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I love the serenity prayer.

Throughout my years of preaching, I’ve used it in all sorts of ways: to inspire surrender (God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change), to encourage action (the courage to change the things I can), to invite self-reflection (and the wisdom to know the difference).

I’ve also used this apt variation, the final phrase, a punchline of sorts:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,

the courage to change the person I can

and the wisdom to know that person is me.

The serenity prayer – written by Reinhold Niebuhr with variants found in many other sources – holds so many of our better angels: serenity and acceptance, courage and change, wisdom and knowledge. Their wings take us far.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this prayer is that it highlights our limited agency—something author and historian, Kate Bowler, talks about a lot.

Kate has found umpteen different ways to say that we live in a world that tells us everything is possible and that we can control our destinies through manifesting, positive thinking, and juice cleanses. When things happen outside the realm of our control, we learn that we do not have unlimited agency. And the serenity prayer blesses that limit. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I do not have the power to change.

At other times, the realities of our worlds tell us that nothing is possible. We are victims of forces beyond our control. And we sink into situational or chronic depression, throw up our hands, and say, “It is what it is.” But wait, we do have some agency. The serenity (and courage) prayer invites us to ask God for the courage to change the things we can.

We have agency, but it is limited.

God, grant me courage to be an agent and grant me acceptance of my limitations. (And for Kate, this acknowledgement of limited agency is a doorway to the beauty of interdependence with our fellow humans.)

A friend of mine has been deeply praying this prayer through their participation in Al-Anon. But they wondered recently, “Where is God in all of this?”

And now I can’t stop thinking about their question. The prayer divides Things into two groups: things I can change with courage and things I must accept with serenity. And God is simply the dispenser of serenity and courage.

Are there not Things that we can neither change nor accept, that we then ask God to change? I mean, horizontal interdependence is great, but what about vertical dependence?

Is not the God to whom we pray a change agent in relationship to the Things of this world?

Well, of course God is an agent for change in this world. But, I forget that sometimes.

In all my effort to remember that the only person I can change is me and in all my courage-mustering to do the work that only I can do, I forget that. In all my efforts to accept and love the Things (and people) that I have no power to change, I forget that God has the power to change. In all the pains I take to avoid magical thinking and false hope, I forget that there is a place for real hope that God can do more than I can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). I forget that “in all things, God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good” (Romans 8:28). I forget that God is a God who does New Things (Isaiah 43:19): “See, I am doing a new thing! Now, it springs up; do you not perceive it?”

Sometimes I don’t perceive it. And I needed this reminder that came through the pondering of my friend.

Part of me wants to add a line to the serenity prayer. Something like, “Grant me the hope that you will make things (in others, the world… me) different than they are now (in spite of what we do or don’t do)!”

Another part of me knows that there are other prayers to pray to ask for God to change things. The Lord’s prayer (Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven). And another prayer of our Lord (If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will).

The part of me that rests this case wonders if serenity and acceptance might include hope and trust. When I accept the things that I cannot change, this does not mean that these things cannot be changed by Someone Else (or someone else… horizontal interdependence and vertical dependence are not mutually exclusive, after all). In accepting with serenity (which sounds kind of like surrender) all that is outside my realm of control, I also accept and surrender to the One who gives and opens doors (Matthew 7:7).

One of my long term care residents died last week. He – a man who often saw and spoke to angels and held regular conversations with Jesus – did not die as quickly as he wanted to. The Big Change was slow in coming.

In the days leading up to his death, we prayed together. Loudly. I matched my tone to his as he called out to Jesus to “come down here right now! I’m ready to go! There’s nothing left for me here!” “All things work! All things work together!” he cried. And then over and over again, “Open the door. Just open the door. Open the door.” He asked me to open the door and he asked Jesus to open the door. I think he was talking about the door to heaven, but I left the door to his room open a crack each time I left (ignoring the sign taped to its outside: “Keep Door Closed”), just in case that would help.

Our prayers sounded less like serenity and more like courage. They were altogether wise. They were prayers of surrender and trust and hope.

And finally the door opened. And things changed. He changed. And one day, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, we will all be changed. I look forward to this with serenity and courage—with the very things that God grants us as we face all the things we are facing now.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Header Image by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Heidi S. De Jonge

Heidi S. De Jonge is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church who lives in Kingston, Ontario, with her husband, three children, and a dog.

6 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Well, excellent.

  • Tom Prins says:

    Courage, yes. I think of Association for a More Just Society, based in Honduras, who talk about being brave Christians.

  • CB says:

    Well said, thank you! All things in God’s timing,never give up hope.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Nearly six years ago my husband and I received a phone call from a family member who surrendered to inpatient chemical dependency treatment after many other attempts at sobriety. We had become acquainted with the Serenity Prayer thirty two years earlier and valued its use in our careers working with patients in hospitals and outpatient therapy settings. This was different because our specific prayers had been answered long after we had learned the three Cs; we didn’t Cause it, we couldn’t Control it, and we couldn’t Cure it. The family member continues to live the prayer and sobriety daily. As long as there is life there is hope, one day at a time.

  • Ken Boonstra says:

    I love it. “God grant me the serenity…the courage…the wisdom…and the hope to believe that you are acting to make all things new.” Thanks for this lovely addition to a wonderful prayer.

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