“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” -Jn 14:27
During the course of my 47 years, persistent anxiety has been one of the things with which I’ve wrestled the most. From childhood, I found myself anxious in situations where it seemed most other people were not. I knew that this was abnormal. I was supposed to “cast all [my] anxiety on Him because he cares for [me]” (1 Peter 5:7).
Yet, I had no idea how to put this into practice. Nothing seemed to “work.” Yet, in recent days, I’ve acquired some new habits and patterns of living that have helped me to live with the type of serenity I’ve always wanted.
Foremost among the new habits and patterns is my recitation of the Serenity Prayer once or twice a day. I might say it aloud, I might say it silently. But I always take a few moments to reflect upon it and think about its application to my life in the here-and-now.
For that reason, I’m offering a two-part series on this short prayer that has become one of the most cherished prayers in the English-speaking world. The first installment will offer reflections on the short version of the prayer; the second installment will explore the treasures offered in the longer version of the prayer.
The Short Version
The short version of the prayer is composed of the first few lines of the longer text. It reads:
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
These three lines can be found printed on bumper stickers, bookmarks, collections of inspirational poetry, church bulletins, and many other media. Many people testify that they use it to help work though the dark times in their lives. Entire books are published, expounding on the wisdom to be gleaned from this little devotional treatise. Indeed, it summarizes beautifully some timeless truths that will help us spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and even physiologically—if we can just find a way to put them into practice.
What follows is a series of brief reflections on the first few lines of the Serenity Prayer.
Serenity to Accept the Things I Cannot Change
The opening salvo of the prayer is, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” But for what, exactly, am I praying? The answer is that, when I pray about accepting the things I cannot change, I am referring to nearly everything in my life. I cannot, for example, change the past. Nor can I change or control other people. Furthermore, I cannot control many aspects of my health. Additionally, I have limited ability to change or control the future.
Thus, in uttering this line of the prayer, I should be coming to terms with my lack of control and, ultimately, with the fact that I am not the Great I Am. I am not God. God alone is omniscient and omnipotent, while I am fallible and finite. This realization, at the nitty gritty level of practical life, can initially be disconcerting. But as it sinks in, this realization can cause great comfort because it allows us to “let go of the reins” that were never designed for us in the first place and cause us to realize that these things we can’t control aren’t the source of true happiness anyway.
Indeed, our restless and discontent hearts will only find happiness when we accept God’s love and care for us, when we open ourselves to his unconditional love. Part and parcel of our acceptance of his love is our trust that he will actively love us and take care of us even when life is out of control.
As for the “serenity” component of the opening line, we are praying for God to grant us the “shalom” or fullness of life that he wishes for us to have. This type of peace is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). Jesus distinguished between worldly peace (which is an uneasy truce) and spiritual peace (something that can’t be taken away from us). Spiritual peace is a deep inner sense that all is well.
In other words, when we pray, “God grant me the serenity to accept thing things I cannot change,” we are reminding ourselves that there are so many things we cannot change or control. And that is OK. If we can’t control them, why suffer anxiety over the situation? Why not put those things in our “God box” and let him “worry” about them. When we find it in ourselves to do this, we will be taking strong steps in the direction of serenity, the spiritual peace that is a taste of heaven.
Courage to Change the Things I Can
After having handed over to God the things I cannot change, what is left? The things that I can change. “God, grant me the courage to change the things that I can.” Well, what can I change? The most important “thing” that I can change is my own response to reality. I can improve my ability to accept life on life’s terms, to wake up every day and do “the next right thing,” even when the next right thing is something daunting, even when the realities I am facing are difficult. I can trust God, letting God be God rather than attempting to take over his post.
That is where courage comes in. It is said, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” And, indeed, we are wise to entreat God, asking him to give us the courage to overcome the dark poison that is fear. In other words, any journey to genuine serenity is not an escape from fear but a journey through it.
I’ve found it a good exercise to put in writing the things about which I’m apprehensive. After having put those things to paper, I reflect upon and write down the negative consequences that will result if I am cowed by fear. Often, my acting out of apprehension or fear will limit or hurt not only me, but others. Finally, I offer a simple prayer to God, asking him to help me live out of courage rather than out of fear.
Wisdom to Know the Difference
After having determined that we will hand over to God the things we can’t change, and having prayed that He will give us the courage to change the things we can, often we are left with a difficulty: which is which? Which things are beyond our ability to change? And for which things should we seek the courage to act ? To answer such questions, we need wisdom.
First, we need practical wisdom, the sort of wisdom offered in the biblical book of Proverbs. How do we obtain this type of wisdom? We obtain it from life experience, first and foremost. We obtain it through trial and error, trying to apply timeless principles to time-bound, real-life situations. That is why the biblical qualifications for “elder” imply a certain amount of life experience.
Second, we need spiritual wisdom, and must pray for God to bless us with spiritual insight and perception (Is 11:2; Prov 9:4-6; Lk 11:9-13). And the trick is this: When we grow in practical wisdom, we predispose ourselves to receive God’s divine wisdom; the two types of wisdom are designed by God to be mutually reinforcing. Taken together, armed with both practical and spiritual wisdom, we can say, “not my will, but God’s, be done.”
If we wish for something new to emerge in our lives—such as the withering of anxiety and the growth of peace—that which was there before must die and give way. We must let go of our old way of facing reality. We must shed the old pattern of closing ourselves to God’s love because we have been trying to play the role of god in our own lives. We must stop cutting ourselves off from the river of grace that flows from the divine life and stop trying to change the people and things in life that we can’t change.
In so doing, we will begin to enjoy spiritual and emotional peace, find ourselves empowered to do the things we’re called to do, and experience the infusion of divine wisdom. We will know what Paul meant when he said to the Corinthians, “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).