Are AA’s 12 Steps Based Upon Christian Principles?

The program of Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religion. It is a spiritual discipline. The conscious practice of the principles of the 12 Steps and their virtues of honesty, hope, faith, courage, integrity, willingness, humility, brotherly love, justice, perseverance, prayer, meditation, and service to one another in all our daily affairs is a spiritual discipline requiring rigorous honesty and perseverance. It involves being responsible to our fellows, to God, and to ourselves. The 12-Step program is a mode of living out our daily lives sober, one day at a time, under the rigor of a spiritual discipline.

From my first memories, I felt broken. I felt imperfect and as if I didn’t belong. My solution was to self-medicate. I used alcohol and supplemented that with marijuana, cocaine and prescription drugs. I more or less thought it worked. I didn’t think that there were solutions other than numbing myself to escape. I personally discovered, however, that addiction is a progressive disease. I crashed and burned; unless I stopped I would die. As non-functional as I was at that time, I knew I had to stop.

One of the most common misconceptions about Alcoholics Anonymous is that it is a religious organization. New members especially, confronted with A.A.’s emphasis on recovery from alcoholism by spiritual means, often interpret “spiritual” as “religious” and shy away from meetings, avoiding what they perceive as a new and frightening set of beliefs. By the time they walk into their first meeting, many alcoholics have lost what faith they might once have possessed; others have tried religion to stop drinking and failed; still others simply want nothing to do with it. Yet with rare exceptions, once A.A. members achieve any length of sobriety, they have found a source of strength outside themselves. A higher power by whatever name. For many, this in effect removes the stumbling block.

Bill Wilson tells us in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age,” (which is a history of the Fellowship’s early years) that “…the hot debate about the Twelve Steps and the book’s content was doubled and redoubled. There were conservative, liberal, and radical viewpoints.” Some thought the Big Book ought to be Christian; others could accept the word “God” but were opposed to any other theological proposition. And the atheists and agnostics wanted to delete all references to God and take a psychological approach. Bill Wilson concludes, “We finally began to talk about the possibility of compromise. In Step Two we decided to describe God as a Power greater than ourselves. In Steps Three and Eleven we inserted the words ‘God as we understood Him.’ From Step Seven we deleted the words ‘on our knees.’ And, as a lead-in sentence to all the Steps we said ‘Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery.’ A.A.’s Twelve Steps were to be suggestions only.”

More than sixty years later, those compromises, articulated after weeks of heated controversy, have made it possible for alcoholics of all faiths, or no faith at all, to embrace the A.A. program of recovery and find lasting sobriety. What about this idea of having a spiritual awakening? Nevertheless, the phrase “spiritual awakening,” found in Step 12, and defined in Appendix II to the Big Book, remains daunting to many beginners. For some, it conjures up a dramatic “conversion,” such as being born again. Not an appealing idea to an alcoholic just coming off a drunk. To others, beaten down by years of steady drinking, it seems completely out of reach. But for those who persevere, ongoing sobriety almost invariably brings the realization that in some wonderful and unexpected way they have indeed experienced a spiritual change. Spirituality, A.A. style, is the result of action.

Step 12 begins, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps. . .” And in the book “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,” Bill Wilson describes what happens. He writes, “Maybe there are as many definitions of spiritual awakening as there are people who have had them. But certainly each genuine one has something in common with all the others. When a man or woman has a spiritual awakening, the most important meaning of it is that he has now become able to do, feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone. He has been granted a gift which amounts to a new state of consciousness and being. He has been set on a path which tells him he is really going somewhere, that life is not a dead end, not something to be endured or mastered. In a very real sense he has been transformed.

Alcoholics Anonymous began on June 10, 1935, co-founded by William Griffith Wilson (Bill W.) and Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith (Dr. Bob). Bill W. conceived the idea of Alcoholics Anonymous while he was hospitalized for excessive drinking in December 1934. During his hospital stay, Bill W. had a spiritual experience that removed his desire to drink. In the following months, he tried to persuade other alcoholics to stop drinking just as he had. Bill W. found his first “convert” in Dr. Bob, who was willing to follow Bill W.’s method to find freedom from alcoholism. Four years later, Bill W. and Dr. Bob published the book, “Alcoholics Anonymous,” which contains the Twelve Steps and a spiritually based program of recovery from alcoholism.

