God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change; courage to change the things that I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
Most of us are familiar with the “Serenity Prayer” originally penned by Reinhold Niebuhr. It’s a staple for those striving toward sobriety. It’s a quick “go-to” for times when our own patience is running low. It even has it’s own cult-following resulting in humorous internet memes with witty edits referring to coffee in place of courage or wisdom for staying out of jail and/or knowing where to hide bodies.
What I didn’t realize until recently, there’s more to the prayer than the verse most of us can recite by heart. Actually – a lot more.
The rest of the prayer goes like this:
Living one day at a time,Reinhold Niebuhr
Enjoying one minute at a time,
Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
The beginning of the prayer invites three important things into our lives. First, it invites God’s peace that passes all understanding into our lives. Next, it pleads for strength to make a difference in this world. Finally, it seeks the discernment to know where God wants each of us to make a difference.
The rest of the prayer highlights “how” to attain serenity, courage, and wisdom and “what” the result of our efforts may be.
Serenity comes when we take life slowly. No big secret here. “Busyness” swamps us and causes anxiety. Peace comes when we pause.
Courage takes shape when we change our perspective seeing hardships as pathways instead of obstacles. We are fortified when we focus on the parallels between our own grief and the grief that Jesus suffered.
Wisdom becomes our navigator when we eject our will to the backseat and allow God’s will to come front and center. The Holy Spirit is the force that fills the vacuum when we surrender control. The foggy edges of Wisdom come into focus when we place our trust in God to make all things right.
Why all the effort? What’s the “prize” for pursuing serenity, courage, and wisdom? So that we may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy in the next.
Reasonably happy? Is that all you’ve got? I want “supremely happy” now.
“Reasonably happy” sounds strange to those of us who’ve grown up in a culture that preaches we can have it all. And – that we are the ones who can make it all happen. The Serenity Prayer can be a harsh reminder that it just isn’t so and that “reasonably happy” is probably the best that we can hope for in this life.
As tempting and desirable as “supremely happy” may be, I invite trouble when I aim for “supremely happy” in this life.
In order to approach something beyond reasonably happy, I must create the illusion that my will can be exerted over God’s. In so doing, I become blind to God’s will in my life. I can’t hear His voice guiding me along the way. This can (and has on more than one occasion) lead me down a wicked path.
When I surrender to God’s will and really trust his promises, then I can start to see His hand in everything – even the things that go against my will. Things that never would have happened under my watch. Things like cancer, chronic disease, rape, famine, addiction, torture, abuse, death (especially the death of children). Things that can’t be undone. The things that rob us of supreme happiness in this life. The things that produce tears that must be wiped away before supreme happiness is even possible.
Maybe you are silently giving thanks – there but for the grace of God . . . Be careful. Be very careful. As long as any one among us cries these tears – none among us can experience supreme happiness. We cannot profess to love our suffering neighbor and espouse a notion of supreme happiness in the same breath.
If a prayer of silent thanks crosses our lips but does not drive us to action, then we are not truly loving our neighbors. To be anything beyond “reasonably happy” in a suffering world requires a blind eye and a stone heart.
The Serenity Prayer calls us to open our blind eyes and to melt our hearts of stone. It forces us to look beyond ourselves and our own suffering. It reminds us that any hope for happiness lies outside of us. It beckons us to accept God’s peace and wisdom as the path to hope through our trials.
Ultimately, it challenges us to see that the path to hope drives straight through our neighbors’ suffering.