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Home > 2012 > September Web Exclusives > Prayers That Change ME

My mother often referred to a prayer that her mother said (in Swedish) nightly at the bedsides of her eight children as they headed off to sleep. The prayer became so embedded in their memories that one of her brothers, when he was dying 80 years later, asked my mother to "pray the prayer that Mama used to pray."

Like my dying uncle, many of us have simple lines of thoughtful prayer to which we cling when life becomes rough. The Lord's Prayer is an obvious one. Or some version of the "Jesus prayer": Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. Or the so-called prayer of St. Francis of Assisi that begins, "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace …" (as much as one senses the spirit of Francis in the prayer, it is highly improbable that he was its creator).

Throughout the years of my Christian journey, I have used Psalm 23 as a prayer, and there have been sleepless nights when I have repeated the Shepherd Psalm over and over, perhaps as many as a hundred times. The vision of green pastures and quiet waters has rarely failed to re-order my heart and mind.

Then there is the more recent Serenity Prayer. "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."

The Serenity prayer is embraced by the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. It is usually prayed at the beginning and end of any meeting where self-confessed drunks gather to help each other stay sober for another 24 hours.

There is an ongoing debate as to who authored the Serenity Prayer. It is usually attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, but some claim that the prayer's core ideas come from one or more spiritual masters of a century (or even a millennium) ago.

Friends who are alcoholics tell me that the Serenity prayer speaks to the core of the alcoholic's mental disease.

The prayer highlights three concerns. First, one needs to recognize those events and experiences over which there is no immediate control and to accept them for what they are. We might call this the act of submission. Since most alcoholics admit to being control freaks, I can see why this line means so much to them.

Second, one needs to acknowledge those events and experiences where it is possible to effect change. Here the operational word is courage.

And third, one needs insight to know which of the first two is actually in play. Is something changeable, or is it beyond my control? The answer requires wisdom.

Some time ago I latched on to the Serenity Prayer as a tool for daily reflection. I began repeating it many times during the day, especially when I faced issues that were affecting my emotions and attitudes.

The Prayer has provoked me into wondering how often I waste time and energy trying to manage things that are beyond my grasp. To do this is to invite frustration, stress, even anger to flood my inner being.

This state of agitation is easy to observe in a small child who, lacking wisdom, throws a temper tantrum because he cannot get what he wants. He may scream, lash out at others, even breaks things. One frequently observes adult versions of this behavior that are just a bit more subtle and sophisticated: irritability, blaming, defensiveness, criticism of others, manipulation.

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Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.

Posted: September 17, 2012

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October 08, 2012  4:54pm

Mary and Tom - thanks for pointing out the second verse. Celebrate Recovery, a Christ centered recovery group started out of Saddleback Church, uses the entire Serenity prayer during its meetings.

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Barry Chitwood

October 08, 2012  4:00pm

Mark Goodrich, your comment represents what is wrong with certain elements in the evangelical movement. You say that the Serenity Prayer is not inspired. That is a very judgmental and highly inflammatory statement. That prayer has guided countless thousands of lost souls to seek God and His healing touch in recovery from substance abuse. You, sir, are very wrong.

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September 27, 2012  8:03pm

A good friend of mine rephrased it in a similar way. God grant me the serenity to accept those I cannot change, the courage to change who I can, and the wisdom to know it is me.

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Dave W

September 26, 2012  10:42pm

I like the hula hoop story... Place a hula hoop on the ground; step inside it and look all around beyond the hula hoop; these are the things that you can not change. Now, look inside the hula hoop; what do you see? You! The only thing that you can change is you! Oh, and Mark would benefit from more wisdom to go along with that book-knowledge, but, I cannot change him. Perhaps the concept of the Serenity Prayer is one of the differences between religion and spirituality? In AA the second verse is omitted because they look to a "higher Power" which carries a much broader context than a Christian God and Jesus that is clearly identified in the second verse.

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mark Goodrich

September 25, 2012  3:55pm

wow I am really surprised. Nothing wrong with this prayer, But I am surprised that this is the pray that changed your life. And the prayer that you have posted via a National leadership to comment on as 'life changing" It not even biblical. I am not saying its not true. But its not inspired, its not the word of God that as you know is to "dwell in me richly as I teach and admonish others." The prayer was written by Reinhold Niebuhr,as best we know why not... Eph 3:14-21, John 17, Ps 90 I Chronicles 28:19 etc... Not sure I get this post at all. I've read most of what you have written over the years... I am surprised that the editors of leadership mag. let this go out I am sure it hit me as it did, because I am doing my own study and refelction on some of the great prayer fo the bible... I would not consider it in the same category very surprised!

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