Q: I am an alcoholic and I have been attending Alcoholics Anonymous for many years. I know the 12 steps and I have tried to follow them but I have failed. I have not failed in getting sober. I am sober now and have been for 10 years, but I have a problem with the God part of the 12-step program as I learned it. I just don’t believe in a God who speaks to people or who cares about me. I wish I did, but I just don’t have that kind of faith. Can you help me?
— Anonymous, via email
A: Congratulations on finding a way to stay sober for so long. Now, let’s start with the steps. The following list of the 12 steps is virtually identical for all 12-step programs since Bill Wilson founded AA in 1935. This one is from Al-Anon:
STEP 1 We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
STEP 2 Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
STEP 3 Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
STEP 4 Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
STEP 5 Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
STEP 6 Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
STEP 7 Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
STEP 8 Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
STEP 9 Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
STEP 10 Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
STEP 11 Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
STEP 12 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.
You are tripping over steps 2 and 3 (the big ones) and also steps 5-7 and steps 11 and 12. All of them refer to a God who can have direct contact with and control over your life.
The way 12-steppers have come to address atheist alcoholics is the phrase in step 3, “as we understood Him.” So you can conceive of God in any way you want and still follow the 12 steps to healing. This avoids the problem of having to embrace a traditional theological view of God.
What if you thought of God as more like the spiritual equivalent of gravity rather than the spiritual equivalent of your best friend? Just like gravity makes a compass needle point to magnetic north unless it is diverted by another force, so too God makes us drawn to life unless we are diverted by the forces of death. Your impulse to live a healthy life was diverted by your alcoholism. Now, thank God, the compass of your moral life is pointing to moral north again.
As long as we live lives of health and goodness, our lives point to God even if God is not pointing back at us personally. God is the force of healing that has made you well because, as we are commanded by God in Deuteronomy 30:19, you have chosen life. This commandment is not a conversation with a divine being, but is a revelation from the force of life in the universe that we call God. Does that definition of God work for you?
Perhaps the 12 steps were initially conceived as a response to a very personal and traditional God, but that dynamic is not the only possible way God reveals the truth to us. You have a right to believe in a God who is a force for healing, not a member of your friend list in some heavenly Facebook account.
If we abuse our bodies we kill ourselves. That is God’s law. If we choose life we heal ourselves. That is also God’s law and both can come from a God who is not personal, but is nonetheless very real — a God who wants life but is not sitting at the foot of your bed every morning asking you, “So what would we like for breakfast today?”
I think this is what the prophet Hosea believed when he wrote God’s words (Hosea 6:1),
“Come let us return to the Lord;
For He has torn, that He may heal us,
He has stricken, and he will bind us up.”
May you find refuge in the God who has already healed you.