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What does the serenity prayer mean?

The serenity prayer & AA

Most people who know even just a little bit about addiction and alcoholism know about “those meetings” where people get together and all say the Serenity Prayer together and then say, “Hi, my name is ____ and I’m a ____.”

Original serenity prayer

The truth is that the Serenity prayer did not originate with the 12-Step movement.  Its most well-known version is attributed to the 20th century theologian and social commentator, Reinhold Niebuhr, but many — Niebuhr included — concede that the prayer has been around in various forms for centuries.  Interestingly, the prayer is not part of any religion’s liturgy and, as such, is truly a non-sectarian prayer.

Enough background.  What does the prayer mean?

What does the serenity prayer mean?

There are three parts to the Serenity Prayer.  The first asks for “the serenity to accept the things that can’t be changed;” the second asks for “the courage to change the things that can” be changed; and the third asks for “the wisdom to know the difference” between the things that can and cannot be changed.

In other words, we’re asking G-d for three things — serenity, courage, and wisdom.  Serenity has its time and place; courage has its time and place; and wisdom is the ability to know whether it’s a time and place for serenity or a time and place for courage.

For instance, being resigned to a situation that can and should be changed is not really serenity so much as complacency, while trying to change something that is just a fact of reality isn’t really courage so much as foolishness. Therefore, we don’t want to use serenity to deal with situations that really call for courage and we don’t want to use courage to deal with situations that really call for serenity.

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Serenity or courage?

The problem is that self-deception, denial and our inherent prejudices make it hard for us to to tell these two kinds of situations apart.  Sometimes we trick ourselves into just accepting something that really is our responsibility to take care of because we are afraid of dealing with it. In that case, what we really need is courage — not serenity.  Other times, we are convinced that if we would just try harder, come one stronger, give things another chance, then we will be able to alter some aspect of the truth to be more to our liking.  We do this because in our perfectionist drive to control people, places and things, we believe that reality ought to be different than it is and therefore, we are sure, we just need more grit and gumption to see things through.  But what we really need is the ability to let go and let G-d.  We don’t need courage in that situation, but serenity.

So, we pray to our Higher Power to guide us in honestly assessing all situations so that we will come to the proper decision — serenity or courage.

Serenity prayer exercises

One general guideline that I have personally found helpful is the “me-you principle.”  If something needs to change, it needs to change in me, while if something about you seems to be my problem, then what I really need to do is realize that you are who you are right now and accept that truth.  It’s funny how it works out.  When I don’t waste my energy trying to change you, I seem to have a lot more energy left over to change myself and when I work on changing myself, I seem to have a lot less problems with you.

Photo credit: annrkiszt

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11 Responses to “What does the serenity prayer mean?
Charles somer
11:50 pm January 5th, 2011

It means anything you want it to mean, at least in my opinion.

Rick
4:12 am December 13th, 2011

the prayer means that you have the power to change yourself and may need courage to do so. You do not have the power to change people, places, or things and serenely accepting this fact is a blessing. The wisdom to seek a serene state when this same wisdom allows us to know that this is our next right step is what the prayer means to me.

Bobby C.
2:52 am March 5th, 2012

Here is a link to an After Effects video I made for a friend who passed. It is very inspiring and means a lot to quite a few people. Take a look it is very powerful. Thanks, Bobby C.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QL-qdIuWyU&hd=1

7:47 am March 5th, 2012

Hi Bobby C. Thanks for the link and the reference to the short film. I like the soundtrack and breaking the prayer down into phrases helps me take it in.

