The Serenity Prayer: Its Origin and Meaning

The timeless Serenity Prayer is a plea for comfort, strength, and wisdom in a turbulent world.

We often hear the phrase “surrender to God” in different contexts and different situations. While this may sound cliché and one of those “easy to say but hard to do” facts of life, there is truth and wisdom in it. We do not have control over or power over a lot of matters in this world. And oftentimes, trouble comes when we fail to recognize and accept this. 

This is the reason why the Serenity Prayer has resonated with a lot of people to a great extent from the time it was written. Let us study together what the Serenity Prayer means and how we can apply it in our lives.

What is the Serenity Prayer?

There are various versions of the Serenity Prayer, but the most commonly known one is this:

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 full Serenity Prayer from which the above is quoted is longer and more elaborate. 

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.

It is a powerful prayer seeking help from the Lord so we can graciously accept what we cannot change and courageously change what we can. 

History of the Serenity Prayer

The author of the Serenity Prayer has been a largely debated detail for years until a 1932 diary entry was recovered. It was found that the prayer was originally written by Reinhold Niebuhr, a German-American reformed theologian in the 20th century. Born to German parents and raised in Missouri, he grew up being part of a church his father pastored. He eventually became a pastor himself and has been described as “the most influential American theologian of the 20th century” by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. 

He wrote the Serenity Prayer in the early 1930s while he was a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City originally as the closing part of a longer prayer. His friend Dr. Howard Robbins requested to include the prayer in a book he compiled and published in 1934. The full Serenity Prayer was also in the Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces released in 1941. 

There are different speculations as to why Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer in full. Some say it is to address any kind of suffering in general, while others imply it was a statement against Nazi Germany. What is clear though is the fact the Niebuhr intended for it to be a prayer during difficult times and encouragement to focus on working on what can be improved. 

What Does the Serenity Prayer Mean?

The Serenity Prayer is a well-known prayer among believers and has even been adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) as part of their 12-Step Recovery Plan. We read it in books and devotionals. We hear it preached in our churches and prayed in our Bible study groups. We see it in merchandise perched in our homes. But do we understand what this beautiful prayer means? Let’s break down the Serenity Prayer to have a better perspective of it. 

God-Given Serenity To Accept The Things We Cannot Change

I love how the prayer starts with, “God, grant me the serenity…” It is both a bold and a modest statement. Not a lot of people have the courage to admit that it is God who can fully, perfectly, and wholly give the serenity we need and long for. It takes God-given grace and humility to recognize that God is the giver of true peace over circumstances that are out of our control. John 14:27 says the peace that God gives is not the same as the most temporary peace that the world gives. His peace is lasting.

But how can we begin to accept things we cannot change? Here are 3 practical steps that can help after we decide to submit to God’s will. 

  1. Assess and Acknowledge. It helps to acknowledge the things, people, and circumstances in our lives that we cannot change. This includes our childhood, our past, the wrongs we’ve done and the wrongs that have been done to us, other people and their choices, and inevitable situations like illness, loss, and death. The list can go on. But what’s important is to assess what these are in our own lives and how they affect us. We can only address what we acknowledge.
  2. Grieve and Forgive. Acknowledging these things does not mean we no longer feel the pain that comes along with it. It also does not mean we force ourselves to approve of or enjoy them. More often than not, there will still be a certain degree of suffering and uncomfortable consequences. We are free to grieve. It is an essential part of the process of acceptance. Keeping the pain bottled up inside or denying the pain of loss is unwise, as it will only come out in uglier ways. Grieve if you must, but do not wallow in the mud. 
  3. Learn and Let Go. Once we’ve allowed ourselves to grieve, we can see more clearly the things we need to learn from our experiences. What did we do wrong? What did we allow others to do to us? How did we start to wander away from the Lord? How can we do better next time? Lessons learned from our mistakes are invaluable.

God-Given Courage To Change The Things We Can

While it is true that there are a lot of things in this life that we cannot change, we are not left without hope. In the same way that serenity to accept things we cannot change comes only from God, the courage to change things also comes from Him.

I don’t know about you, but I have found myself in countless situations where I could not muster up the strength or motivation to change myself. The inaction was at times out of despair, while other times it was just plain laziness. That is why it is very comforting to know that the courage to change what we can is still graciously given by the Lord. It is not by our own will or effort. 

Knowing that courage comes from God, we can now have confidence in what’s ahead. What then are the things we can change?

Our Belief 

Most of the time, the belief system of a person is undermined because it is not as apparent as external behavior. But the truth is whatever a person believes in, heavily influences and determines his actions. The Bible says we need to renew our minds so we can discern the will of God and know what is good, acceptable, and perfect. (Romans 12:2). Unfortunately, because of sin, our minds are also fallen. We have a natural inclination to rebel against the supreme authority of Christ in our lives. We have a depraved belief that we know better than the One who created us. We need to renew our minds and change our beliefs so we can implement lasting change.

