“God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
How many times have we heard these words? Whether on TV or in a movie, or spoken by a friend or loved one in recovery, or even as we’ve said them ourselves.The words of the serenity prayer are an extremely well known part of culture. But, as with many important truths, they’re words that are easier to say and harder to cooperate with.
Every day I experience situations that challenge my sense of serenity/peace. They are situations over which I have no control, but want to. They represent unresolved issues, and a piece of me still believes that if only [fill in the blank] were resolved, then things would be OK. Many involve people I wish would behave differently, but I can’t seem to make them. And the harder I try, the angrier and more frustrated I get.
Almost every day I talk with other men in recovery who are struggling with situations they can’t control. They say things like, “I just don’t understand why they…” or “Well, I’m not going to let that happen,” or “I can’t just sit here and do nothing!” The events of their lives are raging out of control, and they feel they must do something about it. Often, their attempts feel like trying to regain control of a fighter jet caught in an unrecoverable spin.
How, in the midst of out-of-control situations, can we possibly experience peace? Part of the answer is found in the prayer itself. Looking at the words tells us a lot.
“God, grant me…”
We cannot experience serenity on our own. We cannot conjure it up in any way that will be sustainable. If we are to experience peace in the midst of tumultuous situations it is because God has given us peace. Peace doesn’t make human sense considering what we’re going through. There has to be another explanation, and that explanation is God. In our powerlessness, He provides the power.
I love the use of the word serenity. The root word is serene. It’s defined as “calm, peaceful, and untroubled; tranquil.” Typically, not adjectives that describe our feelings when we deal with uncontrollable situations. How wonderful would it be to experience peace when our surroundings are anything but peaceful? But the prayer seems to suggest that this is something God can do.
Accepting something isn’t the same thing as liking something. We can be in opposition to the way something is happening while accepting that it is how things are. This acceptance is important. If we refuse to accept the realities of uncontrollable situations, the situation doesn’t change. What our rejection or acceptance affects is our own ability to function and/or move through the undesirable situation without becoming paralyzed.
“…the things I cannot change…”
The longer we live, the longer we realize this list is. There are far more situations in life we cannot control than ones we can. This realization can either depress and immobilize us, or it can free us to begin to practice acceptance and experience peace. I am not in control, but God is, and I can learn to trust Him.
“…courage to change the things I can…”
I’m so glad this phrase is part of the prayer. I believe that just as much as addicted people struggle with a desire for control, we also own a significant share of laziness. What list of “things I can” change is usually a list of personal, internal work. I can’t change other people, but I can work toward change in myself. The problem is, it can be difficult to be motivated to change myself without the guarantee that others will fall in line as well. What if I do everything right and they don’t? I believe the courage here is being courageous enough to move forward in obedience toward an end we can’t see, trusting God to do what is right for us and everyone else involved as we follow Him.
“…and wisdom to know the difference.”
How freeing it would be to go through situations – that feel out of control – and learn how to ask the right questions. “Is there anything I can do to change [fill in the blank]?” “Is there any usefulness in stressing over these details, since I’m not able to change them?” “How can I approach this in the healthiest way?” “How can I be honest about how I feel without needing others to respond the way I want them to?” God promises in His word (in James 1) that if we believe we lack wisdom in a situation, all we must do is ask for it and He will give it. We just have to believe He’ll give it.
Living with serenity looks like surrendering our need to be right, first, vindicated, recognized, liked, praised, or rewarded. It’s fine to desire these things, but if we’re paralyzed when we don’t get them, this is a good desire gone astray. Living with serenity, we understand that the world we live in is not heaven. It is broken, sinful, and predictably frustrating. We learn to accept where we are, because we look forward to where we’re going. The truth is, one day we won’t struggle with the same things.
The full version of the Serenity Prayer as attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr gives us a beautiful picture of what this life of peace looks like…
“God, grant me 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 a pathway to peace. Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting He will make all things right if I surrender to His will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him in the next. Amen.”
Jesus knew, better than anyone, that it was unreasonable to expect everything to work smoothly in this life. In fact, He clearly prepared His disciples to live in this reality when He said in John 16:33, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Reasonable happiness is about as good as we can expect as children of the Father still living in a sin-saturated world. Serenity can come when we realize that we don’t walk through it alone, and that this world isn’t all there is. We have a Savior, He wants to give us peace, and He wants us to get better.
Greg Oliver was a worship pastor for 15 years before his secret addiction to pornography and sex was exposed in January of 2009. Since then he has been on a journey of recovery, coming to know God better and experiencing His grace like never before. He and his wife Stacey have experienced deep healing & restoration within their marriage, and through the ministry of Awaken they walk with individuals, couples, and ministry leaders to help them experience connection and healing in the midst of sexual brokenness.