September is Recovery Month. That means something to millions of people who have been or are part of a 12-Step program of recovery from some type of addiction/dysfunction, or many related programs. If you’re one of them, it’s almost certain you know – and probably can recite – the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”

Don’t we get into trouble when we neglect any of those three points? When we fight against those things we cannot change we only wear ourselves out. We become miserable to be around. We become frustrated, anxious, and often angry and bitter. Getting into a negative emotional rut is almost certain. And if you’re fighting an addiction, all that misery certainly sets one up for a relapse.

When we shrink from doing what is within our power to change we are no less miserable. Waiting for anyone, even God, to do for us what we CAN do for ourselves leaves us feeling hopeless and powerless, while becoming weaker all the time. You wonder why things seem to work out for everyone else but not for you. And again, if you’re fighting an addiction it’s a setup for a relapse.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for many is the third point – knowing the difference. And it’s certainly where we need to pray for wisdom!

Let me offer this short list of things you CAN’T change:

  • Other people. An abusive or absent parent, an unhappy or difficult spouse, a critical boss, a prodigal adult child – or anyone else.
  • The past. Your own past, your family’s past, previous life choices or experiences.
  • Your baggage. The genes your parents gave you, what you learned growing up, the results of previous choices.
  • Consequences. For example, overspending leads to debt, smoking leads to lung disease, and treating someone badly makes them move away from you.

Certainly if you consistently behave differently today, you can modify some of those consequences. Acting consistently trustworthy may allow your child or spouse to begin to trust you again. Changing your diet and exercise program may lessen the effects of a previously unhealthy lifestyle. But there are just some things you have absolutely no control over!

There are, however, many things you CAN change:

  • Your lifestyle. Things such as how you eat, how much you exercise, your rest and stress-relieving habits.
  • Your attitude. Regardless of what’s happening around you, or what other people are doing, you have a choice how YOU will respond.
  • What you know. If you didn’t know any better in the past, you can change that now by learning new ways of relating, new ways of thinking, new ways of taking care of your own needs.
  • How you treat people. If you’ve struggled with an addiction, and even if you haven’t, most if not all of us have hurt people in the past. You can change that by consciously choosing to do differently now.

Changing what you can is tough. That’s why you pray for courage! But there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of realizing you accomplished something positive – and difficult.

I spoke with an older lady recently who asked for my input on her very painful marriage. After only eight months she wondered if she should get a divorce. She had a long list of things her husband was doing wrong, most of which she knew about before she married him. Now she seemed to be spending all her energy trying to get him to change. I pointed out that all her efforts were wearing her out – and not accomplishing anything she desired. She couldn’t change him!

What she had not paused to realize were the choices she DID have. Only she could decide if she wanted to be married to this man or not. She has the choice to change her attitude, or to leave the marriage. She has the choice to find a trustworthy marriage coach/counselor/therapist. Or if she chooses to simply keep on complaining, things will remain as they are now.

What about the wisdom to know the difference? Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Look over the above lists and ask, Am I trying to change something I know I cannot change? Am I neglecting something I DO have the ability to change?
  2. Ask for outside input. Watch other people who have conquered what you are facing, or who seem happy and mature. Join a recovery group. Consider some professional help if needed. Often others can see what we cannot about where we are misplacing our energies.
  3. Pray for insight. The Serenity Prayer is just that – asking God for wisdom to know the difference. He has promised it, you know!

OK, one more time: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

Your turn: What has the Serenity Prayer meant for you, whether or not you are in a recovery program? What have you learned about serenity, courage, and wisdom? Leave a comment below. 

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