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Alcoholism: The Serenity Prayer Written by Reinhold Niebuhr, the Power of AA

Updated on July 10, 2015
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Chris has spent 26 years in laboratory work and has had personal experience with cancer, alcoholism and Willis-Eckbom Disease (RLS).

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The Serenity Prayer

The Serenity prayer is one of the most widely known and quoted prayers of all time, very likely second only to the Lord's Prayer. Most people know the shortened and slightly altered version of the Serenity Prayer which reads as follows:

"God grant us the serenity
to accept the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference."

The following is the remainder of the Serenity Prayer, also in a revised form.

"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.
Amen."

Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian and Political Philosopher

Reinhold Niebuhr, June 1, 1892 to June 21, 1971, has been considered the author of the Serenity Prayer, although that authorship has been challenged from time to time. Even Niebuhr himself admits that it is possible that he had assimilated the prayer from earlier reading into his own thinking and attitude toward life. But he followed this admission with a statement of near certainty that he had authored the prayer. Robert H. King, one of the sources for this article, was a student of Niebuhr's at Union Theological Seminary and a friend of the Niebuhr family. King wrote the following in his own defense of Niebuhr's authorship of the prayer: "I must say...that the Reinhold I knew would be totally incapable of making any false claim to being the author of that prayer."

Famous Quotes by Reinhold Niebuhr

World War II, the backdrop to the writing of the Serenity Prayer

A brief look at the life of Reinhold Niebuhr will reveal why the American Theologian was so gripped by the spirit of the Serenity Prayer. Niebuhr was outspoken against Naziism and was friends with two prominent German theologians who had fled Germany at the outset of the war. Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer mourned the slow death of their homeland under Hitler. Bonhoeffer finally gave in to his sense of responsibility and returned to Germany. He immediately connected with the German Underground and conspired with them to assassinate Hitler. The plan was discovered and Bonhoeffer was hanged just weeks before Hitler committed suicide.

This is the backdrop to the writing of the Serenity Prayer. It brings to memory the harsh circumstances surrounding the penning of the Christian hymn Amazing Grace by John Newton.

During this most demoralizing of times for the people of Europe and America, Niebuhr was busy imploring the German population of the United States to remain loyal to America. At the same time he felt powerless to help his two friends who were so emotionally distraught by what was happening overseas. The death of Bonhoeffer in defense of his own country especially took an emotional toll on Niebuhr.

The First Public Use of the Serenity Prayer

The truth of the Serenity Prayer can readily be seen in the life of the man who penned the words. He did what he could by using the gifts and talents he possessed to challenge and encourage a German-American population torn by the conflict in Europe. On the other hand, there were events, such as those involving his two German friends, over which he was powerless. And in this state of mind, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote down the words to the Serenity Prayer which had been steeping in his heart and mind for over a decade. He shared them in a sermon at Heath Union (Congregational) Church in Heath, Massachusetts in the summer of 1943.

Serenity Prayer on the back of an AA "coin."
Serenity Prayer on the back of an AA "coin." | Source

The Serenity Prayer and Alcoholics Anonymous

Since that time, the Serenity Prayer has gone on to have a tremendous effect in America and around the world. Around the time of the end of World War II, Alcoholics Anonymous ran across the prayer and seized upon it. The heart of the prayer has been syncing with the hearts of recovering alcoholics for over sixty-seven years. I personally, as a recovering alcoholic, mentally quote the Serenity Prayer on a daily basis, as it has become a guide to handling the difficulties of life without drinking. I have personally heard more than one alcoholic testify that the Serenity Prayer saved their lives.

Broad Cultural Acceptance of the Serenity Prayer

The Serenity Prayer has been so absorbed by our culture and society that it regularly appears in various forms of art including lyrics to songs recorded by many famous singers. Neil Young and Whitney Houston referenced the prayer on the covers of albums. Boston, Sinead O'Connor, 50 Cent, punk band Blood for Blood and Olivia Newton John used the Serinity Prayer in their lyrics. Authors such as Kurt Vonnegut and Dan Brown used the Prayer in their books. Even the modern world of video games has incorporated the words of the Serenity Prayer into the game World of Warcraft.

The Original Version of the Serenity Prayer

Let's look at the Serenity Prayer as Reinhold Niebuhr first put it down on paper. This was also his favorite version of his prayer.

God, give us 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.

The Serenity Prayer: simple and powerful

What did Reinhold Niebuhr seek to communicate in the Serenity Prayer? First it was a prayer, a call out to God. But it also says something to those of us who will listen. I have seen this prayer have a tremendous impact on lives without any explanation at all, so maybe that is where we should leave it now. The prayer is simple and powerful enough to be effective without explanation.

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    • cam8510 profile image
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      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Thank you Michael, those are very kind words. You have a strong faith trust in God. I do as well, but possibly there are some differences. When I have trouble knowing what to do in a situation, this prayer quite often lets me know whether to press forward in action or sit back and wait. Thanks again Michael.

    • Michael-Milec profile image

      Michael-Milec 4 years ago

      Hi Chris.

      You've done it again: a powerful much needed message, very nicely composed .

      There's no substitute to a prayer. When the people pray ( we, me ) its just a plain talk. The art of verbal expression of thoughts in time of need.

      As you well presented ,the serenity prayer is certainly the undeniable confirmation to accomplishment of this particularly spoken words.

      Only,when we dare to speak in faith- believing what we say or just not wavering, the results follow.

      Many benefited from prayer, many more will . The God is still answering the prayers. ( " thy will be done " --don't blame me please if experienced differently).

      To avoid any further argument , my experience in practicing praying , is just that : the God is answering every prayer in His time, in His way , he maintains sovereignty for himself.

      Well done, my friend.

      Voted up and awesome .

      May God continue to bless you .

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      krillco, Thank you for that brief, but very appreciated comment.

    • krillco profile image

      William E Krill Jr 4 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA

      Thank you.