At the church where my work is based, over 200 people come into the building every day for 12 Step fellowship groups. The most famous of these is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) but there is also Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Over-eaters Anonymous (OA), Debtors Anonymous (DA) and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA).
It is always moves me to see so many people coming to gather strength and support from each other in their common struggles. And because we are in the West End of London, these groups contain people from the widest possible spectrum; from famous film stars to those who are street homeless.
Many of these groups end each of their meetings with the famous prayer has become closely linked with the 12 Step movement:
“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.”
Before becoming an academic, Neibuhr had spent thirteen years as a pastor in Detroit where he oversaw a church which grew from 60 members to over 600. His passionate preaching about faith and social issues helped the congregation become a powerhouse in the battle against racial and economic injustice. As his biographer puts it Neibuhr ‘found himself opposing both Henry Ford and the Ku Klux Klan’.
Despite the growth of his ministry, Neibuhr reflected self-critically about how ‘the moral little homilies preached by myself and others, seemed completely irrelevant to the brutal facts of life in a great industrial centre’.
He became the leading figure of what was known as Christian Realism which rejected the belief that progress would solve the world’s problems and critiqued the liberalism which was essentially faith in mankind, rather than God.
A core aspect of this realism was an appreciation of the reality of sin especially in its social and corporate dimensions. Sin was the ‘plagued efforts of human agency’ manifested in the idolatry and injustice of the contemporary world.
Reality and hope
Neibuhr’s writings are a much needed corrective to naive, idealistic or escapist expressions of faith. He expressed a Christianity which dealt in the realities of life yet retained its hope in God:
‘A faith which understands the fragmentary and broken character of all historic achievements and yet has confidence in their meaning because it knows their completion to be in the hands of a divine power, whose resources are greater than those of men, and whose suffering love can overcome the corruptions of man’s achievements, without negating the significance of our striving.”
‘Accepting hardship as the path to peace’
The world faces many problems, just as every individual who comes to AA and other 12 Step meetings does. We all carry different scars from the broken reality of life. Everything is cracked.
I have found it helpful to read the original, longer version of the prayer from which the famous ‘serenity quote’ is drawn. It is full of the realism for which Neibuhr was famous, and yet also the profound hope in God and what he will do:
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.