Next to the Lord’s Prayer, the most frequently uttered prayer in the English language may be this one:
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.
I first heard the prayer, in this form, decades ago when one of the last century’s greatest theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr, concluded a sermon with it.
Niebuhr was long believed to have composed the Serenity Prayer himself, but convincing evidence to the contrary now exists. Even so, his theological outlook provides the right context for its appreciation, then and now.
For Niebuhr, what was wrong with American society was what he called its “self-congratulatory cheeriness.” It fostered a number of beliefs that are both wrong and harmful.
One is that our society provides equal opportunities for all, and that with hard work and a positive mental attitude, success is just around the corner for everyone. With this cheery conviction goes a more disturbing one, to the effect that the more self-enhancing one’s successes are, the more praiseworthy they are.
Niebuhr knew better than to take this attitude as anything other than a delusion. Serenity, courage, and wisdom are anything but the just deserts of a narcissistic culture. They are spiritual gifts which can come only to those willing to acknowledge a Spirit and a Power greater than their own.
With that kind of acknowledgement, life becomes blessed with inner peace, a passion for the Good, and a sense of ultimate meaning in things. Without it, serenity becomes equated only with satiation, courage with aggressiveness, and wisdom with self-aggrandizing shrewdness.
If Reinhold Niebuhr did not in fact pen the Serenity Prayer, it is still true to say that no one understood better than he did why it has to begin the way it does. It begins with a petition to a Power higher than we are because our compulsions and addictions make it impossible to achieve serenity, courage, and wisdom all on our own.
On our own merits, we are not worthy to claim these virtues. Left to our own devices, we are more likely to seek serenity from a bottle, courage from a gun, and wisdom from anyone who never disagrees with us on anything.
Thank God, we are not on our own.