Prayer can help us overcome the illusion of control

God may not change our circumstances, but they're no longer ours to worry about once we've handed them over.
Our Faith

As a former youth minister, I’ve played a lot of getting-to-know-you-type games in my adulthood. My main takeaway from all the icebreakers is that it serves a person well in life to have at least one quirky fact about themselves. For instance, a former student once broke both her arms at the same time, resulting in full casts on each of her upper limbs for six weeks.

I always drew a blank when trying to come up with my own fun fact, and so it was not without excitement that I finally landed on one this past summer when my third out of three children was born on a Saturday after eating Domino’s pizza for dinner the night before. 

Friday pizza, Saturday baby: check, check, check. Three times over! That’s pretty cool, right?

But even as I am delighted to no end by my new icebreaker tidbit, I’m also a rational person, so I will (begrudgingly) admit that the salty pepperoni and garlicky crust probably didn’t precipitate contractions. There are certain things we can’t force, much to my chagrin, and when our babies choose to arrive is one of them. 


Despite knowing that I had no control over my third child’s birthday, I spent most of my third pregnancy weighing the pros and cons of various dates of entry. 

This wasn’t a whimsical meditation. My internal debate had nothing to do with the merits of an even-dated birthday versus an odd one, or the benefits of being in the hospital on a weekday rather than the weekend. No, I was mentally plotting the ideal time of arrival for our child based on the logistical details of insurance, since our health coverage situation was complicated. 

While it’s understandable that this conundrum worried me, it was a bit ridiculous that I plotted the way I did, because no amount of rumination would hasten or delay my baby’s debut.

And yet plot I did, because there was some nonrational part of me that thought worrying nonstop could coerce a particular arrival date into existence. Inexplicably, I thought that through wishing and planning I could control an uncontrollable situation. 


I can think of many other instances where I try to guarantee outcomes that are out of my power. I feed my children healthy food and teach them to wash their hands with the goal that they’ll stay healthy. I encourage friendships with kind children, hoping that they form life-giving social circles. I limit screen time with the intention of them learning how to self-entertain and develop the capacity to be engaged by analog activities. 

The problem here, of course, is not that I feed my children healthy food or limit screen time, because the data does show that these practices often lead to positive outcomes. The problem is the place my mind goes in each of these circumstances. I don’t want my children to experience health issues, struggle socially, or be bored by life, and I think I can prevent these issues by doing the “right” thing in this early chapter of parenting.

Now, I don’t really think that I can prevent pain, loneliness, and ennui, in the same way that I never actually thought that I could will a particular arrival date for my baby into existence. Rationally, I know that suffering is a natural part of the human experience and that my job as a parent isn’t to eradicate hardship but to build resilience in my kids so they can handle the challenges they will inevitably face in life. And yet too often I spend an inordinate amount of my mental and emotional energy thinking about all the possible things that could go wrong and all the potential ways I would address those problems. 

This mind spiraling is also known as worrying. It’s one of my biggest hobbies, if you call spending a lot of time on something that neither financially supports nor emotionally nurtures your family in any way a hobby. I worry because there’s at least some part of me that thinks my losing sleep over the uncontrollables of life accomplishes something. Preparedness for the future? Innovative solutions? Emotional readiness for sorrow? I worry because I cannot help myself. 


There’s really only one practice that has consistently helped me to curb the worry, and that is, you guessed it, prayer. It’s one very specific prayer, actually:

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.

Often referred to as the Serenity Prayer, these words—originally penned by Reinhold Niebuhr—are a more poetic way of asking for help letting go of all the things we cannot control.

My day job is working as a psychotherapist at an outpatient mental health office, and at least once a week I have a conversation with a client about what they can’t change and what they can change. We can’t change our parents; we can change how we interact with them. We can’t change our past; we can change the narratives we tell ourselves about it. We can’t change our family history; we can change our behaviors. We can’t change our biological makeup; we can do things that nudge ourselves toward contentment. 


Knowing on an intellectual level that there are things we can and can’t control is only a starting place. From there, we have to work to change the things that we can change. We have to have the hard, boundary-setting conversations; we have to acknowledge the role we played in the conflict; we have to push ourselves to exercise, get enough sleep, and make friends. And, even harder, we have to surrender ourselves to the reality that we have no control over a whole host of circumstances in our lives. Without surrender, our minds will just keep racing on the hamster wheel of worry, and there will be no peace. And for me, surrendering is hard. There is no chance of it without divine intervention. 

I pray when I worry not because I expect God to zap universal health coverage into existence or even to change the hearts of the insurance executives lobbying against it. I pray because I need to remind myself that I’m not in control, and it’s easier to do this when I’m verbally relinquishing control to someone or something else. God may or may not change my material circumstances, but they’re no longer mine to worry about once I’ve handed them over.


I can’t change many of the circumstances that cause worry, but I can change what I do with my worry. I choose to pray. 

This article also appears in the February 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 2, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.


Image: Unsplash/Jeremy Yap

About the author

Teresa Coda

Teresa Coda works in parish faith formation. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two young daughters.

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