Various sources influenced the formulation of A.A.’s program, as developed and recorded by Bill W. Of these, the British-born Oxford Group movement and its American leader, Episcopal clergyman Samuel Moor Shoemaker, Jr., contributed most significantly to the Christian basis of Alcoholics Anonymous. Both Bill W. and Dr. Bob attended Oxford Group meetings and based much of the A.A. program on this framework. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, the Oxford Group movement became a revolutionary answer to anti-religious reaction following World War I. Aiming to rekindle living faith in a church gone stale with institutionalism, the Oxford Group declared itself an “organism” rather than an “organization.” Group members met in homes and hotels, mingling religion with meals. Despite its freedom from institutional ties, the movement was distinctly ecclesiastical and looked to the church as its authority.

Dr. Frank N.D. Buchman, a Lutheran pastor, is most often cited as the leader of the Oxford movement. Yet, if one were to ask an Oxford Group follower, “Who is your leader?” the reply might well be, “The Holy Spirit.” So confidently did the group believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit that it had no organized board of officers, but relied instead on God’s control through men and women who had fully surrendered to God’s will. Buchman traveled extensively in the United States, England and the Orient, organizing local groups and urging people to follow definitive principles in order to experience a life-changing conversion. Buchman emphasized the need to surrender to God for forgiveness and guidance and to confess one’s sins to God and others. Oxford Group followers learned also to make restitution for wrongs done and to witness about their changed lives in order to help change others.

In establishing the principles of A.A., Bill W. borrowed material from many sources, including Christianity, and translated them into language easier for the alcoholic to accept. Consequently, A.A. members talk about spirituality, not religion; sobriety, not salvation; wrongdoing, not sin; admitting, not confessing; strength and hope, not resurrection; carrying the message, not sharing the faith. However, the absence of direct Christian references within A.A. does not take away from the program’s Christian basis.

In essence, the Twelve Steps embody the Bible’s core teachings concerning God’s redemptive relationship with humankind, from salvation to evangelism. They begin with an admission of human shortcomings and a profession of faith in God’s power, love and forgiveness. The essence of justification. The Twelve Steps go on to encourage continual confession of wrongdoing, submission to God’s control and proper conduct toward others. These are the principles of sanctification. Finally, they encourage habits of devotion, responsiveness to God’s will and sharing the message of recovery with others.

Of course, this is the basics of biblical Christian living. Charles Knippel, Ph.D., a noted scholar on Christianity’s influence on A.A., has this to say about the Twelve Steps and Christianity. “In making use of twelve-step programs and in encouraging others to use them, the Christian will view the Steps within the Christian context and give the Steps Christian meaning. In addressing himself to non-Christian members of twelve-step groups, the Christian will seek, by way of caring and sharing relationships, to bring such twelve-step practitioners to a Christian understanding of the Steps that will provide rich spiritual benefits and a more abundant experience of recovery.”

I firmly believe that the 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is based upon Christian principles. I have taken issue in the past with alcoholics naming a tree or a dog or another person as their higher power. I also don’t think it’s appropriate to use the AA group as your higher power. This I base on the comment in How It Works that no human power can relieve our alcoholism. But God can and will if He is sought. I realize not everyone believes in the same God. I have learned that it is not appropriate for me to “witness” or “preach” during an AA meeting. I do, however, share my relationship with Jesus Christ when talking with alcoholics one-on-one. I have been set free from the bondage of addiction through the power of the cross, and I truly want everyone to experience the same freedom.

Confession is Good For the Soul

We’ve all heard the saying “confession is good for the soul.” We know the word confession has several meanings. It is an acknowledgment of guilt. The act of admitting or disclosing one’s misdeed, fault or sin. Psalm 119 is a long chapter. It begins at verse 1 with “Happy are people with integrity, who follow the law of the Lord. Happy are those who obey His decrees and search for Him with all their hearts. They do not compromise with evil, and they walk only in His paths…” Verse 26 says, “I have told you my plans.” (NLT)

The KJV says, “I have declared my ways, and you have heard me..”Verse 28 says, “My soul melts for heaviness: strengthen Thou me according to Your Word.” There is often a heaviness, a genuine sadness, that comes with doing wrong. We sometimes feel very bad when we do wrong. It is understandable that we often want to get things off our chest, so to speak. Verse 29 says, “Remove from me the way of lying: and grant me Your law gracefully.” You see, not confessing your faults is a form of deception. Open confession is good for the soul. Nothing brings more ease and more life to a man than a frank acknowledgment of the evil he has done. Evil weighs heavily on the heart. It can color your opinion of yourself. It can sap your energy, your drive, your ambition, and leave you lethargic. In fact, it can stop you from moving forward, from succeeding, as you believe the lie that you are no good and will amount to nothing. Not confessing your faults and cause you to retain them. Even repeat them.

