How to ‘Know the Difference’ in the Serenity Prayer

Posted by in Louise Behiel, Spirituality | 33 comments

The Serenity Prayer - Reinhold Niebuhr (1943)

This prayer, which has been around for almost seven decades, is said at virtually every 12 step meeting and used by countless millions as a foundation for living life…myself included.

But the hard part is the last stanza,  “the wisdom to know the difference”.  How do you know the difference between what you can and cannot change?

There are probably many ways to determine this difference, but I’ve found one that works for me.  It’s relatively simple and only involves asking a couple of yes/no questions.  But there’s one major caveat:  as soon as I answer a ‘no’ then I have my answer.

First question:   “Are the consequences of this situation mine?”

This question isn’t as simple as it looks.  The most serious consequences of this problem/decision must be mine.  So if my problem is that husband is drinking alcoholically I could argue that outcome of his drinking is my consequence – after all, I might lose my home.  And it is.  But it’s not the most serious outcome because alcoholics die of drinking.  So that consequence goes to him.  And the answer is no, it’s not my problem to solve.  Or in terms of the Serenity Prayer, this is something I can’t change.

Another example:  My adult son/daughter/friend won’t take their meds for mental illness/cancer/a cold…  Again, the major consequences of this situation belong to the person who is doing or won’t do the actions we desire.  So again, the answer is No:  This isn’t my problem and I have to step away.

But if the answer is ‘yes’, and themajor consequences are mine, then ask yourself:

Second question:  What is the action I can take, other than talking to the other party once, to solve this problem.

For a problem to be mine, I have to be able to take an action to solve it.  If there is no such action, then it’s not my problem.  So I stop trying to find the right words to say at the right time in the right way to impress someone else to do what I want.  Regardless of how right I am.

We all know that many people make rotten decisions – life shortening, dangerous choices that have no merit in anyone else’s mind.  But those poor decisions aren’t my  responsibility – nor are they mine to fix.

So if there’s an action we can take to solve the problem, we take it.  If there’s not an action to take, we need to learn to let go of the problem/situation and get on with our lives, even as we pray for another outcome.

Much easier said than done, but possible.  I know because I’ve done it with some of the most earth shattering situations I could imagine.  But more on that another time.

How about you?  How do you apply the teachings of this old prayer?  How have you learned to use it in your daily life?


  1. Thank you so much for the two questions! How hard it is to leave it alone when your love for a child gets in the way and you know the major solution lies with the adult child. I’m so grateful .for your clarity and compassion!

    • You’re welcome

  2. A very well known and wise psychologist says, (and I take my cues from this), because as an ACOA, I am somewhat confused when and when not to take inniative in a given situation, this wise person says, “God, the Bible, will always honor action as opposed
    to inaction. This idea of course is for the fainthearted, myself, when there was really no true foundation laid in taking action, responsibility, innaiative,; rewarded for a job well done. But thanks to healthy principles, I can change.

  3. I would like to have a closer relationship with my adult children, but still do not know if it is within my power to change. Yes, if I am able to improve our relationship through my actions. But no, if the relationship we have is their choice. But which is it?

    • All we can change is ourselves. if you do your work, and clean up your side of the relationship and if you’re in contact with them, then slowly, they will come around. If you aren’t in contact, still do your work – you never know when things will change in their lives and then they’ll return. So it’s a combination of both of you, but you can only deal with your stuff, so take care of that and let them do their work and see what happens. What have you got to lose? nothing and you stand to gain a richer better life, regardless of them.

      • They may not necessarily come around if we are in contact with them – we have to be careful not to place a time stamp on our changing them. It’s still the same urge to change them, and we can make a lifelong trap for ourselves if we live thinking our change will bring their change, eventually. I have been sober and saved for 25 years and I know I’m changed, but most of the people in my life never came to an understanding and I don’t care to be in relationship with them.

  4. Thanks for sharing your wonderful insight about the serenity prayer. The two questions you proposed definitely give good clarity to the current situation or the present life dilemma. We tend to extend more than needed in close relations thinking that it is our responsibility. These two questions if answered honestly and non-judgmentally witnessing way, we avoid creating unnecessary chaos in our family, community and in all other human relations and especially in our own life.

