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.
Do you know that prayer? It’s often called the “Serenity Prayer.” It was originally written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who first prayed it like this: “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.”
The “Serenity Prayer” became widespread through its use by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups, and now it’s so common that I’ve seen it printed on everything from greeting cards to home decor. I had never seen the original before this week, when I went to learn more about the “Serenity Prayer.”
You see, I’ve been having about one new thing go wrong every week for the last three months. Some are small and easy to handle, like the air conditioner leaking in the basement. Some are personal problems that don’t have a quick, easy fix; a covid case identified at Grandma’s nursing home or a family member getting laid off. Some are the shared disappointment of events canceled due to the pandemic. Some are big-picture problems, like the systemic racism uncovered by George Floyd’s murder or learning that more poor people are dying from covid just because they can’t get the medical treatment they need promptly enough to save their lives. Sometimes what goes wrong is that I just can’t figure out why the darn computer isn’t doing what I want it to when it did it just fine last week! (Anybody else?)
I am sure I am not the only one who has had a season like this, where there are new worries or sadnesses arriving like clockwork. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that many of us are experiencing this right now, as there’s enough going wrong in the world around us that even one minor personal problem can feel unbearable.
After a month or two of mounting stress, I realized that most of these weekly problems fell into one of two categories: either I could do something about it, or I couldn’t. So I called a repair shop to look at my air conditioner. I looked up solutions to my computer problems. I watched the news and told God, “You’re going to have to do something about that.” I started thinking of the “Serenity Prayer” and patting myself on the back when I sorted things between “my problem to fix” and “someone else’s problem.”
Just as I got comfortable with my sorting system, I got the idea to look up the “Serenity Prayer” and learn where it came from. As a side note, if you want to stay impressed with yourself as a Christian, never learn things. “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.”
First of all, this prayer starts with courage, and not only that, but it is courage to change “what must be altered,” not just courage to change what “can” be changed. I was so quick to distinguish between what I thought I could handle and what I couldn’t that I never stopped to ask what must be changed. I thought of my sorting problems as faith in God to do the work needed, but now I wonder if it was also laziness and complacency toward facing bigger challenges. I wonder if the tumult of the world made me want serenity so much that I skipped right past the courage and wisdom parts of the prayer.
Am I as eager for courage as for serenity? Are you? Are we willing to do the work of applying our wisdom to discern where we should or should not act? That sounds a lot harder than serenity. Besides, what if we get it wrong, and we act courageously when we should have accepted with serenity? Will God get mad at us? Will other people?
When the Israelites entered the Promised Land after escaping slavery in Egypt, God spoke to Joshua: “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9) Now, if you read the rest of Joshua and Judges, you quickly learn that the Israelites did not always choose correctly where to use their courage. Even so, even if they made the wrong choices, God promised to be with them.
Dear people of God, hear this: God’s presence with you does not depend on you discerning wisely between courage and serenity, between acting and accepting. You will, at times, choose wrongly. I know I have. God is with you and me.
God is with us. If that is enough to make us brave, then let that courage empower us to change what must be altered. Even if it is big. Even if it is hard. God is with us.
You see, I also noticed that this prayer isn’t just for one person. “Give us…” he prayed. We must be brave together in the face of what must be changed, serene together in the face of what cannot be changed, and wise together in the discernment between the two. God is with us.
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. Amen.