Living the Serenity Prayer – Life as We would Like It

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. Check out past posts by clicking on the “Category” and then “Serenity Prayer” on the home page of this blog.

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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 hardship as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;  

My  mother lived a difficult life: rheumatic fever as a young child which put her on bed rest for a year; loss of a beloved husband, a war hero who never returned; raising a child on her own post-WWII America; a sometimes difficult second marriage. The result was her life-long battle with this concept in the Serenity Prayer: she wanted life as she would have it and it was denied her.  The result was a life of bitterness and fear.

As I was musing about how we can live in a world that does not meet our desires or expectations, a phrase memorized more than fifty years ago jumped into my mind: 

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so (Shakespeare’s  Hamlet). 

That phrase dovetails with the words of a famous Christian preacher and thinker, John Chrysostom.  St. John Chrysostom was born  in 347 in Antioch, then part of Syria.  Just  35 years earlier, the Emperor Constantine had ended persecution of Christians and began the process of institutionalizing the Christian Church. For 12 years, beginning in 386, Chrysostom established himself as a great preacher, offering his listeners impressive sermons. In 398, St. John was requested, against his will, to serve as archbishop of Constantinople. He had  many steadfast followers who loved his preaching, but he also made religious and political  enemies.

In 403, Emperor Arcadius banished him from Constantinople. He died in exile in the mountains of Armenia after suffering harsh winters, separation from beloved friends,  and frequent illness. Certainly the life he had in this sinful world was not the one he would have liked to have.  While in exile, Chrysostom penned these words: 

“The events of this life in themselves are indifferent matters and take on the character of good or evil for us according to our response to them. . . . Those who stumble over the events God allows to occur “would be more correct in reckoning their stumbling to themselves, and not to the nature of the events” (from On the Providence of God).

How do we live in a sinful world that does not meet our desires or expectations?  Perhaps we, too, can begin to think that the events and circumstances of our lives are neutral – not good or bad. The way we think about them and act because of them determines whether we will live in serenity and gratitude for the daily mercies of God or in discontent and bitterness because God dealt us a bad hand. 

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