Paper on Alcoholics Anonymous

by David Tillman- December 2012

Paper for Addiction and Recovery class – United Theological Seminary

Alcoholism is an unsanctioned illness in our culture. Alcoholics Anonymous’s (A.A) primary focus is to help alcoholics stop drinking and stay sober. A.A.’s Twelve Step program, as Father Joseph Martin states, “is to get the alcoholic sober” (steps 1-3), “clean our house” (steps 4-11), and “help others” (step 12). [1] Here are my reflections on the Alcoholic Anonymous Twelve Step program, also looking at the nature of spirituality it fosters and the theology it represents.

Since its start in 1935, the early years of Alcoholics Anonymous were impressive. After the first ten years of refining the program, there has been little change in the twelve-step program since then. A.A.’s sole focus is to help alcoholics to stop drinking and maintain sobriety. Bill W’s story of how he met Doctor Bob was an act to maintain sobriety. This act to reach out for help, from another alcoholic, is at the core of A.A. The road to sobriety is best done with the help of a higher power and others who are like-minded. Bill W. and Doctor Bob’s road to recovery included persistence, understanding, honesty, being open to new ideas, refinement of process and theory, challenges, and a lot of patience. As the A.A. story unfolded, I see God’s love and grace guiding the early formation of A.A., as it continues to do today.

Diana Butler Bass writes of a “belonging, behaving and believing” community. [2] I can see within the A.A. community, Bill W. and Doctor Bob created a similar model. In A.A. “belonging” comes first; if you are an alcoholic you belong. One “behaves” in A.A. by having a personal desire to stop drinking. After first belonging, then behaving, one is asked to “believe” in a higher power. The A.A. process is counter-cultural to some Christian communities who first ask you to “believe” what they do, then “behave” according to their set of rules, and then you have the right to “belong” to their church community. [3] What a wonderful gift to those suffering from alcoholism to be welcomed by the A.A. community for being just who one is, an alcoholic. At the open meeting I attended, I saw and felt this welcoming community whose one focus was to support each other to get and stay sober.

A.A.’s main focus is for the alcoholic to get and stay sober has become the cornerstone of their success. There is one reason for A.A. which is sobriety. With sobriety as their message, there is no room for confusion. With all members sharing a common goal and the challenge to maintain sobriety, A.A. attracts people from different gender, racial, social, economic, religious, sexual orientations, and political classes who come together to do the twelve-step program.

As those involved in A.A. focus on sobriety, there is also an opportunity for people, from so many different walks of life, to be in a community together. Included in the support given and stories shared within A.A., a powerful social transformation is also taking place. In their A.A. program, they see and hear from other alcoholics whose journey in life can be so different than their own journey. Their stories share a common thread of alcoholism and the impact it has on their lives and others. In the process of becoming more aware of these common threads, in the shared stories, it can bring greater understanding and acceptance of others.

Twenty years ago, I was in a men’s group where six of us met and shared our stories for two hours each week, over two years. We developed a level of trust to share our deepest stories about our human shortcomings. I began to hear many of the same themes rise to the surface of our individual stories. At first, listening to the stories, I was trying to figure out in my mind what I could say to help fix their problems. Later my listening shifted to hearing the stories from my heart; from that place of just being “human.” I began to feel a deeper connection to each of the men. I now listen to others tell their stories differently and often find in my heart an empathetic connection to our common struggle to be human. It is from this place of our shared stories that transformation to greater wholeness took place for me.

I see that within the A.A. small group dynamics, transformation comes from similar experiences I had in my men’s group. With a shared desire to stop drinking, stories can be safely shared to find a common bond for transformation to take place. In A.A., with the spiritual authority given to a higher power, organizational authority held by the small group members, having confidentiality and respecting one’s anonymity, a level of honesty and trust to open the hearts and minds, collectively can open the door to sobriety and transformation. I see that within the A.A. small group, a person can begin to see that their drinking problem is not unique, that they share common human threads with others, and in doing Step two: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” [4]

Throughout the Twelve Steps, we see a spirituality that is centered on one’s relationship with a higher power, greater than oneself. Steps one, two, and three begin our journey to sobriety. In step one, admitting we are powerless over alcohol. In step two, believe in a higher power to restore us. In step three, we decide to turn our will and lives over to the higher power. I see this as a shift from the head to the heart. The heart begins to trust a higher power and others.

