The Spirituality of 12 Step

by Ned Wicker

Once people find out that I work in the addiction field, invariably the conversation will find itself to 12-Step and why that is not their preferred way of overcoming the disease. They seem disappointed, even a little annoyed, when I tell them that I truly do not care how someone is helped and express my happiness in hearing that someone is sober. It’s as though people want me to argue with them.

There’s a strange “unsaid” conversation that goes on, one that speaks to the heart of the matter when it comes to why people shy away from the 12-Step process. The 12-Step approach is deeply spiritual, not religious, but spiritual. But people hear “higher power” and they hear “God” and they turn away. They do not like the notion of “God” even though the 12 Steps say “God, as we understood him.” The distinction between religion and spirituality comes into play here. Religion would define the god they refer to, but spirituality is more a person defining things for him/her self and working with a very personal concept.

There is no doctrine in 12 Step, but the mere mention of “God” and the atheists and agnostics start their retreat. That is not a surprise, nor is it something to hold against them or criticize them for. It is a point-of-view that is as old as human existence itself.

Many don't worship God

Give or take a few percentage points, 80% of Americans do not worship the God of the Bible. There are many religions, so God is worshiped in many ways, but for the most part, America is secular. That means people need to find answers in the absence of God, or in place of God. The Bible recognizes this fact and openly admits that the wisdom of God is foolishness to those who do not believe in Him or follow Him. America, founded on the principles of religious freedom by both Christians and non Christians, is not a nation of worshipers, unless you’re a movie star or a sports hero. Our society puts value on fame and money, and people love titles, social standing and power.

The idea of 12 Step places the power elsewhere, not on the individual and people resent that. Man is the center of the humanistic worldview, so the idea of emptying one’s self and submitting to God is repugnant. Many will bristle at the idea that they alone are not the bottom line authority in their life. Christians draw their power and strength from Jesus Christ, Jews revere the Law as written in the Torah, while Muslims submit to the authority of Allah.

Atheism is an extreme

To agnostics, this is perplexing. To atheists, this is foolishness. Most people in the world have some sense or belief in a supreme being and this belief is manifest in hundreds of ways. Actually, to my way of seeing the world, to be an atheist is an extreme, deliberate and willful act to consciously defy God by denying what is a basic, human urge…to worship God. I cannot prove the existence of God, so we’ll leave it there.

Understanding your view of God

A few years ago, while at a drug treatment center, I did a lecture on the spirituality of 12-Step recovery. When it came to steps two and three, I invited people to take an index card and write down a few characteristics they feel God should have. I did this because we were going to deal with the idea of a “higher power” and “God” so I wanted them to feel comfortable. IK handed each person a 3x5 index card and invited them to write down a few attributes that they wanted their god to have.

As for a higher power, that could be the group, their children, or the guy next door. The trouble is, making God in my own image is rather shallow and unsatisfying. A few lines on a piece of index card is hardly the truth and not exactly powerful. But it’s a start. It was always interesting to see that most people, religious or otherwise, would go along with me and write down their characteristics for that higher power.

Spirituality and religion, of course, are two different things. We are all spiritual beings, regardless of any religious beliefs, or for that matter lack of religious beliefs. We all have our way of seeing and interpreting the world around us and spirituality is very much that process of viewing our surroundings. Human spirituality really comes to life in 12 Step. It may be that people will place their hope in something and that, alone, is enough to encourage them to take one more step.

You hear stories of people with a “fighting spirit,” or accounts of folks who have tremendous strength in dire circumstances, or maybe it’s a tale of someone who for whatever reason was able to overcome impossible odds. Is it only the human spirit that enables them to keep fighting? Many would say “absolutely” and be done with it. Others immediately attribute the power to the Spirit of God. It’s an interesting topic.

Really working the steps

People who embrace 12 Step and really go through it and by that I mean not merely going through the motions and sliding through doing the bare minimum, are far more likely to have a profound spiritual experience. I cannot define that experience, because it’s theirs and they are the only ones who can express their feelings and tell us with authority what happened to them. But the fact is the spirituality of 12 Step is a huge component in the experience of those who did the work.

Regardless of your religious affiliation or lack of affiliation, the steps can work for you if you allow the process to move forward. So many people never allow this to happen. They short-circuit the steps and announce with complete confidence that the 12 Steps don’t work. They never have that “spiritual awakening” and never benefit from the rebuilding of the complete person—body, mind and spirit. They need to find another way, their own way, to overcome the disease and get healthy. There are plenty of ways to do that, but none that render the same spiritual benefit.

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- Matthew 7:7-8

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