The Serenity Prayer begins with three requests: the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
When I first prayed this prayer, I wondered if the order should not be changed. I wanted the courage to act, to move, to change things. I sought the power to DO God’s will and to ACT in God’s name. Should not courage come first?
Instead the prayer starts with the serenity to accept things that cannot be change, to be at peace with the way things are before any changes come. Four years ago I wrote about the Serenity Prayer and the challenges of accepting Minnesota winters. The weather is definitely something I cannot change (though I can change where I live).
The weather is not the only thing I cannot change. On a more profound level – and where I think AA and Al-Anon see the prayers connection to their program – I cannot change other people’s behavior or attitudes. Oh, I can love and care for, cajole and advise other people. But I cannot change them. A spouse or parent is unable to change the addictive behavior of a loved one. A family intervention might help a spouse or child seek rehab but ultimately the alcoholic or addict must seek healing for themselves.
But it does not need to be as dramatic as alcoholism. In marriage, husbands and wives need to able to love, accept and support each other as they are. When I first married Carolyn, I thought I could change her to share my love of backpacking. I thought that I simply had to get her in the right setting and she would see the light. I was wrong. Though we both enjoy day hikes and the beauty of God’s creation, she does not share my fascination with sleeping on the ground in sweaty clothes after eating dehydrated gruel. At the same time, she has come to accept that she will not expunge my fascination with carrying a forty pound pack up and down trails for days on end. Instead we accept each other as we are while enjoying the passions we share.
The prayer uses the word serenity as the heart of this acceptance. Serenity is NOT the grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it attitude, but rather the calm, internal state of mind that sees reality for what it is: reality. I remember experiencing such serenity when my father died twenty years ago. He had contracted pancreatic cancer and then had a debilitating stroke. When I sat by his bedside during his final hours, I felt sadness that the father I loved was dying, but also serenity that this was his reality. I could not change it.
To develop such serenity takes practice. We may have moments of instant serenity, but to have consistent serenity takes the practice of prayer and meditation. Saint Paul connected prayer and peace.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:6-7)
How have you experience serenity?
Lord Jesus, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.