The Immediate Importance of the Serenity Prayer

The Immediate Importance of the Serenity Prayer June 8, 2022

Written in the early 1930s by Reinhold Niebuhr—and later adopted by AA and other twelve-step programs—the Serenity Prayer has spread far and wide and is known by millions of people around the world. The prayer encourages us to accept the things we cannot change, change the things we can, and seek wisdom to know the difference.

Here is the modern version of the prayer.

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 Immediate Importance of this Prayer

Whether or not you believe in God—and I know of many non-religious people who use the prayer consistently and skip the first part—the prayer is of immediate importance today. All of us need to seek wisdom to know when we should accept things outside of our control and when we should work like there is no tomorrow because we can make a difference.

What Can We Change?

Interestingly enough, Niebuhr placed a higher emphasis on action in the first rendition of the prayer.

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.

That still leaves us with a question: What can we change?

Upon inspection, there are only three things that we can (potentially) have control over in life, namely our thoughts, words, and actions. And we can only use those three to influence our surroundings, but we can never achieve anything close to complete control.

Serenity Through Acceptance

Serenity is an interesting word. It is defined as the state of being calm, peaceful and untroubled. How can we possibly achieve that state when the world around us is in utter turmoil?

It’s not easy, that is for sure, but it begins with accepting—embracing even—our limitations.

Why? Because thinking about or trying to change things totally out of our control will only cause stress, irritation, anger, rage, and depression, leaving us feeling powerless and helpless. Accepting those same limits will allow us to work within our sphere of control, which can then help us find serenity.

Finding Wisdom

Let me give two relevant examples.

A person who spends all day watching cable news obsessing over world events and national politics is expending energy on things they have no control over. Yes, it is important to be well informed, but aside from voting, organizing, and lobbying, most people do not have direct control over governmental and corporate actions.

Similarly, a person who spends all day scouring social media doing their own “research” may get a false sense of control, thinking they are changing the world by commenting on something or contributing to a trending topic. They are not.

Conversely, limiting news-watching and web surfing, instead, spending that energy and time on health, work, family, service, or other things within the sphere of influence, would be more productive and lead to more serenity.

Sadly, there is no magic formula here.

Every situation needs to go through the wringer.

Is this something I can change with my thoughts, words, or actions?

If no, then grant me serenity.

How about this? Is this something I can change?

If yes, take action.

Seeking wisdom is a continual exercise of discernment.

As Niebuhr himself said:

The final wisdom of life requires not the annulment of incongruity, but the achievement of serenity within and above it.

Worth Every Effort

For more than twenty years, the Serenity Prayer has been my prayer of choice. I have used it near-daily to remind me of these three pillars; to do the things I can, accept the things I cannot control, and continually seek wisdom. Even now, I still get caught up in efforts to control things I have no control over, fighting windmills in my mind. The prayer serves as a constant reminder. It gets me back on track when I falter, and I have more moments of serenity as a result.

You may want to try it the next time you get overwhelmed with the state of the world.

To close here is a longer version of the prayer:

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.


Gudjon Bergmann
Author and Columnist

Picture: CCO License

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