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Some Thoughts on The Serenity Prayer

January 20, 2013

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Most of us will recognize the popular version of this prayer adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Perhaps, fewer people are aware of the following, longer version attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr in 1941 or 1942:

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.

This prayer contains certain basic principles that can contribute to spiritual and psychological health that are worth examining a bit more closely.

Being Courageous and Relinquishing Control: First of all, the serenity prayer makes us quite aware that we are not the center of the universe and that we cannot control everything. We are in fact very much on the periphery of many things and when we think about it there is very little that we can actually control. Nevertheless, God still desires that we be co-workers with Him in our salvation, but what can we offer? Our free will. Calm, courageous, choice, not frantic, fearful control, is the essential category in Christian thought and the Christian life. And to make good choices, we need God’s wisdom to discern the things that we should humbly accept and those things that we can courageously change. For example, we should accept the faults of others, bearing one another’s burdens, but we can courageously repent of our own failings and try to follow the Gospel’s teachings. In not seeking to control the uncontrollable and in striving to do what can be done, we align our lives with the will of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Living in the Present: Second, “enjoying one moment at a time” refers to the reality that we can’t change our past and don’t know our future.  What we have is the present, the here and now.  If we live in the moment, one day at a time, “taking no thought for the morrow,” we are able to encounter the Living God who created us and sustains us through good times as well as bad.  The nous, the faculty of the soul that is capable of perceiving God’s energies, is only able to function in the present moment. The mind, the rational discursive part of our nature,  on the other hand prefers to live in the reconstructed past or the imaginative future.  When the rational faculty dominates the nous, we experience shame, guilt, anxiety, fear, and dread.  We may be ashamed of our past and dread our future, but God is not to be found in either place. He is in the present reaching out towards us and waiting for us to reach out towards Him, crying “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Living Ascetically and Nonjudgmentally: Third, “accepting hardship as a pathway to peace” means fasting, vigil, prayer and patiently enduring trials that come our way will bring us peace. “Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it” encourages us to put on the mind of Christ, never to cast the first stone, and to view this world with the compassionate, loving kindness of the Lord Jesus. God sees so much sin and waits patiently for the moment of repentance, how can we react differently? And if He is wisely watching, waiting, and guiding, what can possibly beset us?  These words also remind us that we don’t always know what is best for us.

Trusting and Obeying: Fourth, “trusting that You will make all things right, If I surrender to Your will” implies that we recognize God’s deep and abiding love for each one of us and realize that we will encounter that love by surrendering to His will. God wills for all to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth that is found when we love one another and love God. In that place, there is no wrath or condemnation, but the joy of the blessed that led Saint Anthony the Great to say, “I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.”

Being spiritually Content: The last line—“so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next”—is perhaps the most important for us in this modern age.  Secular culture bids us to search for ultimate happiness in this life.  Very often, it tells us to pursue total happiness in pleasure seeking with the acquisition of material comfort, sensual pleasure, and a “me-first” attitude toward life. None of this is reasonable, but far from it. Reasonable happiness can only be found in a life conformed to divine reason and the truth revealed in love and self-sacrifice. Christ is the true joy of all. In Him, we can be reasonably happy and in fact even more than what the reason can conceive, despite what our circumstances may be. And the spiritual happiness in this life is but a pale reflection what we will know in the next life in the face-to-face encounter with Christ. Our true home is eternal life with the eternal God and His saints. When we adjust our expectations in this life, we find gratitude, calmness, contentment, and serenity.

Remarkably, the teachings in Serenity Prayer about control, courage, the present moment, asceticism, non-judgmental acceptance, trust, obedience, and the meaning of happiness can provide a roadmap for emotional and spiritual well-being that is not inconsistent with the advice of ancient fathers and the counsels of many psychologists.  Those who incorporate such counsels in their daily lives will truly find serenity, peace, and ultimately happiness, for they will have found the path that leads towards the source of all these good things, Christ Jesus our Lord.

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