Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer has touched millions. Composed during the crisis of the Second World War, it was printed on cards, circulated among American troops, and later adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous.
In her 2003 book, The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, reflected on the history and influence of the famous prayer. In this excerpt, published in the Spring 2004 issue of Elmhurst College's Prospect magazine, she points to the prayer's continued relevance.
Americans call it the “Serenity Prayer,” which is how it’s known to those who encounter it as a mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous. The reassuring calm of the word “serenity” is soothing, though to call it the “grace” or “courage” or “wisdom” prayer might better emphasize the demanding spiritual effort it recommends. People usually presume that it’s very old, for its stringency and spiritual clarity seem unusual for our soupy, compromised times. It’s surely rabbinical in origin, or Stoic, derived or translated from Latin or Hebrew, maybe Scottish? All too often a facile, postmodern skepticism prevails as to its authorship: Even if some latter-day pastor thinks he composed it, the reasoning goes, it’s more likely that he pulled it from his ragbag of accessible holy thoughts first set forth in a century with a better prose style than ours, like the seventeenth, and rejigged it for all of us now.
In Germany false confidence about the prayer’s venerable antiquity has gone further. And it is superbly centered on the presumption that of course the prayer is German. Not long after Hitler’s final defeat in 1945, not long after the four victorious Allied powers had divided Germany’s ruined provinces, when its destroyed economy, never mind its spirit, was slowly being rebuilt, the prayer began to be cited as a wonderful eighteenth-century Swabian Pietist guide to wisdom. Within a few years of the founding of a new democratic German state in the old British, French and American occupation zones, politicians quoted it as a German prayer in morale-building speeches, and a half century later they still do.
How dramatic the irony, then, that the actual author was an American of German descent who wrote the prayer in the United States in 1943, at the height of the war against Germany; whose family for generations had kept a sometimes strict, always careful distance from the fatherland; who thought that German Pietism was often “shallow” and “irrelevant,” as weak as the bland hypocrisies of religion in his own country. He was a teacher and writer who had been strenuously opposing much of Germany’s religious and political life for decades, all the more so when National Socialism poisoned both; who early on had spoken out, loudly, against Hitler and against the implicit support or condoning of his regime in Europe and the United States. All his life he fought against conservatives because they usually disregarded the imperatives of social justice, but he was also skeptical of liberals because they usually radiated implausible optimism about the likelihood of social betterment. He was an American pastor who found himself at odds with Protestant and Catholic church leaders because he thought that they, like many other public figures, had failed and were failing to give heed to the hideous threats posed to democratic freedom everywhere by totalitarian and fascist forces. Before Pearl Harbor, he preached and lectured and wrote in opposition to his own country’s isolationist neutrality; by 1943, he and like-minded colleagues were already debating and planning for the structures of postwar democracy, which they rightly believed would need to be strengthened. A deeply devout man, he wrestled daily with the problem of how to relate his innermost religious commitments to the public life of the community.
So the historical meaning of this quite modern American prayer is bound up in the war against one of the greatest evils posed during a violently evil century. Yet like all ageless prayer it speaks to many generations and of course to good and peaceful people in tranquil times. It reminds us of the virtues we must call on in our private lives, and it also concerns the qualities needed to act in the intricate social networks that connect us to others. In our new century, with its new evils, when we should surely pay attention in new and better ways to our conduct as citizens of the world, the Serenity Prayer can mean even more to us than it has in the past. The circumstances under which it was composed and the reasons that it took on such a life of its own are in themselves inspiring, and knowing them might help us to appreciate its consoling, challenging power. The Serenity Prayer is not just a familiar, agreeable cliché. After all, its instructions are tremendously difficult and puzzling to follow.
