One Thursday each month I will share a post on one of the 12 Steps. This month is Step 5. Recovery is an area of life that 12 Step groups have done amazing work with, yet many churches (and other community groups) struggle with 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!
“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Step 5
“If we skip this vital step, we may not overcome drinking. Time after time newcomers have tried to keep to themselves certain facts about their lives. Trying to avoid this humbling experience, they have turned to easier methods. Almost invariably they got drunk. Having persevered with the rest of the program, they wondered why they fell. We think the reason is that they never completed their housecleaning…. (T)hey had not learned enough of humility, fearlessness and honesty, in the sense we find it necessary, until they told someone else all their life story” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 72,73).
Step 4 is difficult for several reasons. Step 5 takes it one step further. After spending the time on reflection, introspection, and writing the fearless moral inventory, the recovering alcoholic now has to tell it all to somebody.
The step says we will admit to God, ourselves, and another human being. In Steps 1, 2, and 3, the alcoholic works on developing a relationship with God—a power that is greater than we are. For many people, admitting to God is a struggle. However, God is not physically visible. That often makes admitting it to Him a little bit easier. Many people believe that God knows our thoughts, so as we write out our inventory we are already admitting these things to God. I do not intend to gloss over the importance of admitting our wrongs to God, but I do intend to acknowledge that the nature of our relationship with God is such that we can often admit our deepest wrongs to Him without the fear that accompanies a face to face relationship.
Also, admitting it to ourselves is what we have been doing through the fourth step. We have been thinking and writing. We have been working with our sponsors. We have been digging deeper than we ever have before. Putting the pen to paper is the act of admitting our wrongs to ourselves. It is difficult. Yet by the time we are on Step 5 we have done most of the admitting to ourselves.
The real difficult part of Step 5 is admitting to another human being. It is one thing to be open and vulnerable enough to write these things down on paper. It is entirely another to be open and vulnerable enough to tell somebody else.
Yet Bill W. and the original group of recovering alcoholics that wrote the Big Book pulled no punches: if you do not admit it to someone else you are likely to drink again.
This was my experience. My journey in sobriety began in January 2004. I started working the steps. I started attending meetings. I started sharing with my sponsor. But there was one thing I was ashamed to admit. Which looking back on it is kind of strange, because I had revealed so much; I don’t know why I thought this one particular thing would be worse than all the rest. So I hid it. I was not completely open and honest. And I relapsed. And did not come out of the relapse to begin working on my sobriety until July 2005.
Complete honesty is absolutely vital to the alcoholic’s recovery process. Without it, there will be no sobriety. If the recovering alcoholic cannot be honest, they cannot be sober. The two go hand in hand. Step 5 solidifies that relationship.
In Step 5, the alcoholic will find somebody to share his or her inventory with. More often than not, the sponsor is that other person. This is beneficial because of the sponsor/sponsee relationship. Others use a religious leader. For example, Catholics in recovery will often use the confessional as the place they do their fifth step. Again, for those practicing Christianity through the Catholic Church, this is a good and healthy way to combine spirituality with sobriety. I have heard stories of people telling complete strangers (the person sitting next to them on the plane, the hitchhiker they picked up, etc.). I do not find using a stranger to be as beneficial, but many alcoholics have done that with success.
In the sharing of the inventory, honesty must be present and ego must be absent; humility must be present and fear must be absent.
Every recovery program spends a great deal of time on Steps 4 and 5. But what can the church do to help people in recovery through this part of the process?*
First, we must learn to do confession better. The church does not do confession well. Too often, confession is one person standing in front of a group of people and admitting to something. The reactions range from gasps of shock to pious hugs and statements of “there, there.” When confession is done in a closet there is no relationship, no accountability. We must learn what it means to confess to one another. We must be kind and gentle while also spurring one another on to making better choices. We must be honest with one another. We must be open. It must not be a scary thing to approach a Christian brother or sister in order to share a struggle. So much of our struggle with sin comes from the fact that we believe we have to hide it. We must stop hiding.
Second, be available but do not be pushy. If you are in relationship with people who are in recovery, they may come to you and ask you to do a fifth step with them. If they ask, I hope you feel you are in a position where you can say yes. It is an honor to be asked. All you need to do is listen and pray. Pray at the start for safety and honesty, listen to the inventory, and then pray for healing. But in being available, do not ask people to do their fifth step with you. Be available if asked, but do not go around asking those in recovery if they are ready yet. They are working a process. Their sponsor will prod them as needed. They just need welcome and encouragement from you.
Third, have someone you help you bear the burden. This does not mean go and tell somebody everything you just heard. You MUST keep anything told to you in a fifth step private and confidential. It is not your story to tell. However, you will hear some heavy stuff. I have heard stories of sexual abuse, both from victims and victimizers. I have heard stories of physical pain received or inflicted. I have heard stories of murder. These are difficult stories to hear. But I have a sponsor. I have spiritual guides and leaders. I am able to go to them and tell them how I have been affected (without sharing names or specifics). If you are going to listen to someone’s fifth step, have someone you can go to who can help you deal with your own emotions that will come up. You do not need to give the details. You just need to say, “I heard some stuff and I really don’t know what to do with it.” Find a spiritual guide, a Shepherd, a minister, someone that will pray with as you deal with that emotion.
The fourth and fifth steps are a scary part of the journey for the recovering alcoholic. They may need your presence. More than anything, let them know they are loved.
*If you are a mandated reporter (and if you are you would know it), you may not feel comfortable listening to a fifth step. If that is the case, say so up front. Do not feel obligated to listen. Likewise, you may just not feel adequately equipped to listen to someone’s fifth step. It is better in that case to say no and help the person find someone who can. Do not put yourself in a position you do not feel you can handle. If you want to learn more about what it means to listen to someone’s fifth step, talk with those people in your congregation who have long-term sobriety. Or talk with your ministers. It is likely they have done this before.