I see the value in A.A. of encouraging the alcoholic to come to their own relationship with a higher power. This takes all the control out of the process. It is left up to the individual to take the time needed to come to their own understanding of a higher power. This attitude keeps the focus on sobriety and not creating division in A.A. by defining a higher power one way or another. We have seen, over the years, many schisms within churches over the definition and our relationship to a higher power. In A.A. there is a freedom to come to one’s own unique personal relationship with a higher power, without the pressure to define a higher power in a certain way.

In steps four through eleven it all becomes tending to one’s path of recovery. As Father Martin states, to “clean our house.” [5] This is a time of personal healing. In step four acknowledge our humanness, in step five share this with our higher power and a trusted person, and in steps six and seven humbly ask our higher power to remove our shortcomings. Our journey to recovery is not done alone, but rather with a higher power and within the community.

In step eight we make lists of persons we have harmed. In step nine make direct amends to these people (being safe in the process). This is a powerful healing process of letting go of the attachment to one’s own power and making amends to those who have been harmed. Step ten reminds us that cleaning our house is an ongoing process. Step eleven, through prayer and meditation, strengthens our relationship with a higher power. Step twelve completes the circle with the act of helping others, as we have been helped. One’s sobriety is dependent on helping others. Carrying the A.A. message to alcoholics and sharing one’s story has the power to give hope and sobriety. This act of helping others can be transformative to all involved.

Looking at the twelve steps I can see a number of theological connections. For example, step twelve parallels Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. I will first reflect on what I see is the theology of A.A. and then what doctrine is used.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a theological framework of believing in a higher power greater than oneself. There are also in A.A. shared practices. A.A. shares with the Jewish, Christian, and other religions, a journey motif. The A.A.’s twelve steps are the journey to sobriety. In Luke we read “When the days drew near for him (Jesus) to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). For Jesus it is about his journey, as God’s son and prophet, to set his face towards Jerusalem, knowing that his death and resurrection is to come. For those in A.A. steps one, two, and three involve setting one’s face to sobriety. There is an urgency and persistence to this journey to sobriety. The journey is not easy and will have many challenges along the way. It is a journey that one must take to sobriety and there is no going back. With the death of drinking comes a resurrection-like experience for the alcoholic; a new life of sobriety.

Within the twelve steps, there is the act of repentance. Admitting one is powerless (step one), admitting our wrongs (step five), humbly asking for God to remove our shortcomings (step seven), and making direct amends to people we have harmed (step nine); all point to repenting for our past actions. Within the twelve steps, the act of repentance is found by turning around one’s drinking behavior and in step three, making “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” [6] In A.A., turning our attention to sobriety and helping others stay sober, with the help of a higher power, is an act of repentance. Letting go and turning our lives over to a higher power, allows personal transformation to take place.

Dr. Robert Albers states, “By the grace of God and this community I have been sober this long…With unsanctioned illness, shame enters in, people are looking for acceptance; grace is the experience of acceptance.” [7] It is God’s grace that brings transformation to the alcoholic. It is that grace of being an accepted member of the A.A. community. For new members of A.A., this grace of being accepted as an alcoholic may be something they have not experienced for years.      

Looking at the doctrine, or principles of belief, of Alcoholics Anonymous the Twelve Traditions is helpful. They include that personal recovery depends on A.A. unity (Tradition 1). God is the ultimate authority (Tradition 2). Membership only requires the desire to stop drinking (Tradition 3). A.A. groups are autonomous whose primary purpose is to carry on the message, with no endorsements, and to be self-supporting (Traditions 4 to 8). A.A. is to remain non-professional, only organized through service boards, have no opinion on outside issues, public relations based on attraction and anonymity is our spiritual foundation (Traditions 9 to 12).  

