This famous prayer has hidden wisdom in every line
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;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.
The Serenity Prayer is well known by both believers and non-believers. The famous prayer asks for God’s help achieving something that most people desire but few can achieve: peace and happiness in life. Unlike many prayers that ask for peace or happiness, the Serenity Prayer does not simply ask that God hand a person peace wholesale. Instead, the prayer lays out specific steps that will help a person achieve serenity in their life and asks God to help them gather the strength to live by those smaller goals. The Serenity Prayer does not so much ask for a gift as much as it asks God to help a person create or earn their own peace.
The first half of the Serenity Prayer is the most commonly quoted section of the prayer. The prayer has inspired millions of people, Christians and non-Christians alike. This beautiful prayer, however, is so often quoted that its wisdom can be lost. Here is a breakdown of the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…
Everyone has things in their life they wish that they could change, whether it is something as small as the traffic and congestion that fills a person’s daily commute or something as serious as a loved one’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. When faced with something we wish we could change, we often fight it. We rage against the congested traffic and fall prey to road rage. We deny the terrible news of a deadly diagnosis and stick our heads in the sand. We hide from the truth. We hate it. We curse it. We do the spiritual equivalent of punching a brick wall and expecting the wall to come down instead of our knuckles to bruise and split and break. In our hearts we know that there is nothing we can do to change some facts of life. People will die. Tragedies will happen. The inevitability of those facts does not make them less horrible, but it does mean that there is nothing we can do about it.
The first two lines of the Serenity Prayer ask for perhaps one of the hardest things of all: the strength to both accept that some things are out of our control and come to peace with that fact rather than drowning in useless, toxic rage.
Courage to change the things I can…
People love to complain. Think about it. How often do our coworkers start the week not with a smile and story about something pleasant they did over the weekend but a moan, groan or curse about the first day of the work week? When starting a conversation, do we share our joy? Unfortunately, we are much more likely to start a conversation by complaining about something, even something as small as the weather. Complaints seem to be our go-to form of communication, but how often do people really try to change what they claim so grievously offends, inconveniences or angers them?
In the age of social media and the internet, it is easier than ever to jump on the bandwagon and complain about an event, person, policy or organization. Ironically, many of the loudest virtual voices have never done a thing to help the causes they claim matter so much. It is easy to complain, especially from behind the protection of a screen name and keyboard. It is not easy to actually enact change. It is not easy to go up to someone we respect and say “I disagree.” It is not easy to face down someone who is screaming with hate and say, civilly and respectfully, “You are wrong and here is why.” Truly creating change does not happen from behind a screen or around a water cooler. It takes time, effort, energy and, yes, risk.
The penultimate line of the first stanza of the Serenity Prayer asks God to help us find the inner strength and deep well of bravery we all possess and turn that willpower and courage toward bringing about the changes that matter to us.
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Discernment is one of the most difficult skills to master especially when it comes to dealing with our ability to influence the world around us. We often have an overinflated sense of our own power to enact change. On some subconscious level, we truly believe that we can make other people see our point of view if we just have one more conversation with them, explain our position one more time or, sometimes, yell loudly enough. This, of course, is ridiculous. People do not change their minds when others shout at them or call them names. Even those who try to change events or others’ opinions with civil, respectful behavior often find themselves frustrated as things refuse to change. This is because the things they want to influence are not within their ability to alter. Discerning what we can change and what we simply wish we could change is not easy. The Serenity Prayer recognizes that very human refusal to admit defeat and accept that something is out of our hands. As such, the prayer asks for God’s help discerning what we can truly control and what we merely wish we could influence.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time
We all know someone who is never really present in the moment. They may be worrying constantly about tomorrow or forever daydreaming about the next great thing that they believe will happen in their life. They never take the time to enjoy the moment they are standing in or to revel in the life they live. Their focus is always on something else. Unfortunately, when we are focused on something in the far off future or distant past, whether good or bad, we let life pass us by. Whether we want to admit it or not, most of life is composed of the little moments that so many of us ignore. When we are worrying about the big presentation we have at work later in the week, we are not paying attention to our spouse who is longing for some emotional connection. When we are consumed with excitement for our cruise next month, we miss the friend who was looking to simply catch up over lunch. The Serenity Prayer reminds us that those little moments—the butterfly perched on the flowers by the office door, the smile of our child when she sees that daddy’s home, the smell of fresh baked cookies–get lost so easily even though those little moments are the ones that make up most of our lives and make our lives worth living.
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace
No one likes to focus on the difficulties that come with life. For all that people love to complain, no one really wants to have a troubled life. We want to be able to win the competition of “who had the worst day,” but we do not actually want to be miserable. We want to have our cake and eat it, too. Unfortunately, this is not possible. Hardships will come up in life, but they are so much more important than a way to win the misery Olympics that so often take place at family dinners or around the water cooler.
