There seem to actually be a lot of stories as to the source of this prayer and there are also numerous extended versions of it. However, the following, best as I can tell, is the most accurate English translation of the original and full prayer as written by Niebuhr.
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.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Long associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and various other twelve-step recovery programs, many people in recovery carry this prayer with them at all times. I actually have a cross that was given to me with this printed on it which I often carry in my pocket. One way or another, we are all sort of in continuous recovery, aren't we? I don't say that to make light of those with true addictions. I cannot imagine I'd have the strength to deal with that. But, in some way, aren't we all addicted to our humanity and the frailties that go with that? Don't we all need a reminder of the need to live by The Serenity Prayer? I am sure everyone will agree with that. (I will have to save the idea of of being "addicted to our humanity" for a future post.)
However, we all think of The Serenity Prayer as a prayer of acceptance ... a prayer of acquiescing ... a prayer of living our life with God, following God, and trusting God. Those are all good and important things. But when we look at and think of the prayer only along those lines, it's easy to miss or forget the third line "courage to change the things I can." While there is power in accepting what we cannot change, there is also great power in changing what we can.
I read a quote by Thomas Merton recently which really struck me as well. Here it is:
Christian asceticism is remarkable above all for its balance, its sense of proportion. It does not overstress the negative side of the ascetic life, nor does it tend to flatter the ego by diminishing responsibilities or watering down the truth. It shows us clearly that, while we can do nothing without grace, we must nevertheless cooperate with grace. It warns us that we must make an uncompromising break with the world and all it stands for, but it keeps encouraging us to understand that our existence in “the world” and in time becomes fruitful and meaningful in proportion as we are able to assume spiritual and Christian responsibility for our life, our work, and even for the world we live in. Thus Christian asceticism does not provide a flight from the world, a refuge from stress and the distractions of manifold wickedness. It enables us to enter into the confusion of the world bearing something of the light of Truth in our hearts, and capable of exercising something of the mysterious, transforming power of the Cross, of love and sacrifice.
The power of serenity nothwithstanding, there is indeed huge power in that third line of The Serenity Prayer. There is huge power in that ability to recognize the things we can change and to then have the courage to change them. Too often in my Christian journey, I can end up equating being a Christian with being milquetoast. That is a huge mistake. Jesus was anything but milquetoast and neither should we be.
Yes, we should accept the things we cannot change. Things like our past, outside influences, even our psyches to some degree. But, God, grant us the courage to change the things we can -- grant me the courage to change the things I can! That is a true calling in life ... something to which we are all called as a part of our journeys as Christians and as compassionate individuals who care about the world in which we live.