Steps to Serenity

by Carolyn Cogswell

Serenity is a goal for which people in recovery strive “one day at a time.” Faith is the first step, followed by rest and refusal to fear.

The popular and oft-quoted “Prayer For Serenity,” or “Serenity Prayer,” by Reinhold Niebuhr contains words that offer comfort to those who long for peace in a stressful world. Many are familiar with the first three phrases but may not be familiar with the “complete” version, used by some 12-step programs such as Celebrate Recovery.

The serenity prayer assumes the existence of God, beginning with the words, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The words “courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference” complete the short version of the prayer.

Faith, the First Step

Faith has different meanings, depending upon in what or in whom individuals place their trust. Believers in a supreme being trust in a power greater than themselves who they believe knows, loves and cares for them. Skeptics may have faith in themselves, in the notion that “things happen for a reason” or that optimism yields the best outcomes.

The popular short version of the Prayer for Serenity contains language that provides a way to organize the world into “things I cannot change” and “things I can.” Praying for “wisdom to know the difference” expresses the belief that God will supply a solution or a plan of action.

Pro-active individuals may argue that the Serenity Prayer is too passive. Admitting there are things that one cannot change may look like giving up in the face of opposition. They may believe that persistence, self-confidence and willpower can overcome any obstacle and defeat all odds. A fan of the Serenity Prayer might accuse that person of thinking he or she has more control over life events than is reasonable, given the many forces at work in the world.

The Serenity Prayer assures that living “one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time” will yield a relaxed or restful approach to life that will result in “reasonable” happiness both in this life and in the next. The prayer states the belief that “hardship is a pathway to peace,” and that God will “make all things right if I surrender to His will,” suggesting that fighting in certain situations only increases their difficulty. Implied is the notion that one must “pick one’s battles.”

If one takes the view that physical rest is implied here, the prayer suggest that removing one’s self from the stress of working toward solutions involves adopting a balance of work and rest. Paula White in her book You’re All That [2007] says that everyone needs a place to “get away from the stressful circumstances and situations of life.” (p. 120)

Refusal to Fear

Fear takes on many forms, including anxiety, panic, stress and depression. Fear of abandonment and fear of rejection motivate many to hide from life and relationships. Inability to trust self or anyone else can also produce these negative reactions. Unfortunately, for many, these reactions to life’s challenges can lead to substance abuse, eating disorders, other addictions and even suicide.

Choosing to live in isolation from relationships with others removes one from meaningful interaction from others, creating a tendency to turn inward and lose perspective on life’s issues. Many who choose this path come to the conclusion that life is simply too difficult, become weary and decide life is not worth the effort. Therefore, refusal to fear is essential for survival as well as serenity.

Fear-related behaviors that rob life of serenity are working too much, doing too much and always being in a hurry. People like this seem to think something terrible will happen if they are not “doing something” all the time. Anne Wilson Shaef, in her meditation for April 14, says, “…Workaholism, rushaholism, busyaholism, and careaholism are addictions.” There are no quick fixes, she says, but people who continue in their program and in touch with their accountability partners do find they are connected to a higher power and their lives improve.

Serenity, the Result of Working a Program

The first step toward serenity is exercising faith, followed by rest and finally refusal to fear. Committing to these three steps “one day at a time” should help harried and distressed people avoid falling into dangerous and unhealthy behaviors that rob life of its joy and peace and can ultimately destroy it.


Baker, John. Life’s Healing Choices. New York NY: Howard Books, 2007.

The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

The New King James Version of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1982.

Shaef, Anne Wilson. Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much. San Francisco, CA: Harper-Collins, 1990.

White, Paula. (1982). You’re All That. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group USA, 2007.

Copyright Carolyn Cogswell

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