If a man has the guts to admit his faults, his misdeeds, his sins, such a confession proves that the man knows his own condition. Our confessions are not meant to make God aware of what we’ve done wrong. He knows already. Our confessions are meant to make us truly aware of who we are. We can know, however, that God hears our confession. Our admission has been heard and accepted. Pardon follows upon sincere confession. It is in God’s nature to forgive our sinful ways when we from our hearts confess our evil ways.

Let’s look at 1 John 1:9. It says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This pertains to the acts of sins, whatever they might be; the sinner is to believe he has sinned as part of this confession. And a note about the word “all:” All means not some. All means all. Every sin. All sin was remitted, paid for, and put away on the cross when Jesus died for us. Let’s not forget, now, that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. We all need this great forgiveness. This substitution. Jesus Christ is that substitution. He is the ultimate sacrifice for our sins.

It is interesting to me that the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous include two steps for dealing with our sins, our defects of character, our wrongs. The Fourth Step instructs us to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. We are told to look deep. To leave out nothing. In fact, we’re warned that we are as sick as our secrets. This inventory must be written. We’re creatures who tend to rationalize and quantify our behavior. We also have a selective memory when it comes to judging our own bad behaviors. Besides, as the A.A. literature teaches, this written list of our wrongs will be our first tangible evidence of our intention to truly face ourselves and change.

So surely God sees our hearts when we come to the place in our lives where we want to confess our sins and put off our evil nature. I don’t know about you, but I have grown tired of being evil and rotten. Constantly misbehaving. Always lying, cheating, stealing, drinking and drugging, serving my flesh. Giving it whatever it wants. All it got me was a feeling that I am lost and broken and dirty.

The Bible tells us in 1 John 2:1. “My little children, these things I write unto you, that you sin not.” Now this verse presents the fact that the Lord saves us from sin, not in sin. This passage tells us that as Believers we don’t have to sin. Victory over sin is found exclusively in the Cross. The verse goes on to say, “…And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.” In other words, Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father, signifying that his mission is complete, and His very presence with the Father guarantees intercession on our behalf. Verse 2 says, “And He [that is, Christ Jesus] is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” That word propitiation means substitute.

Leviticus 5:5 tells us, “And it shall be, when he shall be guilty of one of these things, that he shall confess that he hath sinned in that thing.” What I like about this verse is it tells us to be specific when we confess. Simply saying, “Father, forgive me for being in a bad mood today” is not very specific. If, however, our being in a bad mood caused us to gossip about someone, or to curse someone, we need to be specific in our confession rather than generic.

The Prophet Nehemiah said in Nehemiah 1:6, “Let Thine ear now be attentive, and Thine eyes open, that Thou mayest hear the prayer of Thine servant, which I pray before Thee now, night and day, for the children of Israel, Thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which have sinned against Thee, both I and my father’s house have sinned.” We are to be vigilant about our our sins and iniquities, and we ought to pray for forgiveness night and day. There is much Biblical instruction for praying for the sins of our fellow Believers as well as our own. James 5:16 says, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

We cannot help one another if we keep our sins to ourselves. We are not so unique that we are the only one who has committed certain sins. Our weaknesses are man’s weaknesses. They are as old as the fall from grace that occurred in the Garden of Eden. Our strength lies in admitting our weaknesses and seeking God’s help in conquering them. We are responsible for sharing our faith and our faults with one another. We are instructed to edify one another. We are never to speak ill of our brother. James 4:11 says, “Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaks evil of his brother, speaks evil of the law, and judges the law…”

If we build one another up, share our evil, or our wrongdoings, our mistakes, if you will, we contribute to the edifying of the saints. Jesus said this is a good thing. Remember when you were little and your mom or dad told you the stove was hot. Don’t touch. Remember that? That’s a prime example of passing knowledge and experience on to a younger or inexperienced generation in order to help that person avoid pain. We share our sins and our mistakes much in the same way. It teaches the body of Christ which behaviors don’t benefit us.

A.A. Meetings often have speakers come to tell their story. The person will introduce himself and admit to the group that he is an alcoholic. He has come to terms with the truth that he cannot handle alcohol in any amount. He is being honest with the group. He is confessing his faults to another. He continues in his talk describing what kinds of things happened when he drank. The bad behaviors, the evil, or, if you prefer, his sins. I for one misbehaved badly when under the influence of drugs or alcohol. My behavior was definitely sinful. I did so many bad things that they locked me up in state prison for three years. I was given an evaluation and told that I was a “sociopath.” I didn’t like to hear that, but it sure seemed true. What is a sociopath? It’s a person who exhibits antisocial behavior. I was insane with alcohol and drugs. I did not keep man’s laws. I did not keep God’s laws.

