September 2006

The Higher Power of the Twelve-Step Program

For Believers & Non-believers


© Copyright 2005 by Glenn F. Chesnut.   Taken from Chapter One of The Higher Power of the Twelve-Step Program:  For Believers & Non-believers, Hindsfoot Foundation Series on Spirituality and Theology (San Jose: iUniverse, 2001). From the Hindsfoot Foundation website at   This material may be copied and reproduced by others subject to the restrictions given at

First part originally given as a lecture to the Northern Indiana Counselors Association, October 21, 1999 at Quiet Care in South Bend, Indiana.

Discovering a Higher Power

In substance abuse treatment, in this part of northern Indiana, an attempt is often made to involve the alcoholic or drug addict in one of the twelve-step programs, either Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. I'm going to talk mostly about A.A., because that's what I know most about -- also it's the original twelve-step program, with sixty-four years experience behind it now. Now the first step, as we know, says:  "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [or our addiction] -- that our lives had become unmanageable."

It's hard enough to get some people even to that point! But then comes what for some people seems like an even bigger problem, steps two and three:  "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity" and "made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him." The problem is this:  at least 95% of alcoholics are totally hostile to organized religion in all its forms. Many of them are outright atheists:  "There is no God, and the whole notion is a piece of absurd superstition, a crutch for the weak and ignorant." Others are agnostics:  "Well, maybe there's a God, but I dunno. I've heard arguments both ways."

Of the few who are positively disposed towards religion, some of these think A.A. is a kind of revivalistic cult, and start trying to talk themselves into the kind of hyped-up emotions and emotionalistic conversion experiences they have seen on TV, when they tuned in to one of the more flamboyant televangelists. These people go to a few A.A. meetings, but then most of them disappear -- back to drinking themselves to death -- and never show up again.

I've done a study of A.A. in this area -- South Bend, Mishawaka, Elkhart, and Goshen -- going back to when the program was first started here in 1943. I've listened to the tape recordings (and sometimes found the writings) of the old timers, and talked to a lot of present-day A.A. members, and I've done a kind of phenomenological study of what actually happens when people start going to A.A. meetings, and eventually find a Higher Power which makes sense to them, and to whose care they can abandon themselves wholeheartedly. I've written up part of this in a history of the beginnings of A.A. in this region, called The Factory Owner and the Convict.

Now in looking at the way people came into the program during that period of almost sixty years, and actually developed a workable understanding of a higher power, I noticed some important things which I would like to sum up under twelve basic headings.

1. You cannot learn it by going to
church or synagogue or mosque

My first observation is that no one -- absolutely no one -- learns to work the twelve-step program well, who has not cut the umbilical cord connecting them with their childhood religious beliefs. As an adult, you cannot truly go back to your childhood religious beliefs.

Some people, when they begin the twelve-step program, make the mistake of trying to get a better grasp of the spiritual dimension of the program by going to church services or synagogue services, or reading the bible, or something like that. At best, this is totally ineffectual but comparatively harmless. But a lot of people who try it this way end up going back out and going back to their addiction. The sermons and the worship services and the traditional language simply throw them back into their childhood religious beliefs, which contain major errors and misunderstandings. The emotions they start to feel, and the attitudes which they once again take up, put them into intolerable emotional states or drive them into unconsciously self-destructive behavioral patterns once again, and they finally go out and get drunk again (or whatever their addiction is) to relieve the pressure.

In fact, many of the people who make this particular mistake are just trying to avoid working the twelve steps, because the churches and synagogues and mosques won't force them to do that. The twelve-step program is the greatest outpouring of real spirituality in today's world, where people make more progress, and far faster than anywhere else, in genuinely learning how to live the spiritual life. If you can't recognize real spirituality when you see it right in front of your face in the twelve-step program, you'll certainly never recognize it anyplace else.

I'm talking about just the first year in A.A., because, interestingly enough, if we check back again after three years, and look at the survivors who have now been clean and sober for those three years, we will discover that perhaps as many as two-thirds of them are attending some kind of religious services on a regular basis by this point. But it is not always the religious denomination in which they were brought up as children -- sometimes it's something wildly different -- and even if it is the religion of their childhood, they now see it through different eyes and hear it through different ears. And the most devout will insist the most strongly that no one else in the A.A. program needs to hold the beliefs or practices of their particular religious group.

You learn the A.A. spiritual program by going to A.A. meetings and actually doing what the people there tell you they do. A.A. people never talk about "getting the program" or "understanding the program" -- they talk about working the program. You learn A.A. spirituality by hanging around with A.A. people as much as you can -- closed meetings, open meetings, going out for coffee after meetings, spending time with your sponsor just chatting about things, picnics, dances, service projects -- so hanging around a church or synagogue or mosque during that first year is just fooling around and wasting time.

You learn A.A. spirituality at a deep level only by working through all the twelve steps. If there is anyone here today who is not a believer, you will get absolutely nothing from my talk which will turn you into a believer. The Higher Power of the twelve-step program is encountered only when you actually work the program, with complete honesty and total commitment, over an extended period of time. You have to work a lot of the program without understanding what you are doing while you are doing it. It is only after actually working the first eleven steps that we come to the twelfth step:  "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps."

It's another one of those great A.A. paradoxes:  You have to practice the program until you can practically do it in your sleep. And then is when you wake up! Then is when it begins to dawn on you why you had to do some of those things that you did without really understanding what you were doing. And then you're so grateful that you did it.

So how can we talk about it at all? As I said before, I can give an account of what many people in the A.A. program actually experienced in their early days in the program, and what they said were valuable starting points for them.

2. It does not matter what name
you put on this Higher Power

When Moses heard the voice from the Burning Bush and asked this higher power what his name was, he answered only "I am what I am." Names do not matter. In the philosophical theology of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all three, this higher power is a transcendent ground, from which all other being emerges into existence. When this universe exploded into being in the Big Bang, ten or twelve billion years ago, this was what it came out of. This transcendent ground of being is above all human language and most this-worldly physical laws and rules -- probably even all of them. No names are truly accurate, so any name which at least points in the right direction for me is as adequate as we are going to get.

