What Works: The Serenity Prayer

A simple prayer with a powerful message


“God, grant me the serenity…” You’ve probably heard the Serenity Prayer, whether while attending a 12-Step meeting as a member or guest, or from watching a movie or TV show with a representation of one. Recited by Christians, non-Christians and “spiritual-but-not-religious” seekers alike, 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 devote a column to sharing this wonderful spiritual tool with those who don’t know it, and to encouraging those who say it regularly to take a moment and look at it fresh. I say the Serenity Prayer as part of my regular prayer life. It seems to me that 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 A.A. 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 most remarkable thing about how often the Serenity Prayer is said by non-believers is its unequivocal stand in its first few words: that 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 we seek not to control our behavior and our life, to engineer it, in such a way as to have serenity and courage. Rather, 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, 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 likely make the situation worse. Your best approach is to accept that the jerk 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 likely 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 and that you can’t change that. 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.

In my earlier column on discernment, I said “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.” As 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, often we are 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. Discernment. But as I said in the earlier column on the subject, 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. As I said in the earlier column on discernment, 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, 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 with it? What has it done for you in your life? Share your thoughts and experiences below in comments or email me at phil AT bustedhalo (DOT) com.