By Dwight Lee Wolter.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change…”
The Serenity Prayer was conceived in a little stone cottage in Heath, Massachusetts by theologian and professor, Reinhold Niebuhr, around 1932. It was printed on cards and distributed to the troops by the U.S.O. and circulated by the National Council of Churches. The Serenity Prayer became even better known after being adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1941 when an early AA member saw it in a New York newspaper obituary.
With all that’s going on in the world today, I could use some serenity. How about you? Where do you find serenity? I find it by walking the beach at Smith Point, watching the tide coming in. I went there once when the beach was isolated, except for me and one other man who ~ strangely ~ was standing on the shore, yelling at the tide, “Bring it on! I dare you! One inch closer and you are going to get it, buddy! Come on! Bring it on! Just try it!”
The man was clearly disturbed, so I walked close to the dunes and as far away from the shore as possible to avoid him as I continued my on walk. The next day, I returned to the beach, longing, once again, for the serenity the beach provides. And, once again, the beach was isolated, except for me and the same man who had been there the previous day. Once again, he was standing on the shore. But this time the tide was going out and he was yelling, “Please don’t go! I’ll do anything if you stay! Don’t leave me!”
His threats and taunts, however, could not keep the tide from coming in; just as his pitiful pleading could not keep it from going out. He was powerless over the tide, and he lacked the serenity to accept the things he cannot change as he stood, like a madman, railing against the inevitable. I had come to the seashore seeking serenity; he had come seeking change. But I did not find serenity, and he did not find change. He had allowed the tide to disturb his day, and I had allowed his day to disturb mine.
How many times do we suffer needlessly because we lack the willingness to accept the things we cannot change? Like trees refusing to bend with the wind, we snap. Like a rising tide rising against our refusal to accept the change that life brings ~ we lose the ability to experience the serenity that acceptance often brings. The man on the shore felt deeply defeated by the tide. But defeat, rightly accepted, need not be defeat at all. In not getting the power and control we want; we may gain the acceptance that we need.
We can begin to realize the blessings of the Serenity Prayer by accepting (not denying) our present circumstances as they are; by accepting ourselves as we are (not as we wish we were); and by accepting others as they are (not as we think they should be). It is accepting our weaknesses; our unrealistic expectations; and our unreasonable demands that new strengths are discovered and developed. Acceptance of people, places and things that we cannot force to conform to our desires may feel like defeat; but acceptance eventually becomes the foundation upon which sustainable change can be built.
Notice that the first third of this prayer does not say that “I will grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” It says, “God grant me…” The Serenity Prayer is a prayer, not a self-help mantra. It is a petition to God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In accepting what we cannot do; we create an opening where God can gain access to our soul and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Acceptance is the opposite of control, rebellion, and the force of will. Let us now hear the entirety of the Serenity Prayer, as written by Reinhold Niebuhr:
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.
Dwight Lee Wolter is author of A Life Worth Waiting For! and other books. He is pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue (Long Island, NY) and blogs at dwightleewolter.com.