One Thursday each month I will share a post on one of the 12 Steps. This month is Step 12. 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!
“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs” (Step 12).
“So cooperate; never criticize. To be helpful is our only aim” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 89).
“When a man or woman has a spiritual awakening, the most important meaning of it is that he has now become able to do, feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone. He has been granted a gift which amounts to a new state of consciousness and being. He has been set on a path which tells him he is really going somewhere, that life is not a dead end, not something to be endured or mastered. In a very real sense he has been transformed, because he has laid hold of a source of strength which, in one way or another, he had hitherto denied himself. He finds himself in possession of a degree of honesty, tolerance, unselfishness, peace of mind, and love of which he had thought himself quite incapable” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 107).
The journey of recovery is one that never ends. There are at least two reasons for this. First, the recovering alcoholic knows they have learned how to rely on power from sources other than him- or herself. Those of us in recovery have learned about our Higher Power. We have learned to rely on a community. We have seen many people start to pull away from that community and relapse. We have seen apparently hopeless cases stay sober because they immersed themselves in the 12 step process. We have learned that in order to maintain sobriety, we need to maintain our work in recovery.
Second, the recovering alcoholic knows they now have a responsibility to pass the message on to others in recovery. 12 Step groups work because those who have received the gift of sobriety stick around to pass that gift on to others. When someone with long-term sobriety attends a meeting, they often have the opportunity to share their story. Those who are new to recovery are able to hear that this process does work and is working. Those who are new in recovery need to hear that this 12 Step stuff makes sense and is effective.
The process of recovery leads to a spiritual awakening: the alcoholic often arrives at AA during a dismal period of life. They learn to admit they are powerless and in need of help. They connect with God and with a community. They begin to realize what life is like without the use of alcohol. They learn that life can be lived sober.
Everyone’s spiritual awakening is different, but this part stays the same: everyone learns they cannot live life on their own; they need others.
12 Step groups continue because people who have received help from others stick around to offer help to others.
There are some elements to the way those in recovery help one another that churches need to learn.
First, you can only help people after you have experienced your own spiritual awakening. But once you have that awakening, you must share it with others. In AA jargon, this is called “passing it on.” It is my responsibility as a recovering alcoholic to pass on the message I have received to others. Before my own spiritual awakening, however, I had nothing to pass on. I had no real, vital message for recovering alcoholics until I worked with others. Throughout my journey, I learned many lessons from several people. As I continued working in recovery, I began sharing those lessons with others.
Second, the message that is passed on is not forced on others. The term “12 Step work” can mean attending meetings, going to rehab facilities, or going to a person’s house to address their use and abuse of alcohol. But the message is never forced. I cannot make someone accept that they are an alcoholic. I cannot make anyone attend 12 Step meetings. I cannot make anyone do anything. I can share my story and encourage a person to follow the same process I followed. But the decision is theirs to follow it or not.
Third, the message is sobriety; not “how I got sobriety.” There are as many paths to sobriety as there are people who have been in AA. When I share my story, I talk about the things that helped me get and stay sober. I talk about meetings, having a sponsor, and doing service work. I talk about working on my relationship with my wife and children. I talk about my involvement in church work. But the specifics of my journey will likely not work for you. My first sponsor believed in God. But he did not believe in the Gospel of Jesus. He helped me get sober. Some of my sponsees have church experience that is similar to mine; others have had no church experience at all. We help each other in our sobriety. The focus is not doing things the same way or the “right” way. The focus is admitting powerlessness and turning our lives over to God.
Churches have a lot to learn about how to interact with and encourage people who are in recovery. These posts through this year have hopefully exposed you a little bit to the 12 Step process. In 2015, I will use this space to continue the conversation of the relationship between the church and those in recovery.