The Serenity Prayer - What Does It Mean?
The "Serenity Prayer" is one of the most well-known prayers of our time. It is the common name for a prayer originally written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the late1930s to early 1940s. Research suggests that Niebuhr wrote the prayer for as part of a sermon he was giving.
While there is some controversy as to whether Niebuhr was the original author or not, Elisabeth Sifton states in her book, The Serenity Prayer, published in 2003, quotes the following version as the original serenity prayer:
"God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."
According to researchers, it is believed that the first version of the serenity prayer was quoted from memory in a question to The New York Times Book Review dated July 12, 1942. The query requests the name of the prayer's author. In reply to the request, the Book Review identifies Reinhold Niebuhr as its author and quotes the prayer as follows:
"O God and Heavenly Father,
Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed; the courage to change that which can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen."
The Serenity Prayer became much more widely known in the 1950s after it was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). In 1950, the AA Grapevine, a popular AA magazine, also named Niebuhr as the author, and the current Alcoholics Anonymous website identifies Niebuhr as the prayer's originator. The Serenity Prayer has also been used in Narcotics Anonymous and other Twelve-step programs.
It is interesting to note, however, that the version of the serenity prayer posted on the Alcoholics Anonymous website omits some of Niebuhr's original text:
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and (the) wisdom to know the difference."
Reinhold Niebuhr himself discusses the Serenity Prayer and how it came to be in his book, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses. He states,
”... The embarrassment, particularly, was occasioned by the incessant correspondence about a prayer I had composed years before, which the old Federal Council of Churches had used and which later was printed on small cards to give to soldiers. Subsequently Alcoholics Anonymous adopted it as its official prayer. The prayer reads: 'God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to dintinguish the one from the other.' ...”
Finally, Reinhold Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, wrote a book about her father's famous serenity prayer entitled, The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War. In the book, Elisabeth discusses the the story and circumstances around her father's writing of the serenity prayer, the wide range of versions of the prayer, and the true essence of the serenity prayer's meaning.