When people in the program in this area use the word "God" while speaking at meetings, they frequently begin with the phrase "my higher power whom I choose to call God." They want to make it clear to the newcomers (and to everyone else) that if you don't want to use the G-word, you can use anything you want to. Often when they use the word "he" in referring to their higher power, they will check themselves and say, "or she, or it, or whatever you prefer." Everyone knows that you will make meaningful contact with this higher power only by using language that you yourself are comfortable with, and that for this reason, no one has the right to dictate to anyone else about what kind of language the other person is going to use.

So I can use names like God or Father or Great Spirit, but only if I want to. One person in the South Bend program calls his higher power Grandfather. One regular weekly meeting prays at the end to "our Father and Mother." A surprising number of people conceptualize their higher power as a kind of Good Boss, and begin their day every morning by saying something like, "O.K., boss, what kind of job have you got for me to do today?"

Nick Kowalski, one of the South Bend old-timers, spoke of this higher power as the Force of Creation itself. Some of the Al-Anons around here think of the Universe itself as their higher power -- but a universe which is filled with life, creativity, guidance, help, and love. Sue C. in South Bend, a skilled craftswoman, wrote one prayer in which she spoke of the higher power as the weaver of the world, the spinner of every thread:

I am but a small stitch
in my higher power's majestic tapesty,
but I am a perfect thread, carefully placed,
to complete the beauty of the great picture.
I feel the presence of a universal power
and know that with each breath I take,
I am guided to a greater harmony and peace.

I surrender my will,
trusting that all I need will be provided to me.
What I must know, I will be taught;
no problem will appear without a solution.
I need only trust in his goodness,
and give freely of the love I am given,
sharing the lessons I am taught.
I do not question the perfection of the universal design,
nor do I question my placement in
the continuous flow of events
that make up the colors and textures of life.

But you have to work all this out for yourself. Lori C., who's in both A.A. and N.A., remembers her sponsor taking her over to the window -- it was early evening, during the winter -- and saying to her:  "Make the sun rise."

Lori said, "Huh?"

Her sponsor said, "Make leaves grow on that tree."

Lori said, "Huh?"

Her sponsor said, "So you're willing to admit that there is something in this universe more powerful than you are?" That's all a beginner has to recognize.

3. God as the Good Itself,
or the voice of deep conscience

The ancient pagan Greek philosopher Plato said that the highest power was the Good Itself, that transcendent principle by whose light we could tell the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo borrowed this kind of Platonic language to interpret the Torah. The spirit of the Ten Commandments -- don't lie, don't steal, don't commit murder -- was the spirit of a universal code of good action. On the Christian side, St. Augustine likewise said that God was the bonum ipsum (the Good Itself). And he also said that God was verum ipsum (Truth Itself), which is why people can't get this program until they get honest with themselves.

So some atheists and agnostics, when they first enter the A.A. program, turn the word God into an acronym:  G.O.D. is short for Good Orderly Direction. This is not a personal God of any sort, but it is something that they can make sense of. Most substance abusers, when they first enter the twelve-step program, have personal lives that have disintegrated into total chaos. At one level, they can see and understand this. And so the people in the program tell them:  "Can you see the difference between putting a little bit of Good Orderly Direction into your life, instead of trying to live life in the totally chaotic, disorganized fashion you are attempting now? Well, just let that be your higher power for now." There are many old-timers who began in just that way, and over the months and years that followed, they found that, little by little, G.O.D. turned into God, into an actual transcendent personal being who could not only give meaning to their lives, but also act in their lives.

A month and a half ago, a newcomer said, "Well, I don't know whether I believe in this God thing or not, but for now, I'm just trying to live by my conscience." And the old-timers nodded, and made it clear that they thought that was a quite excellent position for him to take at this point.

Or as an experienced Al-Anon said, when this story was repeated to her, "Oh yeah, when the shame is removed, this is an excellent starting point." What she meant was, that if the word conscience referred to the kind of Freudian superego that just produces neurotic guilt-complexes, or introjected parental admonitions (you know, "Mommy says always do this," and "Daddy says never do that"), or any of the old shame-based injunctions on which she used to live her life, then trying to "follow your conscience" would only make you sicker. But if you referred instead to what I call deep conscience -- our fundamental internal sense of whether we are acting with love, or instead acting with cruelty or the desire to control or get revenge or to show off what good people we are -- then this will put us on the right path.

The Al-Anon said, "After all, what I myself mean by the voice of God is what I hear my conscience telling me, and what I hear in meetings. God talks to me through my conscience, and through the words of the other people at the meeting." And an A.A. old-timer nodded his head in agreement.

In medieval theology, some theologians argued that all human beings had within them what they called the scintilla, a little spark of knowledge about who God was and the difference between right and wrong -- not enough in itself to save the person by itself, but if you could take that little spark and blow on it and feed it with the proper fuel, it could flare up into a glowing beacon clearly displaying God and his moral principles to us.

4. The hint of the infinite
in the world of nature

In the Hebrew bible we are told that the seraphim continually fly about the divine throne, singing the hymn, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord of hosts, all the earth is full of his glory." In later Jewish thought, the word glory (kabod) is replaced by the word shekinah or "dwelling place." The visible universe is the palace God lives in, and his invisible presence can somehow be discerned in and through what we can see.

