The serenity prayer comes alive in a new context

Prayers, like Scripture, often come alive in a particular context. One such prayer is the so-called serenity prayer written by the American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, in the 1930s:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference. 

Alcoholics Anonymous adopted this prayer for themselves, and since 1941 it has been part of their twelve-step programme of recovery. Clearly, however, this prayer can be used in a variety of contexts. It is a great prayer for people who are going through tough times of one kind or another. It occurred to me this week that this could be a good prayer for ministers going through tough times in a local church!

At first sight it would appear that you don’t need to be a committed Christian to pray this prayer – this is perhaps one reason why it was taken over by Alcoholics Anonymous. However, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a second prayer to accompany his original prayer, which sets the serenity prayer within a specifically Christian context: 

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a 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.

As I was reflecting on this prayer, I wondered if it could be linked with a verse from Scripture. My mind went to Proverbs 3.5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths” (NRSV). Or as the GNB renders it: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Never rely on what you think you know. Remember the Lord in everything you do, and he will show you the right way”. Bishop David Atkinson made the interesting comment: “This is the language of faith, not necessarily of constant experience. There are plenty of examples in Proverbs of life’s way which is not very smooth. The point here is that the believer is being encouraged to trust in the Lord even when things are unclear, and to ‘lean not on your own understanding’ even when we think we know best. For the God who holds the future can see further than we can, and his covenanted love is promised as a deeper security than anything our dimmer understanding can comprehend or our straining eyes can see (The Message of Proverbs, IVP, Leicester 1996, 63-64).

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