The Bible teaches us how to renew our minds in the following verses:

  1. 1 Peter 1:13–14. These verses admonish us to “not be conformed to the passions of our former ignorance.” The ignorance of God and His Word causes us to wrongly pursue anything else that we set our hearts on. Meditating on His Word day and night helps us come to know God better. When we know the goodness of God, it becomes easier to change our mind belief about His laws. We start to understand that all of it is rooted in God’s love for us. 
  2.  Ephesians 4:17–18. We learn in these verses that because of the innate hardness of our hearts, our minds become futile. We are unable to produce anything worthy, anything good, anything fruitful. Because of this, it is crucial to know that changing our minds cannot be done on our own accord, like everything else in our lives. It can only be done by the enabling of the Holy Spirit.

Shifting our beliefs to the truth of God’s word is the first step to be able to change the things we can. 

Our Actions

Am I the only one who’s had failed New Year’s resolutions? Committing to changes and self-improvements we want to do seem easy during the first few months (or weeks!) of the year, but as the hype subsides the motivation also does. Whether in committing to a healthier lifestyle or in having a consistent Bible study time daily, we all need to have 3 things: Desire, Dedication, and Distress Calls. 

  1. Desire. Desire is a powerful tool that can gear towards God or away from God. Since the desires of our flesh are inclined towards the latter, it is important to be in step with the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16). Having the desire to change our actions, our responses, our routines, and our decision-making process helps us align our thoughts and plan our steps as we abide by the Spirit. 
  2. Dedication. Not all days will be easy. There will be days when reverting to our old habits is more convenient. There will be times when living according to the standards of the world is easier and comfortable. That is why we need dedication and commitment to follow through with what we have started. The Bible says that when we commit our work to the Lord, He will establish our plans (Proverbs 16:3).
  3. Distress Calls. And because we are imperfect beings, we will inevitably face temptations and even at times fall into these temptations. It is essential to have people we trust and respect who will hold us accountable to the commitments we have set. This wisdom gem is beautifully illustrated in Ecclesiastes 4:9-11. When we walk with another believer, there is more productivity, more passion, and more protection

God-Given Wisdom on How To Live

The full Serenity Prayer does not end there. We are given magnificent insight and pointers on how to maximize our borrowed time here on earth. 

Be Present

“Living one day at a time, 

enjoying one moment at a time,”

Because of the desire to control and plan our lives, we keep looking forward to the future – to finally reaching our dreams and accomplishing our goals, to building our families, or to checking off our bucket lists. While these are not evil in themselves, when left unchecked, we may end up failing to appreciate and enjoy the present. 

The Serenity Prayer reminds us exactly of this – “to live one day at a time”. The phrase “to live” also means “to remain”. We need to remain in every day, to not allow the days to pass by without making it meaningful and relevant. And the only way to make it truly so is to seek God daily, follow Jesus and abide by the Spirit.

Accept Hardship

“Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,”

It may be odd, but this is probably my favorite part of the Serenity Prayer. Not because it is a place of comfort, in fact, it is the exact opposite! But what I find refuge in is the knowledge that any hardship allowed by the Lord is for my good and His glory. When we share in His suffering, we become shaped more and more into His image. 

For the author to say accepting hardship is the pathway of peace is just so full of truth and wisdom. Indeed it is only when we remember that as followers of Jesus, we will be persecuted, we will have enemies, we will have hardships in this fallen world because this is not our eternal home. We are not made for this world, but eternity with our Heavenly Father. 

Surrender to God’s Will

“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.”

The first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism answers the greatest question all of us have probably asked at one point in our lives. What is the chief end of man? 

“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

The most distinct way we can glorify God in our daily lives is to continuously surrender to His will, trusting that He is all-knowing, all-powerful, and He is always good. Our good (our happiness in this life and eternity) is always tied with His glory. 

In Summary

What is the secret behind the Serenity Prayer? The language is humble, its lessons are simple and its history is not particularly romantic. But its messages are both personal and universal. They are easy to understand yet difficult to execute. The prayer asks us to focus on the present, “Living one day at a time” and “enjoying one moment at a time.”

We learn that the Serenity Prayer means we receive God-given serenity, God-given courage, and God-given wisdom as we ask it from Him and as we allow Him to work on our minds and hearts. Because He is a limitless and unchanging God, we can rest and trust in His goodness to us His children.

Alex Shute
AUTHOR
Alex Shute
Alex is a family man and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. His passion is to serve the global Church and bring people of diverse backgrounds together to learn & grow.