The serenity prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 31 August 2016

One of the more popular rote prayers is “the serenity prayer.” It’s prayed by Christians and pagans alike, ’cause it’s the official prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous. Other 12-step programs use it as well.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
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.

Credit for the prayer is usually given to American theologian and philosopher Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), although the original version looks a bit different. Its first publication was in the March 1933 edition of The Woman’s Press, in Winnifred Crane Wygal’s article “On the Edge of Tomorrow.”

Oh, God, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and insight to know the one from the other.

Wygal was a grad student at Union Theological Seminary, Neibuhr’s school. In her 1940 book We Plan Our Own Worship Services, she indicated she got the prayer from him. Neibuhr’s daughter Elisabeth Sifton claimed her father wrote it for a Sunday service in 1943. As you notice, she was a bit off on the date—which caused some confusion, and controversy, when Fred R. Shapiro of Yale Law School published a New York Times article in 2008 stating he’d found the prayer published eight times before 1943. At the time, he questioned whether Niebuhr had even authored it. He doesn’t now.

Alcoholics Anonymous founder William Griffith Wilson (a.k.a. “Bill W.”) came across the prayer in early 1942. A member of his New York group found it in a New York Herald Tribune obituary and shared it. The group immediately adopted it, and included a copy of it in every outgoing letter.

Niebuhr admitted the idea behind the prayer had been “spooking around” for centuries. You can even find it expressed in Cicero’s Six Mistakes of Man: “The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected.”

A secular prayer?

Most Christians’ gripes about rote prayers is they’ve been recited so much, so often as part of dead ritual, they kinda lost their meaning. When we pray them, it’s too easy to fall back into the old misbehavior of coldly mouthing them, of not authentically meaning them. So they don’t care for any rote prayers. Serenity Prayer included.

Others object to the Serenity Prayer because to them, it’s an Alcoholics Anonymous prayer, not a Christian prayer. It’s a secular prayer. Even though Neibuhr and Bill W. were Christians, pagans have adopted it, and pagans recite it. Not to God; not really: To their “higher power,” which could be anything from the One True God to their lucky undies.

A large number of the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd—the sort who love the spiritual feelings they get from AA and 12-step recovery, but never proceed from there to pursue an actual relationship with the Almighty—love the Serenity Prayer. It’s their mantra. But same as they don’t pursue the real God, they don’t actually abide by the Serenity Prayer. They don’t really accept the things they can’t change. They never really change where they can. They keep trying to fix others. They repeat the same old dysfunctional behaviors time and again. They wallow in self-pity, bitterness, pathos, victimhood, misery, or pessimism. And they don’t seek the wisdom to know the difference; whenever God offers it to them, they ignore it and listen to their ignorant friends or family members, or think they know better because they’ve been in the program longer, or survived a lot of horrific experiences, or what have you.

They never truly work the 12-step program. Just more evidence the Serenity Prayer is dead religion. An exercise in hypocrisy.

Well, if the Serenity Prayer bugs you for these reasons, I know exactly where you’re coming from. I used to be annoyed by it for the very same reasons. I figured it was just some self-help platitude which people tell themselves so they can feel better. For hypocrites, that’s all it really is.

But when we pray it and mean it—well, that’s another thing altogether.

So set the hypocrites aside a moment. Try looking at it this way.

Serenity now!

In the Seinfeld episode “The Serenity Now,” the characters had reduced the Serenity Prayer to a serenity command: “Serenity now!” Wasn’t much of a prayer. Demanding peace from God (or, since the folks on the show were pagan, demanding it of the universe) doesn’t work quite so well when we’ve not articulated how this peace oughta work. What kind of peace are we talking about? Are we likely to get it when we randomly, angrily call it down from the skies?

See, the Serenity Prayer is a prayer for wisdom. We’re asking God for peace, but we’re also asking him to direct our paths to it. To show us how to get there. To recognize how peace is gonna come. Some things we can’t help. Some we can. Which is which? God knows. Let’s ask.

It doesn’t come, as the ancient Romans believed, by seizing control of our environment, forcing everybody else to conform, and crucifying anyone who didn’t get with the program. It comes by pursuing God’s kingdom. Mt 6.33 By asking God’s will to be done in heaven and earth. Mt 6.10 By God achieving them, not us. Sometimes he’ll achieve them through us; sometimes not. But it’s not gonna come by imposing our will. Only by surrendering it to God.

That’s the hard part. Peace doesn’t come through the strength to change our circumstances, nor the denial that these circumstances even exist. Strength tends to escalate the problem, and denial… well, denial’s hard to maintain, and usually that’s what triggers the addictions which necessitated the 12-step programs in the first place. Peace comes through surrender. Through recognizing God knows best, and will guide us to what’s best. Through accepting our messed-up world as we found it—and knowing it’s God’s world to fix. Not ours. We don’t have the solutions. He does.

It is a prayer of surrender, and a lot of times the reason Christians don’t wanna pray it, is because we don’t really wanna surrender. We still believe, deep down, we know best. We don’t. The sooner we realize this, the better.