What is the serenity prayer?

What we know as the Serenity Prayer is almost universally attributed to a man named Reinhold Niebuhr (1892—1971). It is believed that the prayer itself came from Niebuhr's diary and was placed into newspaper articles in the 1930s, and later into a worship book sometime around 1940 by one of Niebuhr's students, Winnifred Crane Wygal. There are several variations on the prayer today. The most common version says, "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."

A more complete and still-well-known version of the prayer was published in 1951. It reads as follows: "God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right, If I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen."

The prayer itself incorporates several biblical principles. For example, in asking God to help us accept that which we cannot change, we are acknowledging that God has placed us here under a given set of circumstances and that our life is meant to be lived for His glory (Acts 17:26–27; Colossians 3:23; 1 Corinthians 10:31). In asking God to help us live a day at a time, we acknowledge that it is God who is in control, that He guides our steps and moves us along a path for His purpose and glory (Proverbs 20:24). The "wisdom to distinguish" between that which we can and cannot change is a godly principle. James 1:5 encourages, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him." First Corinthians 2:14–16 also affirms this. It takes wisdom to discern anything at all, and true wisdom comes from God, not from man.

The understanding that hardship can lead to peace is a reflection of passages like James 1:2–4 and 1 Peter 1:3–9. These passages also speak to our joy being in Christ, not in our circumstances. John 15:11 links obedience with fullness of joy in Christ. When we surrender to God's will, both in trusting that He is sovereign and in obeying Him, we can be "reasonably happy in this life." Of course, being "supremely happy with [God] forever in the next [life]" has everything to do with salvation. Those who have trusted in Jesus can rely on His promise of eternal life with Him (John 3:16–18; 17:24–26; Ephesians 1:3–14; 1 Peter 1:3–9).

The phrase "Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is" could lead to a misunderstanding. Jesus certainly met people where they were. But He did not leave them that way. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees (Matthew 23). He told a man whom He'd healed to "sin no more" (John 5:1–15). Jesus proclaimed, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). Jesus has not left this sinful world as it is. He has offered salvation to all who put their faith in Him (John 3:16–18; 14:6; Ephesians 2:1–10). Those who put their trust in Him are transformed and made new (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Holy Spirit is at work in them to change them to be more like Christ (Romans 8:28–30; Philippians 2:12–12). Jesus calls His followers to love as He has loved and to obey His commands (John 13:34–35; 15:1–17). So if "taking it as it is" means to be hopelessly resigned to the realities of the fall or to never speak truth, then it is not biblical (Matthew 28:18–20; Acts 1:8; Ephesians 4:15). However, if it means to actively participate in God's work of sanctification in our own lives, to genuinely love people where they are, and to trust ultimately in God rather than in our own efforts, then it is certainly a good prayer. Given the rest of the prayer, this latter, biblically-compatible, meaning seems to be the intent.

The most common use of the serenity prayer is in recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery. It has been helpful for many people. However, there are a multitude of passages in Scripture which we can turn to as guides for our own prayers of serenity, such as Psalm 1, Psalm 27:14, Proverbs 3:5–6, 1 Corinthians 16:13, Philippians 4:4–8, Colossians 3:16, 2 Timothy 1:7, James 1:5, James 3:17, and 1 Peter 5:6–11, just to name a few.

Related Truth:

What is the Lord's Prayer? How is the Lord's Prayer a model for our prayers?

What types of prayer are mentioned in the Bible?

What is the ACTS method of prayer?

How can I know what to pray for?

How are we supposed to pray?

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