In gratitude, harmony, and support,
The Serenity Prayer and Twelve Step Recovery: Finding the Balance between Acceptance and Change
God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can, and
The wisdom to know the difference.
AA, the Twelve Steps and the Serenity Prayer
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous have enthusiastically embraced the healing wisdom of this beloved prayer—known as the Serenity Prayer—from the earliest days of the fellowship. In fact, these 27 words are heard today in most every AA meeting because the prayer offers a simplified version of the Twelve Step path to sanity and sobriety.
In many ways, the Serenity Prayer mirrors the spirituality, principles and practices of AA’s Twelve Steps. And, although the origin is thought to be Christian, the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer is applicable to daily life regardless of your religion, concept of God or spiritual belief system. Several versions of the Serenity Prayer exist, each with slightly different wording that various support groups have adopted.
There are conflicting accounts of the prayer’s origin. It has been variously attributed to an ancient Sanskrit text; the Greek philosopher, Aristotle; the early Christian theologian, St. Augustine; the Catholic preacher and patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi; and other spiritual leaders. Many AA members were first introduced to the prayer in 1948, when it was quoted in AA Grapevine, the fellowship’s magazine. There, the prayer was credited to American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). The Serenity Prayer spread through both Niebuhr’s sermons and church groups in the 1930s and 1940s, and was later adopted and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step programs.
Living the Serenity Prayer in Recovery from Alcohol or Drug Addiction
For many, the first verse of the Serenity Prayer serves as a daily touchstone, reminding us that to achieve serenity, we must approach each moment with acceptance, courage and wisdom. The prayer perfectly expresses the central problem of addiction and prescribes a timeless solution.
The Serenity Prayer’s message about acceptance echoes insights from Bill W., cofounder of AA. In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, published by AA World Services, Bill described the core trait of alcoholics as self-centeredness—something he called “self-will run riot.” He further portrayed the alcoholic as “an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way.” Bill’s solution: “First of all, we had to quit playing God.”
What blocks some alcoholics and addicts from achieving serenity is this intense desire to achieve a sense of absolute control—an impossibility for human beings. This need for control has two aspects: First, the attempt to control the behavior of others, a strategy that addicts cling to despite its repeated failure; and second, the attempt to control feelings by medicating them with mood-altering chemicals. Both strategies are doomed to failure.
An alcoholic’s quest for absolute control can lead to misery, which may, in turn, contribute to substance abuse problems. Ironically, the need to control may also be a response to the unmanageability caused by the out-of-control use of alcohol or other drugs. And the vicious cycle continues until the addict is able to accept that there will always be hardship in life and external circumstances beyond his or her ability to change. The prayer points us to examine our inner life and to understand that we can influence our feelings and our emotional health through the things we can control—our thinking and our actions. By focusing on those two factors, we strengthen our capacity for courage, the final quality promised in the Serenity Prayer.
The Serenity Prayer opens a wide door to spiritual growth and healing, one that embraces people of all faiths, backgrounds and beliefs about God. It offers spiritual truths and practical wisdom to addicts and non-addicts alike. People who learn to live and breathe this prayer in their daily lives discover, in the balance between acceptance and change, the precious gift of serenity—a gift that is available to us with each new day and enlightens our lifelong, spiritual journey.