The Serenity Prayer has a long and rather mysterious history. The first three lines were made popular by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 -1971), as part of a 1934 lecture. The modern prayer is several lines longer. In 1941, the prayer was noticed and later adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous. Over the past 60 years the prayer has gone far beyond AA boundaries. It is especially instructive for anyone longing to be an apprentice of Jesus. For the next eight Sundays, (November 6 – December 24), this blog will feature one phrase or cluster of phrases from this beautiful prayer. I hope this series will create motivation and direction in the new year.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.“
This last clause is the key to the first sentence of the Serenity Prayer. God can grant us the wisdom to discern the difference between what we are not capable of changing and what we can change. This discerning is wisdom.
Wisdom, I believe, is experience plus inspiration fueled by love. It is best lightly applied, but bears repeating if the listener is open.
Experience – Our experiences can be our best teachers if we don’t allow guilt or shame to color them. We are who we are because of what we have experienced. And we can learn lessons from those past events which can then be recycled. The hitch here is that we must first actually learn from our mistakes and use them as fodder for growth. Then we can offer what we have learned to others.
Here we see the beauty of the first sentence of the Serenity Prayer. If we learn that we can change only our own attitudes and behaviors, we don’t wallow in the past. And we don’t try to fix other other people. Instead our growing wisdom can inspire others. People who don’t reflect on their experiences don’t learn to change through those experiences. Instead they stew on them. When challenged,they spew out anger and hatred rather than sharing the lessons they have learned and inspiring others.
Inspiration – The word inspire has a long and beautiful history. In the 1300’s it meant “the immediate influence of God,” especially “the inspiration under which the holy books were written.” That meaning came from the old French word “inspiracion” which meant “inhaling, breathing in. The origin of that meaning is the Latin word “in + spirare” which meant “to breathe into.” We see this meaning of the word in Genesis 2: 7
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
The meaning of inspire evolved over the years. It seems to have gone from “breathe into” to “influence” to “affect or guide.” However, the rich old version of “inhaling” or breathing in” God is still true. God did not only breathe into humanity at creation. The Holy Spirit breathes wisdom into us everyday. It is our job to listen and then to share that wisdom.
Love – The word “love” has almost lost its meaning in our superficial society. Decades ago Scott Peck wrote that “love is wanting the best for others.” Recently in his book The Magnificent Story, James Bryan Smith echoed that rich sentiment: “Love is to will the good of another.” That kind of love is what changes our need to control others into compassion. It motivates us to share who we are and what we have learned with others who are willing be breathed into – just as we have been breathed into. “Willing the good of another” is the basic value we have lost in the United States – especially in the political arena. That is why our willingness to share our humanity through our wisdom is so needed!
The Serenity Prayer teaches how to live in a world of meanness, cruelty, and despair. We harness what we have learned, allow the Holy Spirit to reframe it, and then give it away.