The Serenity Prayer


 Proverbs 8:1-12, Luke 10:25-37,  James 1:1-8


Today I want to look at a prayer which is very popular. It’s not from the Bible but you see it everywhere – on plaques, on cards, on bookmarks.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

This is usually known as the Serenity Prayer. It was written by Reinhold Niebuhr as part of a longer prayer.

Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr was an American theologian and pastor in the early part of the last century. In 1915 the Mission Board of his denomination (the Evangelical and Reformed Church) sent him to Detroit as a pastor. He served there for 13 years, during which time his congregation grew from 65 to nearly 700. (The increase was no doubt partly due to the tremendous growth of the automobile industry in Detroit.) Niebuhr composed this prayer in 1932. In 1939 it came to the attention of a member of Alcoholics Anonymous who liked it so much that it was taken up by the AA. Cards were printed and passed around and this simple prayer became an integral part of the AA movement.

 The prayer is today so popular that it might seem to be a bit trite, yet it is actually very profound.


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

Now serenity is not the same as complacency. It is all about accepting that there are certain things in life we are not meant to change. Maybe, in his divine plan, God intends someone  else to change them. Maybe they cannot be changed by any human agency at all.

The Apostle Paul had learned this kind of serenity when he wrote:

 I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.     (Philippians 4:11-12 )

What sort of things we can not change? The weather, the financial markets, international affairs. Indeed we have very little direct influence over these things. You know, some people live in a state of constant forboding. The weather forecast is bad for today so they expect foul weather. But often the expected bad weather doesn’t materialise. Or they get depressed with the news.

I knew a lady in North Wales – her name was Hannah. Hannah was housebound and spent a lot of time watching daytime television and listening to the radio. Every hour there was a news bulletin reminding her of the terrible things happening in the world. Hannah used to get really upset. I think it is a good thing to take a rest from the news sometimes. Remember: there are many good things happening in the world that you don’t hear about on the news.

In a perfect world everyone who worked hard would be rewarded with the appropriate exam results, job prospects and family happiness. In reality we know that those who work hard are not always rewarded. Sometimes those who just happen to be in the right place at the right time reap the reward. So often it is just by chance. A pop singer is discovered by a talent scout and becomes a great star. But there are hundreds of other performers just as good who never made it.

The Bible has something to say about this phenomenon:

The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.       (Ecclesiastes  9:11)

There is really nothing we can do about this but accept it philosophically and trust in God. Perhaps we should avoid the kind of fatalism seen in other religions. In Islam people just say “It’s the will of Allah” and accept it. Perhaps we should avoid that kind of fatalism, but nonetheless there has to be some kind of acceptance of those things that can not be changed.  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”.

I think we need to also realise that we can not change people.

A bride was very nervous just before her wedding day. At the rehearsal, the Vicar said to her, “Now don’t worry, you don’t have to remember a lot. Just come down the aisle on your father’s arm, stand by the Groom at the altar, and then we sing a hymn. Remember Aisle – Altar – Hymn.”

Well she practiced these words over and over again. As she came down the aisle in her nervous state the Bride was repeating the words to herself: “Aisle – Altar – Hymn. Aisle – Altar – Hymn.”  Or, as it sounded to the Groom, “I’ll alter him!”

Well it’s true, often people get married to someone who has faults or habits they don’t like. They think they will be able to change them after they are married. But it doesn’t work like that. You have to love a person as they are. Otherwise it can lead to disaster.
Often people say that we ministers ought to do more telling people how they ought to live their lives. “Tell them the right way to live, then that will sort out their problems”  Isn’t this  a very superficial view? Experience shows that simply telling people makes no difference at all. the Holy Spirit has to work in their, hearts convincing them, before they will change. God can change people – we can’t.

It is one of the great points of the Calvinistic branch of Christianity (to which we belong) that we believe in the Sovereignty of God. His the one who makes the changes – we are his instruments and his co-workers. How often have we heard people say, “I was converted by Billy Graham”  – or some other evangelist. that person’s life was indeed changed,  but it wasn’t Billy Graham who did it – and he would have been the first to say so.

As preacher I can’t convert people. I can’t pressurize people to come to church – I can’t change people’s habits. But God can. I need to learn the lesson of serenity – to accept the things I can’t change. Do you?

Courage to change the things I can

What is often seen in eastern countries, where the prevailing philosophy is Hindu or Buddhist, is the idea that you must not intervene when you see a needy or suffering person. what is happening to them is supposed to be the result of their Karma. They have to suffer to expiate sins committed in a previous incarnation. Don’t interfere with the will of the gods.

Now Christianity is the opposite of this. If you see a needy person you should try to help them – to do what you can. Not to even try is to fail as a Christian, according to the teaching of Jesus in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Some things you can’t change, but a great many other things you can. The Samaritan couldn’t stop the man being attacked. He couldn’t stop the Jews and Samaritans hating one another. But he could at least care for the injured man. And it takes courage to be a Good Samaritan.

It takes courage to change things. It takes courage to stand up for truth and justice. It takes courage to speak out against evil.

·  In the Old Testament, Daniel and his friends had this kind of courage.

·  In our day we see this kind of courage in people like Aung Suu Kyi, the democracy campaigner in Burma. And Christians in Saudi Arabia who are prepared to go to prison for their faith.

Some things in life can be changed – by campaigning, by protesting, by praying.

It was protesting and praying that brought down the Iron Curtain. And the apartheid regime in South Africa. There are things we can do to change the world. We can, for example, support the movement for Fair Trade.

Over the centuries social reformers have campaigned to abolish slavery, to stop children going down mines and up chimneys, to improve prison conditions. Almost all these reforms were carried out by Evangelical Christians with a strong belief in prayer and the sovereignty of God, and in the life hereafter. But that didn’t stop them campaigning to improve things in this life too.

There are things we can change. We ministers can’t change people, but we can preach the Gospel which, under God’s sovereignty, can change people.

You can’t convert your neighbours to the Christian faith, but you can be a good neighbour to them and help them in any need. That might open the door. yes, there is a lot we can do to change things, and often it requires courage.

Wisdom to know the difference

How essential this is. I could give you a list of things, as long as my arm, that I think need to be changed in the world. And you could give me an equally long list. But we could both be wasting our time. God has got works for each of us to do – so I must concentrate on what he has for me. We need to discern God’s will for us. We need wisdom.

Many people fret about things that they can’t change. They waste time and energy in trying to change them. Others fail to act when they can. They can’t see what needs changing. They have become complacent. Wisdom can save us from  both these errors.

The Apostle James writes:

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.   ( James 1: 5-6  )



May God give us all serenity, courage and wisdom to make a difference in the world in which we live.

Let us pray:

(the full version of the Serenity Prayer)
God grant me the 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 the pathway to peace.
Taking, as he did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.
Trusting that he will make all things right if I surrender to his will.

That I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with him forever in the next.   Amen.

[Sermon preached in Park End Presbyterian Church, Cardiff, June 16th. 2009]

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