One A.A. old-timer, a retired nuclear submarine commander, had been in an alcohol treatment center for several weeks when he walked outside and looked up into the sky, and suddenly realized the breath-taking magnificence of a flock of wild geese flying overhead. This was part of the spiritual breakthrough which he experienced after he finally began not only to look at himself honestly, but also to look outside himself wholeheartedly. One woman old-timer begins her day every morning by taking an insulated container of coffee with her and driving in her car to a nearby riverbank. She looks at the flowing water, and the ducks swimming and cavorting, and without conscious words or thoughts, gets in tune with her higher power. There are at least two old-timers in A.A. in this area who explain that going fishing every weekend is their basic mode of meditation. They do not consciously think about God per se, but merely let themselves relax into the flow of casting the line, and admiring the beauty of the lake. And gradually, everything else in their lives goes into perspective.

5. The world as mirror of God
in the negative sense

But we must be careful. As the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck pointed out in his book, The Road Less Traveled, he had discovered that all his patients had a concept of God, whether they realized it consciously or not. He would get them talking about what they thought "the world was like," or what "life was like." One man might say, "The world is a jungle. You've got to get there first and fight with everything you have to get your piece." A woman might say, "First you get old, then you die. I've been running on the same treadmill for years, and what do I have to show for it?"

Someone who believes that the world is a merciless jungle, or that life is a meaningless treadmill leading to oblivion, will necessarily -- in their hearts -- conjure up an image of God to match. "God is cruel," "God is unfair," "God is hateful," "God's done nothing but shit on me." To which the old-timers in A.A. and Al-Anon say to the newcomer:  "Then why'd he work so hard to bring you here where you're gonna get a chance to save your life?"

But this is sometimes a place where good psychotherapy and counseling can be of special help to people working twelve-step programs. People can be locked into destructive images of the world around them which will prevent them from ever linking up with any kind of positive view of a higher power, and it sometimes takes a highly skilled professional to lead that person towards some healing of their inner rage and bitterness and fear.

In my observation, quite a few of the A.A. old-timers who have impressive amounts of serenity and faith in a higher power, have also made good use of psychotherapy during their early years in the program. A.A. doesn't pretend to be able to do that, and never has.

6. God in the mirror of the soul

As a person actually honestly works the twelve steps over a period of time, that person will undergo a radical personal transformation. It will show up in the person's inner attitudes, which in turn will change the person's emotional affect. And that in turn will alter the way the person interacts with other people.

It is the other people who usually notice it first. After a few months in the program, an alcoholic runs into someone he knew before, and spends some time with that other person. At the end, the other person says something like, "You know, you seem like a totally different person now. I really like the way you are now!" Then the recovering alcoholic starts to notice that when he experiences things which used to make him angry, he reacts with just momentary minor irritation, and sometimes even fails to notice it at all. Situations which used to totally throw him for a loop, he now sails through with only minor discomfort.

It finally begins to dawn on him that he is experiencing within himself such attributes as compassion, patience, unselfish giving of himself, and forgiveness. But these are the very attributes which the old-timers tell him are the characteristics of the higher power.

St. Thomas Aquinas called this the analogy of being. We learn what God's characteristics are by looking at what God creates. We say that God is compassionate and forgiving, because when we ourselves turn our lives and wills over to his care, he creates compassion and a forgiving nature in us.

And newcomers look at other people who came into the program around the same time they did, and they can see even more clearly the enormous transformation that starts occurring in some of these other newcomers. One evening, one of the other newcomers will walk into the meeting, and this person will be actually relaxed, and smiling at people, and full of a new self-confidence. Some power changed that person, in a truly dramatic way. "Oh," the observer says, "that is the actual effect of this higher power on people's lives. But . . . what an extraordinary kind of higher power this must be!" And now the observer knows something real about who and what this higher power actually is.

We talked before about the medieval doctrine of the scintilla, the little spark within the human soul, which already in some sense knows who God is. And this is linked with the traditional theological doctrine that the human soul is the image of God, the imago Dei, a little mirror which can reflect the light of God's love.11 So in one method of meditation and contemplation, as we pray we enter into the utmost depths of our own souls -- and some people in the program, at least, say that they can "feel" the flow of God's love and the illumination of his healing light in action down there within their own souls. So this is another way that some people in the program begin to flesh out their understanding of who and what this higher power actually is.

We cannot draw a picture on a piece of paper of what God in himself actually looks like, or carve his image in a stone statue. But when I believe that I truly know another human being deeply, is it just that I can recognize a photograph of that person? Of course not. To truly know who another human being really is, I must learn to know that person's moral character:  What are the values by which that person actually lives his or her life? Can I count on him or her? And if so, in what kinds of situations?

In the twelve-step program, when we slowly begin to discover who this higher power is, that is what we actually learn. Not a philosophical or theological theory or ecclesiastical doctrine or dogma. We learn God's moral character (Hebrews 1:3, the charactêr tês hypostaseôs autou), and in that fashion -- which is actually far deeper and more profound than any other way of "knowing someone" -- we come to know who God really is.

7. Other people as messengers,
and the spirit of the tables

When some people first enter the A.A. program, they choose what they call "the spirit of the tables" as their higher power. By that they mean what a person feels, experiences, and hears while attending a good twelve-step meeting. You can go to some A.A. meetings and quickly realize, that if these people were still drinking, and were all put into the same bar, there would be blood on the barroom floor in very short order. Something about the atmosphere of an A.A. meeting makes even the worst barroom brawler start behaving differently -- there is a power or force of some kind there. Taking the spirit of the tables as your higher power is one of the commonest and most effective ways through which atheists and agnostics can start to work the program at the beginning.

The Greek word for faith, pistis, fundamentally means trust. When people first begin the twelve-step program, none of them really fundamentally trust God all that much, as they will acknowledge once they start to get honest with themselves. With the atheists and agnostics it's obvious, but the ones who claim they are believers have just as much problem. They just don't really trust God.

But those who make it in the program discover one or more recovering alcoholics who are already in the program, whom they can trust. The first kind of proto-faith which newcomers to the program develop is not a faith in God per se, but a trust in the people who are talking about God.