Ramesh C.G.
4:16 pm July 6th, 2014

I believe that we all have a recovery system present in our subconscious mind and it is here that our recovery takes place. It may be in our Soul, Spiritual Knowledge or because we have the presence of God in us. Thoughts are made of Words and these can create a new Mind in us.
This new Mind can start the recovery process by creating further thoughts of the Recovery of our addictions.
Addictions carry with them very powerful thoughts which keep the Addictions alive.
The 12 steps or Recovery have more powerful thoughts of positive power than the negative thoughts which keep our addictions going in us until we lose our lives.
Let us Read the following thoughts out loud with our open Mind with Tears in Eyes if possible.
Step 1: Honesty (It has its own Spiritual Power)
After many years of denial, recovery can begin when with one simple admission of being powerless over alcohol — for alcoholics and their friends and family.
Step 2: Faith
It seems to be a spiritual truth that before a higher power can begin to operate; you must first believe that it can. ( God is Truth!)
Step 3: Surrender
A lifetime of self-will run riot can come to a screeching halt and change forever, by making a simple decision to turn it all over to a higher power.
Step 4: Soul Searching
There is a saying in the 12-step programs that recovery is a process, not an event. The same can be said for this step — more will surely be revealed. (It takes time to change the Brain Chemistry and after is changed it becomes our new nature and we keep reinforcing periodically so that the previous negative thoughts are kept harmless.
Step 5: Integrity
Probably the most difficult of all the steps to face, Step 5 is also the one that provides the greatest opportunity for growth.( We always maintain a positive character like with a straight back posture.)
Step 6: Acceptance
The key to Step 6 is acceptance — accepting character defects exactly as they are and becoming entirely willing to let them go. (We should accept that we had an inferior character :) There is no shame in this as many great people have come out of a mind with very low desires. Read the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi and his character defects. Once we have a permanent change with a new mind and like Jesus said, “we are born again”.
Step 7: Humility
The spiritual focus of Step 7 is humility, asking a higher power to do something that cannot be done by self-will or mere determination. (When we are humble, we have no negative to guide us in the wrong path.)
Step 8: Willingness
Making a list of those harmed before coming into recovery may sound simple. Becoming willing to actually make those amends is the difficult part. (To accept our wrong doings to the people we have harmed. It is best done to with the people we have harmed but if they are dead or not receptive, we can do it in our Minds with God as our witness.)
Step 9: Forgiveness
Making amends may seem like a bitter pill to swallow, but for those serious about recovery it can be great medicine for the spirit and soul. (If a person does not forgive us, we should pray for him or her and then ask God to forgive us).
Step 10: Maintenance
Nobody likes to admit to being wrong. But it is absolutely necessary to maintain spiritual progress in recovery. (By publicly admitting that we have made a mistake, we give others strength to do the same.)
Step 11: Making Contact
The purpose of Step 11 is to discover the plan God as you understand Him has for your life.
(It is to find a purpose of one’s life in this world as Viktor Frankl once wrote in his book called, “Meaning of Life”.)
Step 12: Service
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
(Jesus told his disciples that now they have heard the Gospel, they should go tell others. The highlighter words are done by me and I am sure that all readers can themselves do a wonderful or even a better job than I have done.

Sid Y
2:46 am February 25th, 2016

Didn’t know it was non-sectarian in origin. Thanks for this enlightened explanation!

danish gambit
9:56 pm March 21st, 2016

Ramesh,
I have never seen a better explanation of the Serenity Prayer. I do not believe anyone can do a better job. I have forwarded it to my grandson in hopes that he too may benefit from reading it.
Thank you so much.
Danish

Mike
4:47 am May 11th, 2016

I think the prayer itself is really focused on acceptance. After all, there isn’t any serenity without first having acceptance.
Accepting the things I cannot change is not something I am able to pull out of myself. Courage and certainly wisdom can also be seen in this same light. Yet it’s acceptance that leads directly to peace. What we resist persists. Acceptance doesn’t resist, wrestle, regret, deny, or excuse. It merely accepts what is just as it is without trying to change it. But for those things we can’t accept the source for peace of mind is found in God alone. Acceptance can also mean that we’re now trusting God with the matter. And even if the circumstance or situation itself can’t be changed, the meaning of it often can be.
Acceptance is not an impossible demand we make on ourselves since it turns out we don’t have the means to produce it. Acceptance is a free gift fro God.
We only have to ask Him for it.
Peace.

Lydia @ Addiction Blog
4:20 pm May 11th, 2016

Thanks for your thoughts, Mike. I really like your insights on acceptance in serenity prayer.

ShannonR
6:28 pm July 22nd, 2016

I believe the Serenity Prayer actually focuses on 4 things. Requesting to be granted serenity, a moment’s grace, to consider the possibility of accepting, or acting from a place of courage rather than fear or anger, and the clarity of mind (wisdom) to weigh the pros and cons of acting or showing restraint. That moment’s grace (the serenity) is a critical aspect.

Cynthia
11:41 am August 29th, 2016

I’ve gone to several meetings, unfortunately I was vexed in my spirit by some of the profanity used. I couldn’t grasp the concept of how some members say that God is their higher power and curse like sailors. Well. Acceptance truly came into place for I accepted them for who they were as well as that wasn’t the meeting for me. To God be the glory that He gave me a melody so divine that I’ll share on a CD before the year ends. Be strong a d know that it is a trick of the enemy to kill, steal & destroy your purpose in life. Lovingly, Cynthia of Divinely Inspired, LLC

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About Rabbi Shais Taub

Rabbi Shais Taub is one of today's most respected young scholars of Jewish spirituality and practice. National Public Radio called him "an expert in Jewish mysticism and the Twelve Steps." He is the author of God of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction.

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