    • Glad you found value in the questions.

  5. New to the blog etc, but excellent and thought provoking. I too tend to try to fix things but had to learn the hard way I could not many times. I do find the peace I need to cope and accept when I trust in the Lord. As soon as I really turn it over to Him I seem to have thoughts and ideas of things I can do, so I seem to be following a path He has chosen. The next step is to actually listen and follow. 🙂

    • yes, isn’t that the challenge? to listen and follow. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Excellent post. Glad I found your site. 🙂

  7. Such a lovely post. I’ve heard the Serenity Prayer throughout my life and never really thought about its meaning on a deeper level, until today. 😉 I do tend to seek solutions and take action when conflicts arise… I imagine this poem can go a long way toward ensuring we do so.

    Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving!

    • August, it is a powerful prayer, isn’t it. I love it and use it daily…guess I’m a slow learner. I hope you and your family have a wonderful thanksgiving.

  8. I used to be a fixer. I leave many more things in His capable hands now. Those things I know I can’t control. But I still need to remind myself of this prayer often in family matters with the children. I think it’s in our nature to want to fix everything and to do other only comes with time and learned wisdom.

    • I love your term, ‘learned wisdom’ Debra It is so true. and we get that wisdom from ecperience.

  9. I have used that prayer in stressful situations to let me know I can’t control everything-though I would like to LOL. Good luck with your blog. Marian

    • Marian, isn’t it interesting to learn we can’t control everything? what a tough lesson for so many of us. thanks for the good wishes.

    • Marian, isn’t it funny that we have to learn we can’t control everything. I often how many of us want to control everything? thanks for the good wishes

  10. I’ve never really thought about it like that. Thanks Louise for an eye opener!

    • thanks for stopping by Steena. very few of us think about the practical application of many spiritual precepts.

  11. I struggle with this. I’m always trying to fix things, things I can’t fix. I’m learning to “let go and let God” because it’s the only way I can have peace about the situation. Very thought provoking post!

    • Glad it gave you something to think about. It has been a real challenge for me to ‘let go and let God”, until I learned what was my business and what wasn’t.

      be well

  12. Great advice. And I agree with timlobrien about the control issue. I think that’s how I apply the prayer. If I can change it for the better, I will. If not, leave it alone. And underneath it all, is it a battle worth fighting?

    • very good question, Julie: is this a battle worth fighting.

  13. I think peace is the goal of the prayer – and to help me/us know what is ours to control and what isn’t.

  14. I have always used this prayer to remind myself to quit trying to control the things I can not control. It was hard to realize this for a long time, but peace finally came.

  15. I hadn’t thought about the prayer in quite these terms. One thing I’ll say is that it’s very difficult to let go of another person’s problem when that person is your child. I probably get way too wrapped up in things that really “belong” to them and not me. It’s hard to know where your job as a parent ends and the child’s responsibility begins. At least now I have a new framework for thinking about it. Thanks!

    • Everything is harder when its our own children, isn’t it? I think this method works best when thinking about situations with adults – whether our children or not.

  16. Great post Louise. I like the first question and I think I ask it a lot in regard to many things. When I was younger I think I used to think a lot of things were for me to solve–learned that the hard way!
    Thanks Louise 🙂

    • Isn’t it wonderful to know what is ours and what isn’t? I used to take on everything for everyone. I was going to save my little corner of the world 🙂 Not so much anymore. thank heavens. and like you, I learned that lesson the hard way.

  17. Wow, Louise, those are great questions to ask. It would certainly prevent one from going insane trying to resolve an issue that’s totally out of their hands.

    For me, the part of this prayer that always grabs me is the serenity line. In a world where there is so much upheaval and stress, I aim to keep my cool and to be calm … especially when everything around me is chaos.

    Thanks for the lovely post! 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by, Sheila. I find if I ask the first two questions, then the serenity usually comes – but I’ve been so determined to help the world that I had no serenity. Learned that lesson the hard way, so now I can ask for serenity and get it.


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