When I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I felt a huge weight lifted off me. I suddenly realized I didn’t have to rot in prison for the rest of my life. I didn’t have to die for my sins. I remember confessing my crimes to a state trooper and feeling much better. I didn’t like going to jail, but I felt relief. I was free from all my secrets. There was nothing else I could do but be honest at that point. I believed in God and understood the Cross and forgiveness. When I strayed from the path in my later years, I remembered how sweet it was to be forgiven and washed clean.

But how does confessing my faults now as a born-again Christian help the body of Believers? Today, I don’t confess robbing gas stations, committing burglary, setting fires. Today, I confess things I consider character defects, such as lying or getting angry at a tailgater behind me in traffic and wishing they’d go to you know where. Today, I admit to being selfish and impatient. I admit to gossiping or judging. But why is this necessary?

Bringing our faults to the attention of the church gets them out in the open where they can be dealt with. Strength certainly exists in numbers. Strength comes from knowing as well. We know the Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul. The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The Statutes of the Lord are right. The Commandments of the Lord are pure, enlightening the eyes. God has advised us that there is great reward in keeping his commandments. But who can understand his own errors? Who can cleanse himself from his own evil faults? There is no strength in aloneness when it comes to forgiveness and understanding. When we confess our faults one to another, we help build up the body of Christ. We teach each other why we are failing and miserable.

Remember, the Lord will hear you in the day of your trouble. He will send help your way. But who are you to tell God who he can use to help you? When you keep your evil thoughts to yourself, you rob God of the use of another member of the body of Christ for your troubles. God wants to see you succeed. He wants you to reach out. To edify one another. Romans 14:19 says, “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.” In other words, let’s share with one another. Let’s not judge, or shun one another. Righteousness, peace and joy are acceptable to the Lord, not contention, quarreling, fighting, judging. Do not look down your nose at another Believer. Remember your own faults and secrets. Be willing to build up the body of Believers and not tear it down. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Wherefore, comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as you also do.”
It is fitting in a moment of weakness to lean upon one who is stronger. Help does not always come automatically, without asking. Confession is a form of asking for help. It is a biblical axiom that without confession there is no salvation; no help for our sinful condition. Thankfully, through open, honest confession we can be saved from our sinful death. Psalm 32:5 says, “I acknowledge my sin to you, and my iniquity I have not hidden…I will confess my transgressions to the Lord, and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” Acts 2:21 simply says, “Whosoever calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.”

For the Christian, confession is not an option. We sin, and we confess, and our life with God goes on. It can’t be otherwise. The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works. If we have a good relationship with people in our church, and are willing and strong enough to confess our faults when we’re doing badly, this is the start of our having a good work to report. When asked how we’re doing, we can truly answer that we are doing good rather than doing evil. People who cover their sins will not prosper. But those who readily admit their faults to God and to another, and who seek prayer for their weaknesses, will receive mercy. Oh what a joy it is to have your secrets out, to have your rebellion forgiven. God says he will separate us from our sins as far as the east is from the west.

When we refuse to confess our faults (our sins), we become weak and miserable. We tend not to socialize with other believers as much. We feel like phonies. We sit around and groan all day long, feeling evil and dark. When we confess, however, and stop trying to hide our character flaws, our misdeeds, and confess our rebellion to the Lord, we are accepted, we are forgiven, and our guilt is gone. We once again feel like we are worthy of love and friendship and we tend to be more open and more full of joy.

In Psalm 51, David pours out a prayer for forgiveness and cleansing. “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your loving kindness; according unto the multitude of Your tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”

We simply cannot get this type of blessing from God if we hide our sins one from another. If we wrong a brother in the faith, we owe it to him to confess our offense and ask for his forgiveness. If we keep the offense hidden, we are cut off from him. If we fail to take that fault before the Father, we can cut ourselves off from His grace and power. God will not have fellowship with iniquity. He hates sin. Fortunately, he provided a way out of that iniquity by virtue of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. I’ve heard it said before that our bad behavior, our sin, can cut us off from the Sunlight of the Spirit. Once cut off, we feel lost and alone. We cannot learn. We cannot grow. No man is an island. This is especially true of us Christians. We are not to forsake the gathering together of ourselves. We are to watch out for one another. Pray for one another. Lay hands on and heal one another. Confess our faults one to another. It is through these selfless acts that we build up the church itself. The stronger the church, the more likely it can perform as Christ has instructed. Lean on one another, confess your sins one to another, forgive one another, and help one another to perform the perfect will of God. This is why confession is good for the soul.