A Breakdown of the Serenity Prayer
“Seeing reality for what it is what we call discernment. The work of discernment is very hard.” Lewis B. Smedes
Like many, I had memorized this prayer very quickly in my first tour of AA. It would be years before I was taught prayers actual use: to petition a Higher Power for a spiritual need I didn’t have access to on my own. Many of us are not strangers to prayer before getting sober. What is asking something greater than yourself for your drug dealer to pick up the phone or get here quicker other than a form of prayer? It might have been a foxhole prayer, but a prayer nonetheless. It was even longer before the prayer was broken down to me in a way that made sense and could be applied to my life daily.
My Misunderstanding of the Serenity Prayer
Quite possibly, the Serenity Prayer is Alcoholics Anonymous’ and all 12 step fellowships most popular prayer. Simple yet profound. Much like the 12 steps themselves, it drives at the power of discernment. Merriam Webster defines “discernment” as the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure. So, what is unclear that needs to be made clear in the Serenity Prayer?
A straightforward way to see would be reverse the prayer and see its implication.
“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.”
This reverse implies that I’m often trying to change things that I should be accepting, accepting things that I should be changing and likely confused about the difference. My misunderstanding of the Serenity Prayer was very accurate before and even after I started working the steps in my daily life. When adequately inspected I was taught that the prayer is three requests combined, and more importantly, could separate my life into two categories.
We ask for the serenity to accept the thing that we cannot change. Asking for serenity would fall into the category of “God’s Business.” God’s business is things beyond our control. These events can be devastating without a spiritual foundation to deal with; they include illness beyond our control, the death of loved ones, other people’s actions, the list goes on and on.
Our ability to handle these things comes back to the relationship between our serenity and our acceptance. The stuff out of our control that we don’t accept can cause us pain. More often than not, suffering comes from the resistance to change not the change itself. Sometimes the lesson will have to be taken to “Acceptance without approval,” we must not like or agree with something to gain the benefits of true acceptance.
We ask for the courage to change the things we can. Courage to change the things we can fall into the category of “Our Business.” To pray for a job and take no action seems like a misuse of prayer. God’s response to that prayer may sound something like, “GO ON SOME INTERVIEWS.” Some things are within our control, and this prayer suggests we get to them.
Now that we have the two categories of things in our lives as per this prayer it becomes time to discern between what’s our business and what’s God’s business. The ability to discern between our business and God’s business is called wisdom. Wisdom is more than intelligence. Wisdom is more than just love. I look at wisdom as a combination of both intelligence and love.
Some very loving people are often taken advantage of and don’t protect themselves well. Some brilliant people are ruthless with others. Wisdom exhibits both love and intelligence equally. It adds up to good judgment. Good judgment is often earned through the path of learning from poor judgment. Their serenity prayer can be used as a map from lousy judgment to good judgment.