Learning from the Serenity Prayer: Acceptance

The Serenity Prayer has a long and rather mys- terious 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 Anony- mous. 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. We are currently living through a time that seems totally out of control and may remain that way for some time. The Serenity Prayer was “built” for days like these. I have realized that I need the words of the Serenity Prayer more than ever. You may, too. So for the four weeks (April 12 – May 2) I will repost blogs featuring one phrase or cluster of phrases from this beautiful prayer on Mondays and Thursdays. (This series originally appeared in December 2016 and January 2017)

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

This first and foundational statement of the Serenity Prayer goes against the grain for many of us. 

  • We don’t like being told that we don’t have the power to change what we don’t like.  That smacks of powerlessness.  And if there is anything a human being longs for it is the power to be in control.  But here is the truth of the prayer:  I can’t change anything but my attitudes and behavior; I can influence others, but I can’t change them.
  • The word accept is a passive term.  One dictionary definition of accept is to assent to the reality of a situation.  We prefer to drive the situation, not assent to it.
  • The prayer credits God as the source of our serenity. If we have to ask God to grant it, that means that we can’t create it for ourselves.
  • We all long for serenity – although we may not recognize that the lack of it is what is making us miserable. When we complain about our lives, we usually are bemoaning our busyness, the agitated state of our minds,  the emptiness we feel as we grapple with life. We have to be reminded that we have the ability to build serenity into our lives if  we don’t like the way that we feel.

So . . . how do we deal with a statement that seems to promise a tranquil and calm life but requires us to give up control of that life?

First, of all we need to face (as opposed to deny) the reality that much of our emotional energy is tied up in trying to change the past. The hurts and struggles and mistakes and pain of the past are real, but they cannot be amended after the fact. To wish that our parents had treated us better, that we hadn’t flunked out of college, that our selfishness had not driven love out of our life, that we hadn’t chosen chasing our career over spending time with our children, that our best friend hadn’t betrayed us is exhausting . . . and useless. In order to heal and to accept serenity, we need to assent to the reality of our past, learn from our mistakes, and move on. 

Second, we need to face that we cannot change other people. This desire is at the root of most failed relationships. It takes many forms.  We are judgmental . . . and mean.  We are judgmental . . . and smothering.  We are judgmental, but believe that our help could truly be beneficial  . . . but the other person won’t cooperate. All of our attempts to enable another person to be different will fail because we can’t fix another; we can only fix ourselves.  What we can do is choose to assent to the reality that we can’t make someone else be different.  

Then we need to accept that the peace and serenity we are looking for comes from God.  That empty hole in our life is a God-shaped hole.  The only thing we can do to fill it is to surrender control of our lives to God and accept that the serenity we are looking for comes when we assent to the reality that we cannot change what is not ours to change.


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