What does it mean to ask God to grant one grace? Millions of Christians express this petition every week around the world, but they have never agreed on what it means. Perhaps that’s no surprise. Nor do Christians seem especially graceful—there are those who have found them quite the contrary. And of course millions of people in other faiths express comparable petitions, asking for the grace or power of fullness of heart that will endow their lives with meaning. What is this about? Amazing grace! Is it a freely given bounty to God’s love, bestowed on all His creatures, or does one have to prepare one’s soul for it, and if so how? And how do you know if it’s been granted you? In the early years of the American colonies, this became, as it had been in Europe and England for centuries, a hotly contested political issue.
The Serenity Prayer presumes that it’s hard to accept “what cannot be changed.” It reminds us of the human truth that no pain, death, or irreversible loss is easily managed. Yet acceptance must come serenely or not at all, since anger or resentment hardens the heart and makes acceptance impossible. On the other hand, all too many of us seem able, even ready and willing, to accept inhumane and cruel situations that we could ourselves do something to improve. Surely we could find it intolerable to endure them.
If instead we find the courage to change “what should be changed,” how far will our decision take us? Do I act just for myself, or for my family, society, country? Does praying for the courage to make changes suggests that at morally ambiguous and dangerous junctures, let alone ordinary, everyday ones, summoning up the strength to do this may require divine intervention?
And then—wisdom! The prayer says nothing about the moment of discernment when, if we are wise, we shall see which category is which. How do we tell? Most prayers thank the Almighty for having bestowed understanding, wisdom, and good fortune upon the faithful. Or they imply that the religious commitment itself, or God Himself—higher powers, anyway—will somehow generate the wisdom we mere mortals need to get on in life. But this prayer does not. Many prayers in many faiths petition god to show the way to right action. But this prayer asks only for wisdom to discern the right way on our own. It presumes that it’s within our powers to accomplish this. Still, it is a prayer, and I cannot imagine its message in a different mode.
Why is that? Whether Christian or not, why would anyone pray about this, not just think about it? What indeed, does it mean to pray? I myself believe it’s an inner activity natural to all humanity, and I’m certain that atheists and secular people pray, too, even when they scoff at the very idea. The reassuring truth is that the mode of hope in which prayer is cast is inevitable for all of us, and the habit of true prayer can develop easily. Yet, beyond the contemplative religious communities whose members devote themselves to this subject, not enough of us have thought about what prayer really is or might be.
As it happens, my father, Reinhold Niebuhr, composed the Serenity Prayer, and I grew up knowing his answers to some of these perplexing questions: his daily work acknowledged their importance. There’s an ironic connection, too, between the Serenity Prayer’s composition and the strange way it was later misattributed in Germany. For me, the Serenity Prayer distills the essence of hope and effort that animated my father and some of his closest friends in their lifework. These people were far-flung allies in many different struggles against economic and social injustice, against bigotries of all kinds, against the evils of unrestrained capitalism, against fascism, against wars; they lived and worked in Missouri, in Germany, in Mississippi, in Detroit, in England, in Washington. Some of them were agnostics or atheists, some of them were Jews, and quite a few of them were Protestant ministers. I think of them as people who understood how to relate their faith to their lives, the world of the spirit to the world of the here and now. They are heroes and heroines to me, but I think they are heroes and heroines for all of us. Their story—the backstory, as it were, of the Serenity Prayer and of its afterlife—was not just about politics, not just about religion in public life, not just about war and how to avoid it or how to fight it. It was a drama about our life as citizens.
It’s easy enough to see that the Serenity Prayer came out of, and was affected by, the challenges and dangers of a very difficult, fractured time. Now, sixty years later, our lives are darkened again by grim foreboding about new threats, and civil society seems ever more fractured and frantic. Trust, hope and courtesy in the public sphere have radically diminished, and this naturally affects our inner lives, too: how can it not?
Yet we are not facing a new spiritual crisis: this is the same old crisis in a new form. Living in history, living in full, always offers as much despair as hope, as much danger as possibility. So it is no wonder that so many millions find daily strength and resolve in praying for grace to accept with serenity that which we cannot change, courage to change what we should change, and the wisdom to discern the one from the other.
Elisabeth Sifton is an editor with Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. This essay is taken from her 2003 book, The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, published by W.W. Norton & Company.