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Agency and the Serenity Prayer

By Francis Rivers

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

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.


                                 — Reinhold Niebuhr

Why pray and why pray this prayer? To redress or dislodge a peculiar understanding of what it means to be a person. We are accustomed to using a concept of person and perfection that goes back to Greek philosophy. In that view, perfection is basically knowledge, so personal perfection and fulfillment mean full possession of self through knowledge. As Descartes noted, I think, therefore I am.

Emmanuel Levinas compared this approach to life to a whale swimming through a school of plankton. The world is here for me. I know what to do with it.

Bill Wilson put it this way. We persistently claim the right to decide all by ourselves just what we shall think and just how we shall act. Oh yes, we’ll weigh the pros and cons of every problem. We’ll listen politely to those who would advise us, but all the decisions are to be ours alone. Nobody is going to meddle with our personal independence in such matters. Besides, we think, there is no one we can really trust. We are certain that our intelligence, backed by will power, can rightly control our inner lives and guarantee us success in the world we live in. This brave philosophy, wherein each man plays God, sounds good in the speaking, but it still has to meet the acid test: how well does it actually work?

Blaise Pascal offered a different perspective. The heart has its reasons. In other words, the essence of being a person is surrendering oneself to another and finding fulfillment precisely in that other. In this sense we could say that we empty ourselves.

This can mean emptying our minds in order to reestablish contact with our bodies. Or, more typical of the Christian tradition, seeking to bring our will into alignment with the will of God. This conception of “person” is not based on the notion of self-possession but on that of relationship. A hallmark of relationship is the capacity or at least the willingness to trust.

Call for action

So how do we learn to trust? What spiritual practices are available to us?

The Serenity Prayer calls for action. Grant me the courage to change the things I can.

This is in some ways, a very Protestant perspective. After all, Reinhold Niebuhr was nothing if not a Protestant.

  • Oliver Cromwell: Trust in God but keep your powder dry.
  • Seward Hiltner: Sin and Sickness in which sin consists of acts of omission, the failure to do everything possible to participate in one’s own healing.

The danger here, of course, is that we’ll fall back into the trap of trying to bombard our problems with willpower.

But the Serenity Prayer also lays out a different regimen, a training ground, if you will.

Living one day at a time

Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace

Taking this world as it is

Not as I would have it.

Call for mindfulness

The Serenity Prayer in effect calls us to practice mindfulness, to pause when agitated our doubtful. How much of our suffering, after all, is caused by clinging to remorse, shame, fear and anxiety? The Serenity Prayer invites us to accept hardship not by catastrophizing but by being present in the moment. Though such mindfulness emerges a wisdom not driven by impulsiveness or the tyranny of the “shoulds” or “should have nots.” The action called for by the Serenity Prayer is built upon an assumption of relationship. Without God, I can’t. Without me, God won’t.

The fruits of the Serenity Prayer for me have been greater patience and trust. I often don’t know why events happen, what they mean or how they will turn out. A friend of mine helped me grasp this way of living in the world. I often have heard her say: I thought the day I got married was the best day of my life. I thought the day I got divorced was the worst. I was wrong both times.

May your practice of the serenity prayer yield similar fruits in your life and in the lives of the persons you encounter.


Francis Rivers is a Supervisor of Clinical Pastoral Education at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and is the Hispanic/Latino Liaison on the FaithHealthNC team.


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