Reinhold Niebuhr was a theologian and professor at Union Theological Seminary. President Lyndon Johnson awarded Niebuhr the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 and many American legends, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Madeleine Albright, Barack Obama, John McCain and Jimmy Carter, have cited Niebuhr as one of their key influences. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential American theologians in history.
While the list of Niebuhr’s philosophical, political and social accomplishments is titanic, Niebuhr has had a particularly strong impact on Americans that struggle with addiction and mental illness. In 1951, he composed a poem that has provided strength to millions of people around the world.
The poem is called the “Serenity Prayer” and it goes like this:
The Serenity Prayer
“God, give me 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.
At the end of every 12-step meeting, the participants recite an abridged version of this poem:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.”
When we look at the first three (of the 12) steps, it becomes obvious why Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and every other 12-step group adopted Niebuhr’s poem as their de facto motto. Other organizations that followed the template of AA and adopted the Serenity Prayer include, but are not limited to, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous, Depression Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous.
THE FIRST 3 STEPS:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
The reliance on a higher power, something greater than us, isn’t just essential for people that struggle with addiction and mental illness. It’s part of the human condition. Humans need to be in control. Addiction and mental illness are rooted in feelings of hopelessness and a lack of control. The call to rely on God is echoed over and over and over in the Scriptures:
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord you God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Obviously, such a counterintuitive and fundamental form of surrender isn’t easy – far from it. The surrender to God is the ultimate trust fall. For many, it is the hardest thing that they will ever do. And, tragically, many more will die because they were not able to offer their burdens up to God. The act of surrender to the divine is not an event, but a long process. It’s difficult to describe that process, with any degree of specificity or clarity, to someone who hasn’t experienced it.
This truth of the human condition is one of the most common themes throughout the Bible. There is not one book of the Bible that does not encourage its readers to lean on the grace and mercy of God. Clearly, God has a sense of humor and enjoys the occasional appearance of irony – an individual’s total surrender to their higher power represents the greatest form of freedom possible. By acknowledging that we are not God, that we are not in control, we absolve ourselves of the burden of needing to be in constant control. The obsession with (and need to have) total control is a form of mental slavery – a totalitarian state where defeat and failure are inevitable (because total control requires omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence). Total control is the exclusive domain of the divine and it exists only as a cognitive delusion for those lacking divinity. While God logically cannot grant us total control, he does offer us the blessing of serenity – the ability to flourish, to cultivate joy and to enrich the lives of those around us in a hostile world filled with uncertainty.