Life isn’t fair. Tragedies happen and people let us down. Whether it is a death of a child or your friend betraying a confidence, it can be difficult to let go of the past. The Serenity Prayer can help. It is a simple but practical prayer that can help us keep from looking back to the past and move on to a positive and peaceful future.
Although there have been several spurious claims as to the authorship, it is commonly supposed to have been written by Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934.The prayer has been modified over the years but this shortened version is widely known. It has been used regularly by Alcoholics Anonymous as well as other twelve-step programmes as a way of finding the strength to deal with a chaotic past whilst working towards a more manageable life. The beauty of the prayer however, is that it can assist anyone in any situation. Essentially it is asking God for the peace of mind to have acceptance, courage and wisdom. Sounds wonderful, but in reality what does it mean?
Firstly, by praying to God we are acknowledging our faith and surrendering to Him. We pray in the knowledge that He is in control and are reminded in Romans 8:28 that "We are well aware that God works with those who love him, those who have been called in accordance with his purpose, and turns everything to their good." For many of us however, trusting someone other than ourselves can be challenging. We might profess our faith outwardly but inside we can still want an element of control.
The fact is that the past can never be altered. It matters not whether it was a major traumatic event or merely wishing you hadn`t said something, the moment has gone. Accepting there is nothing we can do to change what has occurred does not mean denying reality, avoiding responsibility or absolve us from making amends. It’s not a way to ‘get out of it’, rather to ‘get on with it’. Consequently we have to acknowledge our failings without locking ourselves into constant guilt and shame. Alternatively, holding onto anger and bitterness towards someone that has hurt us has the potential to overwhelm us. Acceptance then comes only after we ‘hand it over' and actively seek to let go.
Asking God for serenity to accept things that we cannot change makes sense especially when in the midst of a crisis. We have an urge to know why something happened or may even challenge God as to why He allowed it to take place. Acceptance means that we no longer have to have every question answered which provides a good starting place for recovery.
Whether a problem is great or small it is sometimes hard to overcome our feelings without intervention. Prayer assists us to focus on God‘s will rather than our own and as we are given the grace to accept whatever situation we are facing, we are also paving the way for forgiveness. The Lord`s Prayer clearly instructs us: "And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us."(Matthew 6:|2) It is impossible to have inner peace without forgiveness. Whether that is for ourselves or others, hence the need to employ the maxim `Let go and let God.’
The Serenity Prayer reveals that there is a choice to be made. We can choose to hold on to the negative feelings or we can release them to God. Therefore rise above the situation by freeing yourself from the things you cannot do and focus on what you can. Once we have accepted the things we cannot change, the second part of The Serenity Prayer reminds us to concentrate on the achievable. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone has to deal with trials at some point in their life. Yet we waste so much time reliving past events that we forget to rely on God even though he reassures us in Jeremiah 29:11,‘"Yes, I know what plans l have in mind for you, Yahweh declares, plans for peace, not for disaster; to give you a future and a hope,’" He does not merely wish to help us heal our heartbreak but to be able to gain something positive from our suffering.
When we ask God for the courage to change the things we can, we are showing a willingness to move on.The prayer recognises that we have no real control over the actions of others; rather the onus is placed on us to effect change. It takes nerve to confront a situation and seek a resolution. Courage is important because we are often at our weakest when gripped by trauma or facing a personal dilemma. It is only through God’s power that we are given the ability to use weakness as a springboard to strength. Changing any situation requires not only physical action but an emotional shift. We have to adopt a change of attitude and mindset that involves doing what we know to be right rather than acting on how we feel.
No where in The Serenity Prayer is there any indication of change being easy, so in most circumstances inner strength is going to be an essential prerequisite. Our faith can be tested to its limit when we are commanded to: "Love one another; you must love one another just as I have loved you." (John 13:34) It takes huge resolve to move from harbouring bitterness to offering friendship, from feeling hate to affection, from revenge to forgiveness.
Yet if we consider the option of not submitting to God’s guidance we run the risk of being controlled by a relentless burden, being ruled by our emotions and ultimately going around in circles. Again we are presented with the choice to live our present in the past or liberate ourselves by searching for God’s will rather than our own.
Finally and possibly the most crucial part of The Serenity Prayer is the necessity for wisdom. We have to be able to make astute decisions when differentiating between what we should and should not change. However rather than following our own intuition the prayer helps us put our trust in God’s guidance. In the AA publication, ‘Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions‘ we are told that "It is when we try to make our will conform with God’s that we begin to use it rightly. To all of us, this was a most wonderful revelation. Our whole trouble had been the misuse of will power: We had tried to bombard our problems with it instead of attempting to bring it into agreement with God’s intention for us .... ` '.
Look at the account of Joseph. He was left for dead by his brothers, falsely accused of rape, and imprisoned. He had every reason to want to seek revenge yet he had the wisdom to rise above his circumstances. Even when his brothers turned up looking for help he didn’t punish them, but instead reunited and provided for his family. His comments to his brothers are inspiring. "The evil you planned to do me has by God’s design been turned to good." (Genesis 50:20)
Joseph’s story also reminds us that we have to wait on God's timing rather than our own. There is no mention of time in The Serenity Prayer: which indicates that we have to rely on God`s judgement. It is natural to want an immediate solution, but the wisdom of allowing Him to be in control will not only help us to have patience but give purpose to our waiting. Remember "Put your hope in Yahweh, be strong, let your heart be bold, put your hope in Yahweh." (Psalm 27: 14)
There are many requests for wisdom made throughout the Bible and we can be encouraged by reading James 1:5 "Any of you who lacks wisdom must ask God, who gives to all generously and without scolding; it will be given." Amazingly, we are not only granted wisdom but all the positive gifts that emanate as a result. These can include confidence, hope, understanding, absence of fear; serenity.
The world we live in is tough and the will never be free from disappointments and heartbreaks. God will help us through our trials if we ask Him. The Serenity Prayer is one way to do this purposefully and peacefully.