And remember, in Christianity, when people first begin, they are told that if they cannot trust God whom they cannot see, they should put their faith in God's messenger Jesus (e.g. John 12:45 and 6:46). To be Jewish, you have to trust that Moses was God's messenger, and Muslims have to trust Mohammed -- I mean, you didn't work all those great truths about God out by yourself, did you? Or you have to start by trusting Buddha, or somebody, until you learn more for yourself.

Remember again, real knowledge of the higher power comes only in the twelfth step, after the person has genuinely worked the other eleven steps very thoroughly, and in order. This normally takes at least two or three years at minimum. So at the beginning of the A.A. program, whether the person believes in God or not is not relevant -- the only thing that is important is that they devise some method for starting their journey through the steps, which they themselves can accept and live with.

So taking the spirit of the tables, or the A.A. program itself, as your higher power, is a beginner's starting point which has repeatedly been shown to work quite excellently. A beginner who has no faith in God, but feels somehow that he can trust one or more of the old-timers around the table, can handle things for a long time that way, as long as this trust can supply the impetus to actually start working the steps.

Psychotherapists and counselors all know that trust is one of the most important factors in producing real healing. A patient will attend counseling sessions for weeks, and suddenly develop enough trust to start talking about some deep, hidden secret that he has never before revealed to the counselor. The counselor feels very good about this, because now the two of them can start working at the real healing process. As has been noted from the beginning, a recovering alcoholic in the A.A. program can often achieve a level of trust from a newcomer with such incredible speed that it's breathtaking.

As psychotherapists, you can use this productively. If you can get your substance abusers into A.A. or N.A., and they start talking honestly and openly for the first time in A.A. or N.A. meetings, you will find that they will now have the trust and courage to start telling you truthfully some of the things you need to know in order to help them more fully.

8. Learning to see God in the
fabric of our daily lives

Many people who have trouble with the idea of God, believed as children in a kind of magical God who operated like a sort of brain-damaged genii in a bottle. If you stroked the bottle in exactly the right way, and muttered the correct magical phrases (with lots of thee's and thou's), and used exactly the right name to address the genii, then he would magically give you everything that you asked for. A lot of people who call themselves atheists are people who believed that as a child, or thought they were supposed to believe that. Now that they are adults, they find the whole idea ridiculous.

Nevertheless, during their first year or two in the A.A. program, some beginners waste a lot of time trying to find that sort of dungeons-and-dragons and magical sorcerers kind of higher power. They come to meetings and talk about how "I prayed for such-and-such, and the very next day . . . ." The old-timers try to caution them. "God always answers prayers," they may say. "Sometimes he says yes, and sometimes he says no. And sometimes he says 'wait,' and that can be the most uncomfortable answer of all." Or the old-timers will caution the newcomers to end their prayers with the words "thy will be done." Because A.A. is not a magical way for me to get whatever I want whenever I want it -- real life just doesn't work that way.

But the old-timers will say other things too:  "It's all right to pray to God and ask him for things, as long as you don't get upset if he says no." "God never closes one door on you without opening another one -- into something even better." "Sometimes God knows that the only way I will learn such-and-such is to suffer some real pain." "God will never lay any burden on you which is too heavy for you to carry -- or if he does, he will help you carry it." And one of the old-timers will sometimes say, "God has given me gifts so wonderful and marvelous that I would never even have dreamed of praying for them." And the other old-timers will nod their heads in solemn, grateful agreement.

So newcomers slowly come to see God's hand in the fabric of their everyday lives. There are a number of standard categories for fitting these events into:  A totally unexpected, delightful thing happens, for which I immediately express a prayer of heartfelt gratitude:  or a painful sequence of events occurs, which finally drives me into learning something about myself and God, which then makes my life far richer and fuller. Perhaps something seems like a stone wall across my path. No matter how hard I try, I cannot get past this obstacle. As one old-timer (a very wise woman) once put it, "How do I know the will of God? When I hit a stone wall, turn left." God -- for whatever reason -- doesn't want me to go down that particular path. I may some day realize why, but then again, I may never truly know what reason he had for turning my life into a different path at that point. Perhaps God makes sure that I don't have the money for lobster and steak dinners. I finally realize that he is trying to teach me that I can enjoy hamburgers and macaroni and cheese too, and learn how to practice gratitude in any conceivable situation.

A man in the program slipped on his stairs and broke his back. The doctors told him that if the bone had broken one millimeter further, he would have been paralyzed from the armpits down. He immediately started thanking God in his heart and felt only the most profound gratitude. He hardly ever noticed the pain at all, convalesced quickly, and within three months was as good as new. He talked at meetings about the most important thing he had learned, which was when he was first brought into the emergency room, in extreme agony:  "The only thing that really matters," he said, "is me and God. In the final analysis, that's all there really will be. Material things, people fussing around, foolish pride and egotism -- none of these things really matter at all."

9. The pragmatic test

An engineer has a theory about how to build bridges, and builds one on the basis of that theory. Every time a really heavy vehicle drives across it, and every time the waters rise and the current becomes swift, the bridge collapses. Then he devises a different theory about how to build bridges, and builds one according to this new theory. This time the bridge holds rock solid, no matter what happens.

So is this second theory still "just a theory"? Is it the engineer falling into autosuggestion and wishful thinking and self-delusion? No, we say now that the second method of building bridges has been field-tested, and that its superiority has been conclusively shown in actual field conditions.

A.A. members who tried to live their lives without any kind of realistic God or higher power, and then started experimenting with "this higher power idea" in their daily lives, found that, under actual field-testing, their lives worked better in an uncountable variety of ways when they turned their wills and lives over to the care of a loving and compassionate and all-powerful higher power. As one old-timer put it, "I don't believe there is a God. I know there is a God. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here, where I am, right now."

