One Thursday each month I will share a post on one of the 12 Steps. This month is Step 9. 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!
“Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others” (Step 9).
“A remorseful rumbling that we are sorry won’t fill the bill at all….So we clean house with the family, asking each morning in mediation that our Creator show us the way of patience, tolerance, kindness, and love. The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it….Our behavior will convince them more than our words. We must remember that ten or twenty years of drunkenness would make a skeptic out of anyone” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 83).
“Or we may just procrastinate, telling ourselves the time is not yet, when in reality we have already passed up many a fine chance to right a serious wrong. Let’s not talk prudence while practicing evasion” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 85).
“It does not lighten our burden when we recklessly make the crosses of others heavier” (Twelve and Twelve, p. 86).
“Above all, we should try to be absolutely sure that we are not delaying because we are afraid. For the readiness to take the full consequences of our past acts, and to take responsibility for the well-being of others at the same time, is the very spirit of Step Nine” (Twelve and Twelve, p. 87).
Let’s start with the brutal truth: making direct amends sucks.
But that is the beautiful poetry of the structure of the 12 Steps. If Step 9 was any earlier in the process, it likely would not work. Through the first 8 steps, the person in recovery has reconnected with God, dealt with past baggage and learned to forgive him or herself, and started the process of reconnecting with others.
After all that has been done, the foundation has been laid to make amends to those people our addictions have harmed.
Amends are more than saying, “I am sorry.” Amends are a way of showing by our words and actions that our lives are different. Bill Wilson uses the metaphor of street sweeping: we are cleaning up our side of the street. This carries two very significant ramifications:
First, I am cleaning my side of the street. When I make amends, I will be approaching people who also hurt me. They have garbage in their lives just like I have in mine. However, I am working on my sobriety. I am cleaning up the mess I made. When I am apologizing for my behavior, I am not looking for others to apologize to me. Maybe one day they will get to that point; but for now, I am taking responsibility for the wrongs I have done.
Second, not everyone is going to respond the way I want them to. I am making amends for the wrongs I have done. I have renewed my relationship with God. I have worked on myself. I have worked on changing behaviors so that I will not cause the same types of pain again. But that does not mean that I automatically deserve absolution from everyone I approach. Some people have been hurt too deeply to forgive. Some people are so lost in their own addictions or issues that they are unable to offer forgiveness. But that doesn’t matter. Making amends is me cleaning my side of the street regardless of how other people respond to it.
There is one exception: “when to do so would injure them or others.” In the process of making amends, the person in recovery needs to reflect on how the apology may hurt someone else. Amends-making does not mean dumping a whole lot of gory details in someone’s lap. These are often issues that need to be worked out with one’s sponsor and spiritual guides.
When these situations occur, the recovering addict needs to remember that he or she is cleaning up his or her life. It is not necessary to hurt other people. When speaking words would cause harm, the words are left unsaid and the amends are paid by the way one’s life is lived. (Side note: personally, I have two people on my “would injure them or others” list. There are days when those feel like the most difficult. I want to apologize as I have to others, but it would not be the right thing to do.)
Step 9 is about more than saying, “I’m sorry.” Step 9 is a way of life. Some people will reject our words asking for forgiveness. Some people would be harmed by our words, so we remain silent. Regardless, we make amends by our life. We have hurt people by the ways we acted in our addictions. But we are different now. We are leading a new life now. So even when our words cannot get through, our actions will reveal the new life, the spiritual life, we are living.
So how can Christians and other groups of people help those who are in recovery work through Step 9?
I believe there are two actions Christian communities can take to help recovering addicts through this phase of their recovery journey: receive and walk along.
Receive. When someone comes to you to offer their amends, receive it as a blessing. Remember the forgiveness you have received from God and others. Remember that asking for forgiveness is a difficult thing to do. Don’t respond with, “Yeah, but you also did this wrong.” Also, don’t respond with, “Oh, it’s no big deal.” It is a big deal. Simply receive the humble gift that is being offered.
Walk along. Throughout an addict’s life of use, they drove themselves further and further into isolation by their actions. Working through the 12 Steps brings the recovering person into relationship: relationship with God, self, and others. Recovering addicts need people. They need encouragement. They need to hear kind words. They need to have a place of refuge where they can go and just be still and quiet in the presence of others. In other words, they are no different than any other human being in that regard. Offer your presence, just as you would to any member of your Christian family.
As people in recovery continue working on restoring relationships, we can all walk together and participate in the healing process together.