Dr. Robert Albers states, “A.A. is religious, yet not doctrinal.” [8] A.A.’s first and second tradition requires believing that recovery depends on following the A.A. program and that a higher power (God) is the ultimate authority. The other ten traditions are less doctrinal as they are about how one behaves within the A.A. community. As a minister, being aware of the A.A.’s twelve steps and traditions is helpful when providing pastoral care to alcoholics or their families.    

Father Martin shares some valuable suggestions when providing pastoral care to the addicted. He says to “Learn to recognize the disease.….confront them, there needs to include a treatment option… alcoholic needs to take responsibility for their behavior…..the family needs treatment and know the resources. [9] Dr. Robert Albers states, that as a minister our job is “not to rescue or fix the alcoholic, we do not have the power to do that….. Do not do it alone.” [10]

In doing my fifth step, for this project, I realized this step is many times done with a trusted minister. I have learned in class, that a minister can help by raising the awareness of addiction and hope within the faith community. To continue one’s learning about addiction and recovery issues and programs. To find A.A. members, with five or more years of sobriety, who are actively doing step twelve, by helping others. I see the importance to be open, attentive, and supportive to those with addictions, their families, and friends and walk patiently with them on their journey to sobriety. [11] As I did my fifth step with “Rev. John,” he showed me what it looked like to be an open, attentive, and supportive minister to those in recovery.  

As part of this project, I completed the A.A. fourth step inventory of myself. For the fifth step, I met with “Rev. John,” a minister I have known for a number of years. He has shared with me that he has been a member of A.A. for many years. Before our meeting, I completed the “Guide to a Personal Inventory.” Thinking about and completing the personal inventory was difficult for me. It brought up my fears and resentments, which I see in myself and my behaviors.

I was nervous about meeting with “Rev. John” and felt anxious in my heart and gut. During our meeting, we talked about the process, prayed, and then I shared my personal inventory reflections. I was open and honest. “Rev. John” only asked one clarification question during my reflection. When I was done he asked if there was anything else. At this point, I realized and shared with him the sadness I felt of not being good enough and letting others down. As I was writing the first draft of my fifth step experience, I felt this sadness. It is deep-rooted.

“Rev. John” did not give me any feedback after I shared, however, asked him if there was anything I wanted to discuss. I brought up one theme in my life; which lead to an open discussion. As difficult as this was, I feel a sense of freedom and a weight lifted off me. I once again see I am not alone; that Jesus Christ, “Rev. John,” my family, and so many others are walking alongside me on my spiritual journey of repentance and awakening.

Having completed the fourth and fifth steps I have a much greater understanding and appreciation for the twelve steps and twelve traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. I see more clearly the value in A.A.’s one focus of sobriety, the authority given to a higher power, respect for confidentiality and anonymity, cleaning one’s house with the love and support of the group, making amends, prayer and meditation, and helping others to gain sobriety. A.A. is a blessing to all who are served and helped in their recovery journey from alcoholism.

[1] Father Joseph Martin, Movie: Father Joseph Martin’s Guidelines for Alcoholics, (Havre de Grace, MD: Ashley, Inc., Kelly Productions). Robert Albers, Addiction and Recovery Class Lecture and Movie, (New Brighton, MN: United Theological Seminary, November 19, 2012).
[2] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 204.
[3] Ibid., 201.
[4] Alcoholics Anonymous, (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001 Fourth Edition), 59.
[5] Father Joseph Martin, Movie: Father Joseph Martin’s Guidelines for Alcoholics.
[6] Alcoholics Anonymous, 59.
[7] Dr. Robert Albers, Addiction and Recovery: Class Lecture – September 20, 2012.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Father Joseph Martin, Movie: Father Joseph Martin’s Guidelines for Alcoholics.
[10] Dr. Robert Albers, Addiction and Recovery: Class Lecture – November 29, 2012.
[11] Ibid.

© David Tillman, 2012- rev. August 2020, all rights reserved.


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