This pragmatic test is the hardest to defend when you are giving a lecture in front of an audience of atheists and agnostics -- unbelievers will quickly start running you around in logical circles which you will never get out of -- so I don't even try to defend it rationally and logically. But the pragmatic test is what actually turns nonbelievers into believers during the first two or three years of the A.A. program. It is more powerful than any other demonstration of the existence of God.

10. The discovery of a personal God

It's not that hard sometimes to convince a nonbeliever that there might be some impersonal universal absolute:  some transcendent ground out of which this universe exploded in the big bang, some impersonal principle of good orderly direction, or some moral ground of behavior revealed in the deep conscience. But beyond that, the nonbeliever argues, isn't it all really self-hypnosis, autosuggestion, wishful thinking, and a kind of contorted set of devices for accounting for anything at all that happens, while still arguing that this too was the deliberate, purposeful act of a personal God?

You can get into a similar set of arguments when you get a group of scientists debating whether a computer could ever be built which would actually be able to think. Would it be possible to construct an artificial intelligence which would nevertheless react like a genuinely personal being, instead of just blindly and mechanically? A man named Alan M. Turing wrote an important article on this topic back in 1950 in the philosophy journal Mind, where he proposed what is now called the Turing test. Now no one is suggesting that a computer of this sort would think exactly the same way human beings do. But if we ask what we really mean by a personal being, we mean something which would be recognized as such by another personal being. So you put a human being at one computer terminal, connected to another computer in another room. In that other room, there will be either another human being, or a computer program cleverly designed to produce the same kind of responses a human being would. Turing argues that, if you could devise a kind of computer and computer programming which could consistently convince a human questioner that it was another human being, then at the only level that truly matters and ultimately makes sense, you would have to admit that you had produced a computer which could actually think.

What is the only adequate judge of whether something else can think like a personal being? You and me, at the level of our own gut-level intuition of what's going on. Because we ourselves are personal beings by definition -- that's the only meaningful way to define what a personal being would be, something that thinks a little bit like us -- and "it takes one to know one"!

No one pretends that God thinks exactly like a human being does. But people who have been in the twelve-step program for two or three years, and have worked all the steps honestly and thoroughly, find again and again that they can find no other way to interpret what they have actually experienced, than to acknowledge that there not only is a higher power, but that he is a highly personal being, with a mind and personality of his own. It is interesting here, in that the A.A. people regularly discover, as a first step in that direction, that this higher power has what can only be described as a highly developed sense of humor. They suddenly realize that this higher power had just played a little joke on them, and is now laughing heartily at their reaction, and then they start laughing too, and realize for the first time that there is indeed a God, and that he is a God of joy and merriment.

11. The extraordinary works of God

Bill W., the founder of A.A., had an extraordinary experience where he was lying on his hospital bed, and suddenly saw the entire room lit up with a divine light, and felt himself transported into an entirely new dimension. But he never talked about this experience, really, until A.A. had been founded and had been in operation successfully for many years. He realized that this sort of experience was not common, and was not necessary, and was not to be expected.

Some people in the A.A. program have in fact experienced quite amazing things:  One old-timer, Brooklyn Bob, tells how he was struggling to get the program without success. He went to meeting after meeting, but simply could not stop drinking. He finally walked out into the middle of a field, fell to his knees, and cried out, "God, please, all I want is some peace of mind." Immediately, he reports, it was like a wave of incredible warmth swept over his entire body, and although he still had struggles past that point, he had crossed that necessary divide which separates those who are finally getting the program from those who are struggling to no avail.

An extremely rationalistic college professor reported seeing angels repeatedly -- angels like the ones in C. S. Lewis' Perelandra trilogy -- during his early days in the program. A psychiatric nurse found herself repeatedly entering the heavenly realm of the Uncreated Light, the goal of the Hesychastic monks at Mt. Athos in Greece. A salesman named Chuck was driving to call on a new client in another city, and almost going crazy trying to figure out what that man might say to this or that, and exactly how he would frame his response. He had been in the A.A. program for a short while, but now he felt himself falling back into his old craziness again, as bad as ever. He cried out to God, "Please, please help me return to someplace sane." Then he heard the bath qol, the Heavenly Voice, speaking inside his head, clearly and distinctly saying the simple words, "You're already there." And instantly, he says, his anxiety disappeared, and he drove the rest of the way without worrying or thinking at all about what he was going to say. He introduced himself to the potential client, just talked simply and naturally, and found himself with a client for life as a result.

Chic L., from over in Goshen, Indiana, tells how he finally decided, one day, that he had to do something about his drinking, and headed home to get on the phone and see if he could find out anything from anybody about this A.A. business. He was suddenly totally desperate, he relates. Just as he was walking in his front door, a car drove up and parked in front of his house, and a man he knew only after a fashion got out and walked up to him and said, "You know, we don't know each other all that well, but you see, I'm an alcoholic, and I'm in the A.A. program, and something or other somehow prompted me to come pay a call on you and try to talk to you a little about our program -- I don't actually know if you would be interested in it or not."

Most people who get sober in A.A. have NOT had an experiences of this sort. But on the other hand, no one in A.A. shows the least bit of surprise when stories like this are told. They aren't common, they certainly aren't necessary, but they do happen all the time, and people in A.A. simply take for granted that God can and does do things like this whenever he thinks it is the best way.

Experiences like this also do NOT give you any special lock on attaining long-term serenity and sobriety. They apparently get the person over one hump, and one hump only, in a spiritual path that will contain many other periods of really tough slogging. So this is nothing at all like the claims made in some revivalistic versions of Protestantism, where it sometimes seems as though we are being told that if you have a single instantaneous conversion experience of the right sort, you will automatically be able, smoothly and effortlessly, to start living a good life with no real struggles or problems at all.

I should also say that many varieties of organized religion seem to engage in a lot of manipulative techniques for getting people to mood alter temporarily. They use emotional manipulation to artificially create certain emotions. It may be hooting and hollering and people shouting out "praise Jesus" to create a kind of semi-hysterical state of almost manic enthusiasm. Or it may be done by using soft music and incense and stained glass windows to create what these groups call "a worshipful experience."

