Practicum: AA Steps 1-2 during Lent
Action step: How can you implement Steps 1 & 2 this week?
Editor's note: I (Brooke) found myself thinking about Lent when Drew was preaching sermons on the 12 steps. As the final steps indicate, the 12 step process is ongoing...we're always revisiting and practicing them. On Sundays in Lent, we'll have a moment of review in our Listening Thru Lent devotional (thanks, Drew). If you want to revisit the sermons, I'm going to post them at the end of the emails.
What would it look like for you to spend some time putting these steps into practice during the weeks of Lent?
In 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was cofounded by William Griffith Wilson, normally referred to as Bill W., and Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, better known as Dr. Bob. Drinking had nearly destroyed the lives of both men, and together they discovered that if they wanted to stay sober, they would need the fellowship and support of other alcoholics.
The centerpiece of AA is the Twelve Steps. The fellowship describes these action steps as “spiritual in their nature,” and AA argues that these practices, if used throughout all of life, “can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”
Speaking about the relationship between Christianity and AA, Christian author Dallas Willard wrote that AA “has much to give back to the church that has largely lost its grip on spiritual formation as a standard path of Christian life. Any successful plan for spiritual formation, whether for the individual or group, will, in fact, be significantly similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous program.”
So let’s take a look, shall we? Let’s take an honest, open-minded look at the Twelve Steps and see what we might gain for ourselves, our own spiritual formation, our own discipleship.
Step #1: We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol (our addiction) – that our lives had become unmanageable.
The first step is probably the hardest, the most denied, and the most avoided. It may be the highest hurdle for us to clear. How can we who are holding jobs, paying bills, raising children, and looking adequate according to the standards of society honestly admit to powerlessness when we appear to be living our lives satisfactorily? We are responsible people, not perfect for sure, but we keep it together pretty well. We manage. We don’t feel powerless and our lives are difficult, but we wouldn’t call them unmanageable.
Well, you might be surprised. I know of a man, at least as well-educated as most of us, well-traveled, entrepreneurial, devout and respectable, and yet deeply troubled by his own inner battles. His name is Paul of Tarsus. Listen to his words from the Message paraphrase:
What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. . . . I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. . . .
I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?
The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different. (Romans 7:15-25a MSG)
For me, I find it strangely encouraging to know that a man like Paul, even as an apostle, had his own issues, his own struggles, his own frustrations. Perhaps his transparency can encourage us to look at our own lives. Whether we would call them addictions or not, we all have our issues, the ways of thinking and going about our lives that are deceptive, destructive, and contradictory to the faith we profess.
When our actions continually lead to anger and resentment or rebellion from those with whom we interact, when we keep repeating behaviors we have firmly decided we don’t want to do, and when we fail to do what we’ve decided is best for us, we begin to see that in fact, we do not have the power to change we thought we had. Seeing that we are not able to stay on a diet or a budget or a schedule or give up compulsive eating, smoking, shopping, gambling, or sexual habits, for example, is often the doorway to a new perspective on our powerlessness.
The rest of step one adds insult to injury. Not only does the first step say we are powerless, but it goes on to say that we admitted that our lives had become unmanageable. Again, we may balk at that. Our lives are not unmanageable. But the truth is that just as we deny our powerlessness, we hide, even from ourselves, some of the inner signs that our lives are unmanageable. We experience feelings and behaviors that threaten to overwhelm us. But we can’t seem to own these feelings, such as:
· Loneliness, isolation
· Deep-seated anger and resentments
· Uncontrolled emotions, exaggerated feelings
· Making rules that we ourselves don’t keep.
· Forgetting to do the things that nurture our relationships.
· Unexplainable physical symptoms
· A growing compulsion to control in spite of harmful consequences.
· Trying desperately to fix ourselves
· Compulsive, addictive behaviors
As I said, Step #1 may be the hardest for us to hear, the toughest for us to admit, even a little humiliating to accept, and yet our pain and frustration can lead us to be honest with ourselves and hopefully lead us to the good news of Step #2.
Step 2: We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
The statement is wise enough to use an active verb to describe this step. The surrender of faith may not happen in one moment but on an extended journey, after a long struggle, a gradual letting go, unlearning, and handing over.
People in the Twelve-Step programs know that until you’re hurting enough, the steps won’t work for you. But for the fortunate sufferer, there comes a time when he or she says, “I’ve got to change, to get well. I can’t stand living like this anymore.” And that is when one is ready for the miracles of the restoration and reconciliation that God desires for us.
Jesus told the story of a stubborn boy determined to go his own way who one day looked up from the filth and failure of his life and came to himself. He woke up to who he was and what he had done. Finally humbled, he headed home to plead for mercy, for a second chance at life as a servant, only to be welcomed and embraced as a son.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20 NIV)
The journey to new life begins when we come to ourselves, when we come to our senses, admitting our powerlessness, our unruly, unmanageable lives, and we get up and turn our feet towards home.
Prayer: O God, who are we kidding? You know the whole story of us. Nothing is hidden from you. You know us through and through, our public show and our private struggles, our sunny appearance and our dark side. We admit in these moments that there are parts of our lives that have never seen the light of day, locked rooms where we store our past pain, and dark corners where we fight losing battles with our worst impulses. How we need you, Lord Jesus, to bring your light, your life to us, to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, to drive out the darkness, to heal our hurts, and forgive us our sins. You are the One who can make all things new in us. Give us the courage to take that first step. Amen.