The Serenity Prayer is a staple of modern religious prayer and a mantra in self-help as well as groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. While relatively modern, the prayer has found a home in American culture, to the extent that you can easily find consumer goods with the short version of the prayer. The Serenity Prayer asks God for help in finding peace and calm, to both change things we must change, and to accept things we cannot.
This prayer, which has roots in several sermons and diary entries written between 1932 and 1944, is thought to relate to the author’s thoughts about leaving his home country, Germany, and its involvement in two World Wars. Today, the missive to accept evil we cannot change and the motivation to change that which we can is a powerful reminder to those of us struggling with addiction, leading to its massive popularity in AA. But, where does this prayer come from and what does it mean?
The Serenity Prayer consists of a long and a short version, but you’re more likely to hear the short one. It reads:
“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.”
The longer version was first published in Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces in 1941. The final version, which we know today, wasn’t adapted until 1951, where the author added the word “grace”.
“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.”
The longer version of the Serenity Prayer is rarely used in AA, but Alcoholics Anonymous used the prayer from the original 1941 Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces. This originally read:
Father, give us courage to change what must be altered,
serenity to accept what cannot be helped,
and the insight to know the one from the other.
Today, you’re more likely to read the modern adaption of the prayer, which reads:
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.
Notably, the Alcoholics Anonymous version is intended to be read as a group, as a mantra. It says “we” and not “I”. This distinction is important for some, but shows the adaptability of the prayer.
The history of the Serenity Prayer dates back to a 1932 diary entry by German-American theologist, Reinhold Niebuhr. Finding this entry closed a 5-year long debate regarding the origin of the prayer. Previously, Niebuhr’s daughter had written that he had first used the prayer in a 1941 speech against Nazi Germany. The prayer, which had appeared in various forms, unattributed, dating back to 1933, was clearly much older. It was also attributed to Winnifred Crane Wygal, an acquaintance of Niebuhr, in 1933. Wygal attributed the quote to Niebuhr in her 1940 book, “We Plan Our Own Worship Services.”
The prayer has appeared in very altered versions in prayer books, magazines, and speeches since the early 1930s. Today, we can almost conclusively attribute it to Reinhold Niebuhr, stemming from his original diary entry:
“The victorious man in the day of crisis is the man who has the serenity to accept what he cannot help and the courage to change what must be altered.”
Niebuhr began using variations of his prayer in speeches almost immediately after first writing it in his diary. It was then picked up by his close colleagues and fellow ministers. Most recognized it as a simple but powerful statement that most could identify with. By 1938, the prayer had been published in more than 5 volumes of prayers. It achieved national notoriety when it was published in the Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces and therefore distributed nationwide, and to armed forces as they moved overseas. The prayer was printed on cards and distributed to soldiers during World War 2, ensuring that nearly everyone in America knew it word for word.
It was then that it came to the attention of Alcoholics Anonymous. The organization quickly adopted the mantra and published it in Grapevine, the International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, as early as 1950. Today, AA still uses the prayer, in a slightly modified form.
Niebuhr is often quoted as writing the Serenity prayer out of anti-Nazi sentiment. This would be false, considering he originally wrote the prayer nearly a decade before Hitler rose to power. Instead, Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer as a general approach to human suffering, to finding faith in God through adversity, and for actively working to improve what you do have. The 1944 speech that attributes its creation to an anti-Nazi statement did exist, but it happened considerably after the speech had become common knowledge. That fact is of little importance, because the wording of the Serenity Prayer applies as easily to working to overcome the evils of Nazi Germany as it does to overcoming substance abuse, improving life, or accepting that you cannot control everything.
Reading the longer version of the prayer, it is clear that Niebuhr intended the passage as a means of offering motivation, of reminding that hardship teaches you and allows you to grow, and that you must work for the things you want or need to be better when they can change. It’s a powerful reminder that no matter how hard the road we are on right now, we can stop, think about what can and cannot change, and work to improve. Taking that journey will bring us closer to God and closer to the Kingdom of Heaven. At the same time, some things in life cannot and will not change. Letting go of things you cannot change and focusing on what you can is a powerful way to release stress and to improve your life.
No matter where you are in life, the Serenity Prayer is motivating, inspirational, and something we can all identify with.
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