There really are people, called religion-oholics, who become addicted to this kind of artificial mood-altering. This method of mood-altering is not all that powerful, however, so as they build up a tolerance, they are frequently forced to develop additional addictions. Compulsive over-eating is quite common -- when you enter a religious establishment of this sort, a quick glance at the vast numbers of terribly overweight people in the congregation will warn you immediately that this is not a truly spiritual place at all, but an inwardly miserable and frightened collection of religious addicts. Secret drinking and secret sexual addictions are also quite common:  in recent years, some of the television evangelists got caught in this, but it was in fact not actually unexpected behavior, if you learn the difference between real spirituality and, on the other side, the misuse of religion to produce artificial mood-altering.

The twelve-step program is not designed to change our emotions directly by artificial mood-altering. The twelve-step program is instead designed to slowly but surely change our basic attitudes. Attitudes are not emotions:  they are part of the cognitive framework of our minds. However, when you truly change the underlying attitudes, the emotions which the person feels in various situations will automatically change.

12. Practicing the presence of God

Those old-timers who have the greatest serenity make a big point of continually practicing the presence of God during the course of every day. They develop a kind of God-consciousness which permeates in one way or another all of their waking thoughts.

They begin every morning by simply saying, "God, please keep me sober today." Then they purposefully commit themselves to turning their lives and wills over to the care of God for the next twenty-four hours. Some recite the third-step and seventh-step prayers every morning:

God, I offer myself to Thee -- to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!

My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen.
But the precise wording here is not important. It is the spirit of these two prayers, and the basic intent. The simplest prayer is nearly always the best.

Note that in the seventh-step prayer in particular, I turn the bad in me over to God's all-accepting love just as much as the good. And I let God be the judge as to whether or not something which I think is a serious character defect actually hinders my usefulness to him in his plan for my life. Sometimes we fall into the error of setting superhuman and totally unrealistic and hyperperfectionistic standards for our own behavior, and refuse to allow ourselves to be simply ordinary fallible human beings. Our Creator knows better, and loves and cherishes our eccentricities and inherent limitations and peculiarities, and has no desire whatever to change us one bit, as long as we are not doing grave harm to ourselves or to others.

When God wanted creatures who acted like angels all the time, he simply created actual angels. When he wanted some comic relief in his universe, he created monkeys whom he intended to act just like monkeys actually do. In the same way, he created human beings to be just what we are. Sometimes we're even funnier to watch than the monkeys, but that's exactly what the Creator wanted. And that's the spirit -- an attitude of real, honest humility -- with which we want to begin our days.

The old-timers tell us that they end every day by simply saying, "God, thank you for keeping me sober today." Some of the most spiritual of the old-timers tell us that they also go through the day saying "thank you" over and over again, keeping themselves in a continual attitude of gratitude. I wake up in the morning and feel the comforting warm of the covers, and utter a "thank you" for having a warm place to sleep for the previous night.

When I bite into a bologna sandwich or some tuna fish salad for lunch, I appreciate the taste and the way it relieves my hunger, and I silently utter a little "thank you" inside my head. When I get in my car to go to work, I can feel bitter or resentful or unhappy because it's an old, beat-up car, or I can instead say to God, "thank you," when the engine turns over and starts. Or if I don't have a car, I can say "thank you" when I climb onto my bicycle to go to work, or if I don't have a bicycle, I can say "thank you" because my legs are still working and I can walk to work. And if I'm ill and my legs don't work and I don't even have a job at all, I can say "thank you" because I'm still breathing.

When I see a beautiful bed of flowers, or the reds and golds of the fall leaves, I say "thank you." When it snows, I say "thank you" and learn to appreciate the way the sun glistens off the white, blowing flakes. When it rains and thunders, I remember that, to the ancient Israelites, the thunder symbolized the rumbling wheels of God's war chariots, and the lightning represented the flaming blades of the swords of fire which God's war angels wielded in battle -- this was the totally awe-inspiring magnificence of the Lord of Hosts (Yahweh of the Warrior Bands) riding forth to battle on the clouds of heaven. From the stars of heaven to the lowliest caterpillar crawling along a twig, all is beauty, all is magnificence, all is grandeur -- and my proper human response is to say "thank you."

The human mind cannot simultaneously be in a state of true gratitude, and also be craving the madness of alcohol or drugs, or stuffing yourself with food until you are sick and torpid, or craving any other of the unhealthy things which we allow to become destructive compulsions. True gratitude and an overpowering sick compulsion cannot coexist simultaneously in the same human mind.

I practice the presence of God by repeatedly, consciously, reminding myself to make the motivation of my daily tasks a motivation which is in line with God's spirit and way of life:  love, service, patience, and joy.

I practice the presence of God by noticing when I am starting to grow resentful, or am getting too angry, or begin to feel sorry for myself, or start falling into too much anxiety, worry, and fear. I consciously and deliberately turn the matter over to God, and then simply stop thinking about it. If I am too upset, I take time to be quiet and let God's peace and calm enter my soul, and then simply ask myself, "What is the next right thing?" Then I just go do the next right thing, and stop worrying and fretting.

I make sure that I take time off repeatedly throughout the day -- even two or three minutes is enough -- to be quiet and feel God's love, and get myself re-centered. This is a time to feel gratitude, to turn everything over to God once more, and to enjoy my own inner peace. This is a time to totally relax, quit my nonstop thinking-thinking-thinking, and just enjoy and appreciate being in the Here and Now.

