The Significance of the Serenity Prayer in 12-Step Recovery

Two women hugging in a support group meeting

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Brilliant in its simplicity, the Serenity Prayer is one of the key spiritual tools used by virtually all 12-step recovery support groups. The following is the adaptation that's generally used in these groups:

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.

Significance of the AA Serenity Prayer

Sometimes referred to as "the AA acceptance prayer," the Serenity Prayer is usually recited at the beginning of almost all 12-step group meetings, and, at many meetings, at the end as well. Examples of these 12-step groups include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), Al-Anon/Alateen, and Marijuana Anonymous, among dozens of others. It has also become a part of mainstream culture, finding its way into movies, books, memes, and home decorations.

For so many people in desperate situations—seeking peace, strength, and wisdom—these simple words, whispered to a God as they understand him, have seen them through their darkest hours. They have come to believe that the qualities expressed in the prayer can come only from a power greater than themselves. And because they believe, they find the serenity, courage, and wisdom they seek from somewhere outside themselves to face another situation, another step, and another day.


Although millions of people both in and out of the recovery community have been helped and strengthened by the Serenity Prayer's simple lines, few are aware the first stanza was written by Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr. He was an American theologian, philosopher, and longtime dean and professor of Applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

There has been much controversy over when and by whom the Serenity Prayer was penned, but it looks like the debate is over. Though Reinhold Niebuhr is now undisputedly the author, it's unclear exactly when he wrote the well-known and beloved prayer, but it seems to have been around 1933.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) adopted the prayer in 1941 when an AA member saw it in The New York Herald Tribune and asked the AA secretary at the time, Ruth Hock, to see if it could be printed in distributable cards. She wrote to an AA member who was a printer in Washington, D.C., sent him the clipping, and asked him how much it would cost to print up some wallet-size copies. The printer liked the prayer so much ("I can’t recall any sentence that packs quite the wallop that that does," he said), he sent 500 cards to her for free, and the prayer became a permanent part of AA's history.

The Complete Serenity Prayer

Here is the unabridged Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971):

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.


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