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Twelve-Step Spirituality: Part One
Twelve-Step Spirituality: Part One

A Radical Surrendering

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Twelve-Step Spirituality: Part One

A Radical Surrendering
Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God. [1]

We each have our inner program for happiness, our plans by which we can be secure, esteemed, and in control, and we are blissfully unaware that these cannot work for us for the long haul—without becoming more and more controlling ourselves. Something has to break our primary addiction, which is to our own power and unworkable programs for happiness and security.

When Jesus taught, “If anyone wants to follow me, let them renounce themselves!” (Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23), I am pretty sure that Jesus meant exactly what Bill W. means in Step Three: a radical surrendering of our will to Another whom we trust more than ourselves.

A common substitute for renouncing our own will is “the myth of heroic sacrifice.” There is a love that sincerely seeks the spiritual good of others, and there is a love that seeks superiority, admiration, and control for itself, even and most especially by doing “good” and heroic things. Suicide bombers, resentful and manipulative people, and codependents are invariably sacrificial. “Codependency” is the disease of those who support and contribute to others’ disease by what we call “enabling” behavior. Sometimes the enabler is sicker than the alcoholic and does not know what to do when the alcoholic enters recovery.

Another way we avoid surrender is what Timothy McMahan King, one of our Living School alumni, describes as “the myth of redemptive suffering.” King writes:

Addiction is, by definition, a self-harming behavior. Increasing the amount of harm, through punishment and incarceration, for those struggling with addiction is a failing strategy. . . . When our view of the cross is that God demands blood in order to redeem, it is little surprise we have a country and culture that wants to see people suffer even more before help will be provided. But when we understand a God who enters into our suffering, we see that it is that kind of grace through which we are transformed. [2]

The absolute genius of the Twelve Steps is that it refuses to bless and reward what looks like any moral worthiness game, and it refuses to punish weakness and failure. With Gospel brilliance and insight, AA says that the starting point and, in fact, the continuing point, is not any kind of worthiness at all but in fact unworthiness! (“I am an alcoholic!”) Suddenly religion loses all capacity for elitism. This is what Jesus affirmed in prostitutes and tax collectors and what Paul praised when he said, “It is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). When the churches forget their own Gospel message, the Holy Spirit sneaks in through the ducts and the air vents, which is what it has done in the Twelve-Step Program and other therapies.

[1] “J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 55.

[2] Timothy McMahan King, Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals about Us (Herald Press: 2019), 201. King explores how the United States scapegoats addicts, criminalizing addiction rather than focusing on healing or curing the disease. I would add that the “War on Drugs” disproportionately targets people of color and has more racist motivations than justice-oriented ones. See, for example,

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Franciscan Media: 2011), 20, 21-22, 24-25.

Image credit: Femme Assise (Melancholy Woman) (detail), Pablo Picasso, 1902-1903, Detroit Museum of Art, Detroit, Michigan.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: I cannot understand my own behavior. I fail to carry out the very things I want to do and find myself doing the very things I hate . . . for although the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not. —Romans 7:15, 18
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