My true goals will usually be quite simple:  Getting through the day without taking the first drink means experiencing a true miracle for an alcoholic. Getting through the day without hitting anyone or screaming in blind rage at anyone is a miraculous display of God's power for the truly emotionally upset. Making it through some situations without getting myself killed or seriously injured for life is an adequate accomplishment for many a person who is self-destructively violence-prone -- my object is to survive, not to be "right," or to avoid being "humiliated" or being "disrespected." Getting up out of bed and putting my clothes on is a major step for the severely depressed, and getting to the end of the day without trying to commit suicide may require an impressive display of God's grace and power in my life if my depression has driven me to total despair. Behaving honorably and honestly and responsibly in a very bad situation can require as great a heroism as any human being ever displayed. Remaining reasonably tolerant and practicing detachment in the face of extraordinary provocation is one of the true victories of the spirit.

I call on God for help whenever I need it. Practicing the presence of God means remembering to do this at whatever point in the day I actually need this help. And I discover that I do not always feel immediate relief from my inner turmoil (although people who have been in the program for long enough frequently do feel the burden lifted from them instantly), but somehow I do then find the inner power to actually get through what has to be done. Before, I always failed in these situations, but now that I ask God for help whenever I need it, through the course of every day I find myself succeeding in handling problems which I could never deal with when I was trying to do it all on my own.

You see, alcoholics and drug addicts and food-stuffers and over-controlling Al-Anons come into the twelve-step program wanting immediate emotional relief. That was the whole idea that motivated their old behaviors. The twelve-step program teaches us however that what we really need is the power to stop acting destructively. As I learn how to do this, the emotional relief will always ultimately follow, but (particularly for newcomers to the program) not always instantly. If I learn to shape my attitudes and my actions in the right way, then the emotional relief -- the satisfaction, the serenity, the burst of gratitude, the delights of truly living and feeling -- will in fact follow, eventually and in its time, if not with the magical instant rush of an artificial narcotics fix.

Our check-list for spiritual growth:
resentment, self-pity, and fear

The twelve-step program provides an automatic check-list for spiritual growth, a method for continually testing whether we are working the program well or poorly. We learn to start looking for the three internal warning signs:  resentment, self-pity, and fear.

Am I dealing with my present situation with the appropriate sort of attitude? If I am feeling too much resentment, self-pity, or fear (including all the various kinds of worry, anxiety, panic, and so on), then my attitude must be wrong. Or I can ask other kinds of questions using this same method:  Is one particular method of prayer or meditation right for me? If practicing it regularly helps reduce my resentment, self-pity, and fear, then I must be doing something right. And vice versa, if it's not really helping at all, then it doesn't matter who wrote that particular prayer, or which religious group devised that particular method of meditation, it's not the right one for me. I can also ask questions about my actions using this same check-list. So for example, what about the way I'm acting right now? Is it good or bad, saintly or sinful, appropriate or inappropriate? If my resentment, self-pity, or fear just keep on mounting higher and higher, then I'm clearly not acting the way I should, in some way. Remember that guilt and shame are modes of fear. So maybe I need to change the way I'm acting (and I need to quit trying to defend it), or maybe I need to change my attitude, or learn how to pray about it differently, or something.

This is why the twelve-step program cannot be grasped instantly. Each person has to do his or her own experiments. Each person has to figure out where the problem really lies, for himself or herself. It could be what the person is actually doing, it could be the inner attitude which accompanies those actions, it could be a failure to work out the best way of praying and meditating. It could also be something else entirely -- inappropriate toxic shame or guilt, a compulsive and self-destructive hyperperfectionism, poor impulse control, or a childish unwillingness to delay gratification.

It takes weeks, months, years to work these things out thoroughly. But even small steps forward significantly reduce the amount of resentment, self-pity, and fear which so overwhelmed the substance abuser's mind when he first started the program. So those who throw themselves into the program with wholehearted commitment actually begin to experience the positive fruits of their efforts very quickly. With some it comes almost immediately, with others it starts to appear in a few weeks. After three or four months, everyone who is working the program will be able to point towards significant personal transformation in some areas of their lives, which they can see and feel.

Serenity and God's love

Serenity is not an emotional state per se at all. Serenity means freedom from obsessive resentment, self-pity, and fear -- freedom from being at the total mercy of painful, hellish emotions which we can neither manage nor control, but which do manage and control our lives, and turn them into a living hell. For those who have never truly tasted real serenity at all, it is an experience so extraordinary that all words fail for expressing it. Everyone who genuinely attempts to work the steps will obtain at least brief tastes of real serenity during their early period in the program -- and once having tasted it, will want nothing but more, and more, and more. This is the real driving force, the real motive force, behind the total zeal with which so many alcoholics work the A.A. program. This is the Pearl of Great Price, for which the merchant in the ancient tale sold all that he had, just so that he could lovingly hold this one pearl in his hand and enjoy its unbelievable beauty.

In some kinds of organized religion, God is portrayed as a being whose love we have to earn. We are told that we have to achieve this or that before God will love us. We are given long lists of rules, and told that God will cast us off, and hate us, and punish us with unbelievable cruelty and sadism if we violate even a single one of these complex and totally arbitrary rules. Or we are taught that God requires us to maintain a perfectionistic life in which we never ever get angry, never ever feel doubt in him, never ever behave selfishly in the tiniest little way, always make A's in all our classes, always make the football team or the cheerleading squad, never get tired and totally exhausted, never need sleep or rest or just being by ourselves. If I am doing a task which I really dislike doing, and my mind wanders for even a moment, or I invent ways to delay getting started right away, I condemn myself -- for I feel sure that this kind of God would condemn me for that. If I make an honest mistake, I beat myself up psychologically, because I know this kind of God would tolerate no mistakes ever at all. I must drive myself unmercifully like an old dray horse and earn this God's love by being absolutely perfect in every way.

