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Step 5: Admitting Our Wrongdoings

Twelve-Step Spirituality: Week 2

Step 5: Admitting Our Wrongdoings
Thursday, November 26, 2015

We admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. —Step 5 of the Twelve Steps

Almost all religion and cultures that I know of have believed in one way or another that sin and evil are to be punished, and retribution is to be demanded of the sinner in this world—and usually the next world too. Such retributive justice is a dualistic system of reward and punishment, good guys and bad guys, and makes perfect sense to the ego. I call it the normal economy of merit or “meritocracy.” This system is the best that prisons, courtrooms, wars, and even most of the church (which should know better) can do.

The revelation from Jesus’ healings and the Twelve Steps, however, shows that sin and failure are, in fact, the setting and opportunity for the transformation and enlightenment of the offender. The aim is to return the person to a useful position in the community. Thus there can be healing on both sides. Such restorative justice is a mystery that makes sense to the soul and is entirely an “economy of grace.” Jesus and most of the prophets demonstrated restorative justice, but the term only entered our vocabulary in the last twenty years. [1] All counting and keeping of ledgers ceases once you know the Gospel.

As any good therapist will tell you, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge, and what you do not consciously acknowledge will remain in control from within, festering and destroying you and those around you. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “If you bring forth that which is within you, it will save you. If you do not bring it forth, it will destroy you.” [2]

The Big Book applies this passage to the addict: “More than most people, the alcoholic leads a double life. He or she is very much the actor. To the outer world the alcoholic presents a stage character. This is the one alcoholics like everyone else to see. They want to enjoy a certain reputation, but know in their heart they don’t deserve it. . . . [So] they are under constant fear and tension—which makes for more drinking.” [3] Like all children, they fear punishment or rejection for their bad behavior, not yet knowing that God uses our bad behavior to improve us. This is restorative justice.

All of us are “actors” to some degree. We are all addicted to our own chosen self-image. An empathic listener or true friend helps us forgive our own “tragic flaw” by holding it with us and helping us hand it over to God who can hold everything. I am grateful to have been trained by some wise seminary professors not to sit on a judgment seat, but only on the mercy seat when I am listening to people’s stories or confessions. The book of Exodus says God comes to meet Israel at the “mercy seat,” the open horizon above the Ark of the Covenant, tellingly protected by two angels (25:22). [4] That is where God meets all of us, and it probably does take a couple of angels to protect this gracious space from all the opposites of mercy that seek to dwell in the soul.

Gateway to Silence:
Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Franciscan Media: 2011), 38-39.

[2] As quoted in “J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 68.

[3] Ibid., 68.

[4] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 99.

Image Credit: Femme assise (Melancholy Woman, detail), Pablo Picasso, 1902-03, The Detroit Museum of Art.