About the Serenity Prayer: Origin & Several Versions

One of the most popular and beloved prayers in the world, the Serenity Prayer has helped millions of people let go of anxiety and focus on the things that are in their control, rather than obsessing over the things that aren’t. Whether you’re dealing with addiction, divorce, illness or something as mundane as a flat tire or a cranky toddler, the Serenity Prayer points a way out of feeling stuck. Although it addresses God, it has been meaningful to people from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, as well as those who don’t belong to an organized religion.

The Author of the Serenity Prayer

The Serenity Prayer is most commonly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, a famous Protestant theologian known for his concern for social justice. Niebuhr’s daughter Elisabeth Sifton wrote in her book The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War that Niebuhr included the following prayer in a sermon delivered during the early 1940s:

God give us grace, to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Sifton’s dating contributed to the controversy over the Serenity Prayer’s origins when a Yale librarian found earlier versions of the prayer in YMCA newsletters. The controversy seems to have abated since a Duke researcher has found one of these earlier versions attributed to Niebuhr, though with different wording:

Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.

Sifton says her father must have come up with the basic idea of the prayer earlier than the family realized.

The Serenity Prayer and Alcoholics Anonymous

According to a website devoted to A.A. history, a member saw a version of the prayer cited without attribution in a New York obituary in 1942 and shared it with others in the growing recovery movement: “Everyone in A.A.’s burgeoning office on Manhattan’s Vesey Street was struck by the power and wisdom contained in the prayer’s thoughts. ‘Never had we seen so much A.A. in so few words,’” explained Bill, one of the recovery movement’s founders. Once adopted by the recovery movement, the prayer spread widely and rapidly. Today it is sometimes recited in the first-person-singular, sometimes in the plural, with wording a bit different from the prayer that was shared by Niebuhr:

More Common version of the Serenity Prayer

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

It has been noted that the differences in the versions are not insignificant. Niebuhr’s version doesn’t ask for courage to change what can be changed, but for courage to change what shouldbe changed. If you think about that for a minute, you’ll realize that they are not necessarily the same. There are many things we know should be changed that we simply put up with because change seems so impossible. For Niebuhr, racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of injustice were clearly on that list. Although Niebuhr was not optimistic about human nature, his prayer asks first for God’s grace, inviting us to imagine miracles. Furthermore, it was written in the plural: “God grant us.” Obviously there are problems that people can tackle together that they could not solve alone. The individual wording more common on coffee mugs and tea towels is pithier than the original, but it relieves the prayer of its bigger challenge, to seek the wisdom to know the difference, not just in personal matters like birth and death, but in social issues, like poverty, injustice, and war. (The preceding paragraph was taken from The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make A Change–and When to Let Go.) 

Full Serenity Prayer

Many people use a longer version of the prayer which includes the following lines:

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

Humorous Versions of the Serenity Prayer

God grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway,
the good fortune to run into the ones I do,
and the eyesight to tell the difference.
Donal O'Donovan
God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change
Courage to change the one I can change,
And wisdom to know it’s me.
author unknown

Living the Serenity Prayer

More of Eileen’s ideas can be found in her book The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change–and When to Let Go, which has been endorsed by the Dalai Lama and won a Silver 2010 Nautilus Book Award.