This review of The Serenity Prayer in the Boston Globe is a few years old, and probably many readers are aware of the fact that The Serenity Prayer, as we learned it, is not the original version — and in fact, the version we know diminishes its author, Rheinhold Niebuhr’s philosophy and sentiments:
At some point the prayer was simplified. Printed on Hallmark cards. Displayed in plaques with praying hands by Albrecht Durer on countless walls. On bookmarks and keychains and coffee mugs. (Sifton asks, “And ash trays?”) One is astounded to hear it even in the background of a number called “Gotta Make it to Heaven” by the rap artist 50 Cent. (There cannot be many professors of Christian ethics who have achieved a reach like that!)
But such simple reachings after feel-good serenity obscure Niebuhr’s deeper legacy — his profound, simultaneous indictment of self-righteousness, complacency, and despair.
As for his famous prayer, the irony is that the version that has achieved mass distribution is really rather un-Niebuhrian. He was less concerned with individual healing than with political responsibility, and was critical of the pious individualism and sentimentality that marred much of religion in America.
As Sifton points out, the prayer as Niebuhr wrote it was communal. He wrote, “God, Grant us,” not “me.” Moreover, AA’s altered version refers merely to the things one “can” change, rather than the things one “should” change. This reduces the prayer strictly to an individual supplication, dependent on one’s own limited abilities. The AA version also eliminates praying for “grace” and strikes straight for that soothing word “serenity,” which in truth could almost have been dropped from the original version without much loss.
The review gives a very good overview of the theologian’s life, and worth a read if you are unfamiliar with him. And here is the original version of the prayer:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.