Those who live by the twelve steps tell us that the truth of the matter is that this higher power is all-loving and all-accepting. We do not have to do or accomplish anything to "earn" this higher power's love. Now there are some people, who regard themselves as very religious, who believe that if we ever told anyone this fundamental truth, everyone would just go around acting with the grossest immorality, and the entire planet earth would immediately go to hell in a handbasket. But in fact in the twelve step program, this is not at all what actually happens. In the twelve step program, people discover that when we fall into excessive anger and violence, and stealing and cruelty, and gross dishonesty and out-of-control personal selfishness, we in fact turn our own lives into a living hell.

Pain is the great motivator. When we hurt enough inside our minds, then and only then will we seriously start trying to work on our spiritual problems and change our lives to make them better. And that's true for everybody in the world -- not just for people in the twelve-step program.

So we ask God for help in amending our lives -- not because we want to "earn" God's love (we already have that totally) -- but because we are so miserable, and we know that he has all power and that he is good, and that he will in fact help us. At one level, we could be tempted to say that the reason people in twelve step programs try to live better lives is a totally selfish one -- it is for me, not to earn or keep God's love, that I want this. But the appropriate term for this approach is not selfishness:  the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle called this a eudaimonistic ethic, and the Roman Catholic church has traditionally proclaimed this eudaimonistic approach to be the correct one. In the Old Testament, it says openly and nakedly that those who follow the Torah (God's Way of Life) will receive rewards in all areas of their lives, and that this is the clear and obvious reason for doing that.

So the twelve-step program proclaims a higher power who welcomes us with an all-accepting love, just as we are, but the program also says that if we ourselves -- for our own personal satisfaction and quality of life -- wish to learn how to live a life of faith, service, unselfishness, courage, honesty, and integrity, that this great higher power will cheerfully send us his free grace, and re-mold us and re-shape us and empower us by his divine strength so that we can live this better way.

We must always remember the order of loving. As it says in 1 John 4:10 and 19, "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us . . . . We love because he first loved us." In the order of loving, God's all-accepting love for us has to come first, because we human beings cannot learn to love truly, in a manner which is tolerant, accepting, and capable of giving in a genuinely unselfish manner, until we learn how to attune ourselves within the flow of the all-powerful creative love of the universal spirit, in which we live and move and have our being.

In a good twelve-step group meeting, I can actually feel this divine spirit of love reflected in the way the group reacts to me, and embodied in the way the members of the group live and act. They genuinely care about me, they accept me just the way I am, and they will help me if I myself honestly want it. If I choose to turn my back on them and walk away, they will be saddened, but they will not cease to care what happens to me, nor will they refuse to welcome me back again. No matter how far I have gone away, when I return to live once more within God's spiritual presence, God says to me only "Welcome home." And if I am wounded, and genuinely cry out for help, he moves to heal my wounds insofar as it is actually still possible, and taking however much time it actually requires to heal that particular kind of injury.

Getting rid of the gimme God and the getcha God

When we were children, some of us had religious beliefs where we believed in a gimme God. If I pray the right prayers with exactly the right ritual phrases, and believe all the right things, all I have to do is pray to God and he will magically give me everything I selfishly want. There is in reality no gimme God. Learning this is part of growing up and becoming an adult.

When we were children, some of us had religious beliefs where we believed in a getcha God. God was like some minor near eastern potentate, a nasty old tyrant sitting on a throne and constantly inventing hundreds of rules that we had to follow. Oh, he was a foul-tempered and unbelievably touchy old tyrant! You look the wrong way, do the slightest thing at which an old fuss-budget might take offense, and he exploded in an out-of-control temper tantrum. The only time a smile ever appeared on his face was when he caught you breaking one of these thousands of petty rules. Then he would smirk maliciously as his thugs dragged you off to the torture chambers underneath his palace.

There is in reality no getcha God. There are only horrifyingly nasty adults who try to terrorize helpless little children and force them to follow the adults' own neurotic control wishes, by claiming that their depraved desires have the sanction of God himself. This is blasphemy, and there is many a poor neurotic who needs some very good psychotherapy to get out of this shame-based set of attitudes and on the road to real mental health.

But the higher power who emerges as people work the twelve steps is neither of these. He is not a magical gimme God, but he will help us become better people, and shower us with a multitude of gifts which he knows are actually good for us. He is not a nasty getcha God, but a compassionate and forgiving and tolerant power who has no patience with complex rules and laws. And above all, he is a joyous, laughing God, who teaches us how to learn and grow and enjoy life to its fullest, by learning to laugh at ourselves, and not take ourselves so very seriously all the time.

The power to lieben und arbeiten, to love and work

Ever since Freud's time, psychotherapists have realized that our psychological problems are, for the most part, created by our illusions and delusions about the world and reality. Mental health, Freud said, was measured by our ability to lieben und arbeiten -- to love and to work productively in our daily lives. Falling prey to illusions and delusions would always end up blocking our ability to lieben und arbeiten to the fullest.

So I will conclude by posing a little puzzle for any unbelievers in this audience. If belief in a loving, compassionate, all-powerful higher power is indeed an illusion or a delusion -- then why in fact do those who actually work the twelve-step program discover an incredible ability to both lieben und arbeiten, an inner power which continues to grow without bounds the more years they spend in the program? At the Michiana Regional A.A. Conference this past month, one of the speakers was a 96-year-old man who had been in the program since 1945. He was a black man, who played a heroic role in helping to integrate the South Bend A.A. program back at the beginning, and there he was, 54 years in the program, coming back to South Bend to speak with spirit and power to the huge crowd, still going strong. I wish everyone here could have seen this man at first hand, to see what is really meant by the power to lieben und arbeiten.

A real higher power -- merely illusion? merely delusion? The people who stay clean and sober long enough don't think so. What do drugs and alcohol give you? A world of illusion, delusion, fantasy, and running away from reality. Is the idea of a real higher power no more than just another illusion or delusion or fantasy? It will keep you from dying in your own vomit or being locked up in an insane asylum, and it will truly give you -- if you work it -- the power to truly lieben und arbeiten, to love and work and enjoy life in all its fullness. What other choice would any sane person make?

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