It seems we all have well-shaped mental images of 12 step recovery programs from a favorite series. A person shamefully tries to slip inside a church or non-descript retail building without notice, pours an awful cup of coffee, and slips into an uncomfortable folding metal chair. Then they awkwardly wait for their turn to say “Hi—I’m (wishing I didn’t have to use my real name) and I’m (broken in some embarrassing way)” followed by a monologue about “how difficult things are” and “how they’re barely holding it together.” Perhaps this media portrayal is what perpetuates stigma of Recovery and causes us to consciously or unconsciously make sure we’re keeping a healthy distance from anyone looking for a meeting. Like if they ask—we’ll point to the room or tell them which building it is, but wouldn’t dare be seen anywhere near the door to spare an embarrassing explanation to an observant peer. If you take nothing else from this post take this one thing: there should be no shame in recovery.
I stumbled into 12 Step Recovery while accompanying a friend to Al-Anon meetings twice a week during my own season of deep healing. Experiencing group recovery firsthand untangled all preconceptions about 12 Step groups. The people around the table were not addicted to a substance. They were fighting their compulsion to control their lives and their loved ones and working to relinquish their tight grip on victimhood and resentment. They sought to replace their addictions to unhelpful ways of thinking with serenity– the acceptance of what we cannot change coupled with courage to change the things we can, praying for the wisdom to know and rest in the difference. We spoke this truth of Richard Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer out loud as a group before heading from the safety of our meetings back into the unpredictable and often unforgiving world. “Those people” turned out to be “my people”. I felt at home.
I was soon introduced to Celebrate Recovery, a 12 Step Recovery program for the church context addressing any and all “hurts, hang-ups, and habits”. Celebrate Recovery presented what I already knew to be true from my time in Al-Alon– the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous provide a framework for spiritual transformation. Our faith is built around this idea that we are offered salvation through the confession that we have been broken by sin more than we could ever imagine. If you want to hear an honest, gut wrenching, deep-reflected confession—the kind that Jesus gave an “I tell you the truth…this is faith” in the Gospels—spend some time in a recovery meeting. I am grateful for the opportunity to help create the space for this work in the church weekly through Reclaim Recovery.
The 12 Steps mirror the faith journey…
1-We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors, that our lives had become unmanageable.
2- We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
The steps begin at the end of ourselves. This is always where we meet God. If we look at our life closely, we will find someone or something we cannot manage on our own strength. Too often, I’ve found myself in a destructive loop, attempting the same course correction repeatedly without changing route, while expecting to arrive at a new destination. In the recovery world, we call this insanity. We must hand the wheel to the divine.
3- We made a decision to turn our lives and our wills over to the care of God.
Jesus tells us the story of a father and two brothers in Luke, chapter 15. One brother takes his inheritance early and leaves his older brother and father at home. He squanders his birthright and finds himself far from home with nowhere to turn. Death or the walk of shame home are his only options. The younger son is welcomed into His father’s arms and home before getting the chance to deliver his well-rehearsed speech conveying his sorrow for his betrayal. We’re left to wonder if the younger son would have ever returned home had he not run out of resources. The grace and radical acceptance of God is difficult to accept and comprehend because it is not dependent on anything we do or fail to do. It is always waiting for us to accept. Let’s be honest- grace is easier to access when our own resources are depleted. Why admit our need for grace or the care of God when life is going our way?
4- We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5- We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
The inventory process is an objective, inward look at ourselves. We gently, yet objectively notice and list our behaviors that have been hurtful to others and our responses to experiences that have hurt us. I find the inventory process to be equally difficult and freeing. It is an admission to myself and God of what is. Excuses and blame are not welcome in this process. While painful for the ego, the inventory is life-giving for who I was created to be– my true self. Sharing our findings with someone trusted and experienced in Recovery is powerful for the sharer and the receiver. The process breeds empathy and forgiveness for ourselves and others.
6- We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7- We humbly asked Him to remove all our shortcomings
The most transformative aspect of the 12-step journey for me has been the mirror held up to my role in my own pain. We are given pause to grieve over what has been dealt to us outside of our control, but we are not left to wallow in self-pity or victimhood. We are responsible for our reactions- helpful and hurtful- and must recognize we cannot remove our defects of character in our own strength. This is the work of the One whose image we bear; who died so we can walk free of the chains of our own making.
8- We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
9- We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10- We continue to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
Having received unearned acceptance, we get to work joining God in the ministry of reconciliation:
18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
2 Corinthians 5: 18-19 | NIV
It is lifegiving to set aside our ego and attempt to make peace with the people in our life we have directly or inadvertently hurt. Unfortunately, there are times where reconciliation on this side of eternity is not possible. In some instances, the safety of one or both parties are at stake. In other cases, the person we have harmed is no longer living. Instead of reeling in defeat over the broken relationships, we commit to a life of “living amends” with everyone we encounter from this point. We learn to check our motives and their resulting interactions at the end of every day and, “make every effort to live in peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14).
11- We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us, and power to carry that out.
12- Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these steps, we try to carry this message to others and practice these principles in all our affairs.
Reclaim is for everyone and can be a way for you as a person to deepen your relationship with God. Spiritual Practice is woven into our Recovery work. Contemplative prayer and other prayerful exercises help us to “improve our conscious contact with God.” Our prayer life shifts from a laundry list of demands to acceptance of God’s will and power to carry out whatever that may be. Holiness equates wholeness, not merely the absence of certain behaviors. Our gaze shifts from the behaviors, vices, and thought patterns we avoid to the Giver of life and restoration. The transformed life can’t help but overflow and impact the world around it. We will either transmit our pain or our peace to the people we encounter. Bill Wilson’s 12 Steps provide a framework to experience the wholeness of Christ amidst brokenness and to bring wholeness to the spaces we occupy. I’m continually grateful for the invitation in 2011 to a meeting that was unknowingly an invitation to experience the wholeness of Christ in a new way.