Every member of Alcoholics Anonymous knows the Serenity Prayer. Many know it is part of a longer prayer, but few have looked past the words in the short version we use in every meeting. In this post, we look at the history and meaning of the full version of the serenity prayer, which reads like this:
The Full Serenity 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. 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 things right If I surrender to His Will; So that I may be reasonably happy in this life And supremely happy with Him Forever and ever in the next. Amen.
This famous prayer was created by the American theologian and Christian writer Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s and quickly became very popular. It was first printed in the 1944 Book of Prayers and Services for the Armed Forces, but by that stage was already being widely used in church groups as one of the most popular prayers.
It was brought into the AA, by Bill W, one of the founders in the early 1940s, and has become known as the AA prayer. Bill W. said of the prayer, “Never had we seen so much A.A. in such few words.” It has been adopted by other twelve-step programs, where it is read at many step meetings.
The prayer has been incorrectly attributed to Saint Augustine and Saint Francis of Assisi amongst others. There have been several variations, but we have selected this among the versions of the serenity prayer as it is the one that is the most popular version.
Line by Line
Here we briefly unpack each line of this wonderful prayer.
God grant me the serenity
This is the line that defines the name of the prayer. Without serenity, I would go as far as to say that sobriety might even be impossible, but certainly far harder. Our lives were flooded with troubles when we drank and many of us used this absence of serenity as an excuse to enable our drinking,
To accept the things I cannot change;
There are things that we cannot change. These include our past actions, words, and errors. This ties into the ninth step promise:
We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.
This acceptance is at the heart of achieving serenity.
Courage to change the things I can;
Change can take courage. It can be intimidating to correct the past. Making amends can be a source of fear. But it is more than that. It is the courage to say no to the offered drink or line of cocaine because that is the change you need to make and have the courage to change the answers you would have given.
And wisdom to know the difference.
We need God or if you prefer, our Higher Power to guide us and grant us wisdom because to chase after the impossible is a recipe for losing serenity. In a way precursing the Serenity Prayer, the Greek philosopher, Epictetus wrote: “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”
Living one day at a time;
We know the maxim, Just for Today. All AA members do. Here we find an echo of it. There is no other time to live. We remember the past, we plan the future, but we can only live now. Niebuhr urges us to live in the present in the fullest way we can. This is not without concern for anyone else, but living it in a way that glorifies the God of our understanding.
Enjoying one moment at a time;
We often focus too much on what we are missing rather than enjoying what we have. I have no doubt whatsoever that the secret to joy is an attitude of gratitude rather than constant feelings of resentment.
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Nothing is ever smooth. Accepting hardships as a fact allows us the opportunity to transcend, overcome and grow. Viktor Frankl said that one freedom nobody could take away from us was the decision to choose how we reacted. We can choose to accept hardships as an opportunity to learn lessons about inner peace or anger and resentment.
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
These two lines form a unit. The Christian follows the way of Jesus Christ and the bible is rich examples of Christ’s accepting this world as it is. He spoke and interacted with people who were sinners, who were flawed, who were no better than you and me and He accepted them and he accepts us as we should accept this world and others in it.
Trusting that He will make things right
If I surrender to His Will;
In step 3 of the 12 steps we
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
This part of the serenity prayer deals with the faith we need to believe that He will help and the condition for it to happen. For our Higher Power to be effective we need to surrender to His will not only for us but for those we encounter during our lives.
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
There may well be no perfect happiness in this life, but we can strive to find what happiness we can during it. The prayer has already alluded to the source of happiness. It is through courage and wisdom that we become serene.
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.
A final couplet that promises salvation. It is very much based on Christian thought and there may be those of us who do not think of our Higher Power in the same light as those who adhere to Christianity. Despite this, there is comfort in the idea of eternal, supreme joy.
The words of the full Serenity Prayer tie in remarkably well with the thoughts of the 12 steps of the A. A. program and is well worth including in a list of daily prayers. It provides for ideas that lead to finding the serenity of the mind we need. Let me say again that it is through courage and wisdom that we become serene.
The long version of the prayer goes deeper into achieving serenity of mind and looks at what we can gain from this. Becoming acquainted with this deepens our own understanding of the short version that has since the 1940s been a source of inspiration and focus for those who have been trying to recover and, in many instances, to achieve recovery from substance abuse.
I sometimes think it should be called the acceptance prayer because of the emphasis on accepting that we need courage and wisdom too.
Note: Except where specified all quotes are from the book Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as the Big Book.