“Nothing worth doing was every easy.” This cliché phrase has been both revered for its truth and reviled for its unpleasant reality, but there is no denying its accuracy. Finding love is difficult, and marriages are hard work. Few relationships, however, come close to being as fulfilling as a loving marriage. Parenting is a lifetime of staring at the ceiling at night wondering if we are screwing up our kids irreversibly. That does not mean that it is not the most important job on earth. Almost anything that will bring us true lasting happiness and peace instead of transient pleasure comes with difficulty and trial. In moments when we want to walk away, the Serenity Prayer reminds us that those struggles will be worth it in the end.
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it
The world is not perfect. Anyone who would say otherwise is naïve, blind or has their head buried so deep in the sand that their hair is poking through the grass on the other side of the globe. The advent of 24 hour news and the internet has driven home the imperfection of the world in all its gruesome, filthy, nightmarish detail. The worst of humanity is regularly on display as both natural and human made disasters dominate the news and religious extremism and terrorism are documented with sickly loving detail. Given that the horrors of the world are regularly shoved down our throats, is it any wonder that many people would prefer to hide under the covers and pretend that everything is just hunky dory?
Hiding from reality, however, does nothing to change what is actually happening in the world. Distorting facts and figures to feed a popular narrative robs those actually hurt of any chance of enacting real change. The key to dealing with this world is to accept it as it is, both the good and the bad. It is wrong to pretend away the suffering of others, but it is not right to rub the worst of human depravity in the face of someone who is counting their own blessings. The Serenity Prayer makes it clear that we need to deal with reality, not wishful fantasy. To do that, we need to celebrate the highs and spread the good as far and as wide as we can. We need to mourn the lows and fight fiercely to correct what wrongs we can. We cannot change reality when we do not even know what is real.
Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will
Trust is one of the key components of the Christian faith. Christians must trust that God has a plan for their lives. They must trust that everything, even terrible things, happen for a reason. Painful though it may be, they must trust that their loved ones who die are going to a better place. Trust, however, does not always come easily. Christians who are mourning a lost parent, spouse, friend or, worst of all, a child, may find themselves raging against God and questioning everything they ever believed.
While hardship and trial sometimes brings a person’s faith to its knees, the hottest fires sometimes forge the strongest faith. Those people who come out of trials with both a faith core of steel and a deepened trust in God are often those who manage to accept, somehow, that God is in control even when everything around them is going to hell in a handbasket. Even when life is easy-breezy and good, however, it is not always easy for us to trust in God and surrender. We want to take control. We want to be in charge. The Serenity Prayer reminds us, though, that what we can influence is so much smaller than what God can determine. Whether we like it or not, we are being dragged in the direction God wants us to go, so we may as well stop fighting, go with the flow and trust that He has our best interests at heart.
So that I may be happy in this life
Everyone wants to be happy. We know that this life is too short, and we want to enjoy every minute of it. We want to spend our days smiling and laughing. We want to feel both joy and excitement and treasure every moment. The desire to be happy is one of the most natural desires of humanity. Our very biological drive to survive is based on our need to be happy. Our bodies are hardwired to use a biological reward-based system to keep us alive. When we do something that helps us survive, we are rewarded with a surge of dopamine, a feel-good chemical. These hormonal surges come when we eat, sleep, talk with other human beings and have sex. These processes are necessary for the continuation of the human species. Staying happy in this life, however, is not just about fulfilling biological urges. We are hardwired to do more than survive. Dopamine floods our brains when we truly live. Singing, dancing, creating and exploring new things all trigger dopamine. The Serenity Prayer helps remind us that, despite what some fire-and-brimstone sermons say, aiming to be happy in this life is nothing to be ashamed of as long as we do not trade morality for transient pleasure. This, however, rarely happens when we do what is hardwired to be one of our greatest natural sources of happiness: connecting with and helping others.
And eternally happy with Him forever and ever in the next.
Christians know that there is more than just this world. There is another world that is free of the horrors and tragedies that plague this world. Our current world is painfully imperfect, but that does not make it devoid of beauty. God’s hand is everywhere in the world, and hope can be found in even the darkest and most dangerous of times. The beauty and good of this world, however, pale in comparison to what is waiting in the next world with Jesus Christ Himself. When we pursue happiness and peace in this life, we must be sure not to get so caught up in earthly pleasures that we take our eyes off the ultimate prize: eternal life with Christ in the next life. The Serenity Prayer helps us focus on what we need to do to achieve happiness and peace in this life, but the final two lines of the prayer make sure to remind us that there is more, much more, than just this life. It reminds us to keep the next life in mind even as we strive to enjoy this one and to change this world for the better.
The Serenity Prayer is well known by both believers and non-believers. It offers simple, but effective methods to truly begin to feel peace in this life, but it also reminds us of what is waiting for us in the next life. It asks God not to fix our lives for us but to lend us the strength to correct them for ourselves. It offers inspiration and advice in equal measure and reminds the faithful that with God anything is possible.
By Stephanie Hertzenberg
This famous prayer has hidden wisdom in every line