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The Serenity Prayer Unpacked

Serenity Prayer: Introduction

Many people, especially in the addiction and recovery community, are familiar with what has come to be called The Serenity Prayer: “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.”

The wisdom of this simple prayer is also good for married couples because, as we have learned in EFT work (Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy), marriage counseling reveals that there are things about our partners—and ourselves--we cannot change and must be approached with a sense of serenity and compassion.

This beautiful yet powerful prayer was composed by the American theologian and pastor Reinhold Niebuhr who died in 1971. This prayer has become such an important part of so many people’s lives that we will devote the next several blogs to examining its history: why Niebuhr wrote it, how it has evolved over the years, its lesser-known full, original text, and how it can apply to our lives.

First, how did this prayer come to be written? Niebuhr was born in 1892 in a small town in Missouri. His parents were German immigrants and his father was a pastor. Young Reinhold (and his brother Richard) became a pastor in what is now the United Church of Christ.

Niebuhr lived through two world wars and several smaller wars. He experienced the horrors of World War I and the genuine hope that it would be the war to end all wars. He lived through the optimism and opulence of the “Roaring 20’s,” and the despair of the Great Depression.

While details are unclear, it seems that Reinhold wrote the prayer as part of a sermon he delivered sometime in the early 1930’s while he was the pastor at a church in Massachusetts. The first known use of the prayer comes from 1932 yet it was not officially published until 1951. During those decades, it was adopted by the Alcoholics Anonymous movement (founded in 1935) and by other 12-Step Recovery groups.

So, what was it about his life that caused Niebuhr to create such an enduring prayer? We’ll look at that in our next blog.

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