One Thursday each month I will share a post on one of the 12 Steps. Last month, I wrote about Step 1. Recovery is an area of life that 12 Step groups have done amazing work with, yet many churches (and other community groups) struggle to know what to do. My hope is that this series will help those who are not in recovery learn more about their friends and family members who are in recovery. I welcome any feedback, questions, and concerns you may have!
“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Step 2
“To clergymen, doctors, friends, and families, the alcoholic who means well and tries hard is a heartbreaking riddle…. We supposed we had humility when really we hadn’t. We supposed we had been serious about religious practices when upon honest appraisal, we found we had been only superficial. Or, going to the other extreme, we had wallowed in emotionalism and had mistaken it for true religious feeling. In both cases, we had been asking something for nothing. The fact was we really hadn’t cleaned house so that the grace of God could enter us and expel the obsession” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, 32).
One of the more difficult admissions to make on the road to recovery is that you are not strong enough to do it on your own. In fact, trying to manage life on your own is often what gets you to the place called Rock Bottom.
Many people come to AA with no religious background. Others have a background of pain and betrayal. Others have been church-goers their entire lives. All of them have this in common:
They need to find a higher power.
Everyone in recovery needs a power outside themselves that is greater than they are. I need something, someone, other than me and stronger than me. For many in recovery, God is a scary concept. So they will rely on the AA group as their Higher Power. And you know what? That’s okay. Because at this point in the recovery process, what the alcoholic or addict needs is to know that someone out there understands restoring sanity.
It has been my experience that many in the church struggle with understanding why recovering addicts need a “Higher Power.” Why can’t they just talk about God and Jesus?
What we must remember is that AA (or any other traditional 12 Step group) is not an evangelistic tool. AA is not church. AA is not a religious community. It was never intended to be. And I pray it never becomes that.
To come to AA, it does not matter if you are Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, or Agnostic. People from all of those groups come together for one reason: to find sobriety. Referring to God (whom Bill Wilson believed in and had a relationship with) as Higher Power is not an attack on Christianity or an endorsement of agnosticism. Rather, it is a way to tell all people, “Come here and let us build community around our common cause: sobriety and a restoration of sanity.”
But how can this apply to Christians in need of recovery? Aren’t they being blasphemous by saying “Higher Power” instead of Jesus? Aren’t they denying Christ by not acknowledging their relationship with Him every time they attend a meeting?
I hope not; otherwise, I’m in serious trouble. (hashtag: heavy sarcasm)
So how can non-addicts, specifically church-going non-addicts, be supportive in this process, especially when one’s relationship with God is involved?
First, remember how difficult a time this is for the recovering person. I am a preacher’s kid. I went to a Bible college and majored in ministry. I worked at two different churches while in college (plus two others where I did summer internships). I left school to become a full-time preacher in the northeast.
And I had no real personal relationship with God.
I knew exactly what He could do. In fact, that is why I very intentionally never prayed for help from God. I knew He would give it and I did not want Him to. This left me very disconnected. I was like the person in the above paragraph: doing all the motions, experiencing all the emotions, but being empty because I was expecting something for nothing.
It was hard for me to admit that I needed to go through AA to connect with God and Jesus on a personal level. Yet, it was through AA that I learned I needed to come to God, humble myself, and seek to follow His will for my life; not my own will.
That is not an easy admission for someone who grew up in the church and thought he had all the answers. And I am not alone in that experience. If you know someone early in recovery, do not heap guilt on them because YOU don’t think their relationship with God is not strong enough. We know it’s not strong enough. That’s why we are seeking it now.
Second, find ways to help cultivate an atmosphere of relationship and communion with God inside the church. Churches often do a great job talking about God. Churches often do a great job motivating and moving people emotionally. Churches often do a great job helping other people. But too often, those things are done without nurturing a relationship with the One it is all done for.
In writing about the use of spiritual gifts in I Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says the existence of gifts combined with an absence of love is useless—full of sound and fury signifying nothing (a clanging gong). Churches must begin cultivating and nurturing the relational aspects of what it means to be a Christ-follower before creating an expectation of knowledge and behavior. As we build better, more intimate relationships with Jesus and with other members of our church community, the struggle against addiction will start long before a person reaches rock bottom.
Third, remember that we acknowledge Jesus by our lives and actions without needing to be overtly evangelistic. Francis of Assisi summed this up the best when he said, “Preach the Gospel always, use words if necessary.” Everyone I have a relationship with in AA knows about my relationship with Jesus; even though I have rarely talked about Him during a meeting. In AA meetings, I work on maintaining my sobriety and growing closer to my Higher Power. In my personal relationships, I can talk more specifically about my own faith.
Christians exploring their relationship with God during the early stages of recovery are not betraying their faith by talking about a Higher Power. Instead, they are struggling with finding a relationship they never truly had; at least not on a deep enough level. If you want to lend support, explore with them. Ask the same questions they are asking. Truly walk alongside one another.
*I am not addressing Celebrate Recovery in this post, but it is a helpful Bible-based 12 step program.
**The Francis of Assisi quote is possibly not a direct quote from any of his actual writings, even though it is often attributed to him.