Serenity Prayer’s Three Virtues: Serenity, Courage and Wisdom
In our EFT and Addiction practice with couples and individuals in crisis, good people who struggle with addiction, anxiety, anger, and depression, we have discovered the great wisdom in the simple so-called “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 prayer was composed in the 1930’s by pastor and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr for a sermon he was delivering. It has gone through many slight variations over the years, but the three primary virtues have remained constant: Serenity, Courage, and Wisdom. Let’s look at each in turn.
Serenity: Serenity seems to come naturally to some people, but for most of us, it is an acquired virtue. Serenity is the ability to stay centered, clear-headed, and peaceful no matter what our outward circumstances. How is serenity acquired? Sadly, mostly by going through hard times and learning from them that (a) we will survive, (b) hard times don’t last, and (c) that love really does conquer all and that our lives have purpose. In one of his letters (written from prison, btw) St. Paul talks about how he had “learned to be content in all circumstances.” (Philippians 4:12) How did he learn it? Through many hard times. (He catalogs just some of these trials in his other letters.) If someone as strong and wise as St. Paul had to learn serenity through struggles, it is probably true for us as well.
Courage:. Writer C.S. Lewis once observed that courage is the one virtue that makes all the other virtues work. He wrote: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.
That is because without courage, we won’t choose to exercise the other virtues, even if we possess them. It takes courage to be patient, or loving, or generous, or forgiving. We can be hurt or taken advantage of. Courage comes from the Latin word cor for “heart.” When we choose to be courageous, we are risking our heart. That is often a hard choice. But, without risk, we never grow.
Wisdom: Wisdom is not to be confused with “Knowledge.” Knowledge is simply the accumulation of facts. Wisdom is being able to apply knowledge in a helpful, kind, and useful way. We all have known people who had lots of head knowledge but very little wisdom. Likewise, we have known people who, though lacking a great deal of “formal” education, were very wise. Wisdom comes from seeing the big picture, of being able to put things in context. Wisdom is the ability to make choices and use words that bring life and healing, not division and hurt. Wisdom is knowing that there are certain things we cannot change, no matter how much we want them to, and even if change would be a good thing. Wisdom is accepting what Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Having the courage to face these hard truths leads to serenity and a sense of peace and purpose.
In our next blog, we will look at some of the ways the “Serenity Prayer” has evolved over the years and what some of those evolutions may mean.