to seek the Kingdom of God. This is the spiritual journey.
We must do what we can to make conscious contact with God, and then to sustain that contact on a daily basis.
My patron saint, Augustine said, “Love, and do what you will” — the goal is not to use our willpower to figure out what to do; the goal is to align ourselves with, ground ourselves in, God’s Love. This will give us “wisdom to know the difference.”
If you don’t already use the Serenity Prayer, try it out. Let me know what you think of it. If you do, share your experience — what has it done in your life? Share your thoughts and experiences below in comments.
Serenity Prayer – Applying 3 Truths from the Bible
One of the most popular prayers today is known as the Serenity Prayer. Written by Reinhold Neibuhr (1892-1971), the prayer was widely used in sermons and Sunday school groups and studies. In the early 40s, the group Alcoholics Anonymous began to use a shortened version of the Serenity Prayer in their twelve step program.
Serenity Prayer – Full Version (composed in 1940s)
God grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world As it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right If I surrender to His Will; So that I may be reasonably happy in this life And supremely happy with Him Forever and ever in the next.
God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
3 Biblical Truths We Can Apply to the Serenity Prayer
1. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
When life feels control, it’s easy to try to work harder at controlling everything and everyone around us! Some of us do the opposite and just throw our hands up and give up on the situation or person. Whichever extreme you go to, peace and serenity continues to move further from your life.
Accepting and submitting to God’s control and plan for your life is the only way to find peace in situations you cannot control or change. We may not always know God’s plan but we can let go of trying to orchestrate and manipulate events and people and let God work through us. God promises a supernatural peace when we bring our worries and concerns to Him in prayer.
“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” – Philippians 4:7
“Be still and know that I am God!” – Psalms 46:10
2. “the courage to change the things I can,”
If you have accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior, you have received the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is able to supply you with the courage to follow and act upon God’s plan for your life. Instead of fearfully ignoring hard decisions or running from what seems too difficult, we can call upon the power of God for courage to move forward into the full life He has planned for us.
“For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” – 2 Timothy 1:7
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:5-6
3. “and, the wisdom to know the difference.”
Wisdom is a gift that God promises to give to those who ask for it! You can grow in wisdom each day and make better decisions as you spend time reading the Bible and communicating with God through prayer. God will tell you, through his Word or answers in prayer, when to accept things and when to take courage to change them.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” – James 1:5
“and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:15-17
Adapted from: Single Moms & the Serenity Prayer by Donna Stanger
Share how the Serenity Prayer has encouraged you and how our large community can pray for courage for you in the comments below!
This article is part of our larger Prayers resource meant to inspire and encourage your prayer life when you face uncertain times. Visit our most popular prayers if you are wondering how to pray or what to pray. Remember, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and God knows your heart even if you can't find the words to pray.
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The Prayer of Jabez
The Lord's Prayer
The Prayer of St Francis
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Prayer for Forgiveness
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