I Don’t Want to Join A New Religion

Step 3:  “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.”

When rehab told me I needed a spiritual program to survive alcoholism, what I heard was that I had to adopt AA’s God, the Christian God. I thought AA was a religion I didn’t want to join.

My biggest objection to “the God thing” was the chasm between the claim that addiction was a disease and the prescription of a supernatural solution. If I had a bona fide disease, why was my only hope a belief in God? Why wasn’t there a strictly medical treatment?

I also disapproved of AA’s reference to a God “of one’s own understanding.” Rehab said this phrase was meant to be a wide-open door that could accommodate all comers with a variety of viewpoints, but I took the opposite message. What kind of God is subject to each individual’s understanding? Instead of an all-knowing all-powerful One who acts according to plans mere mortals can’t hope to comprehend, wouldn’t you get a God defined by the extraordinarily flawed and ignorant human mind? To me, it sounded like the metaphysical equivalent of “Your actual mileage may vary.”

Rehab replied that AA wasn’t a religion. There was no dogma, the program was a series of suggestions. I could take the ones that worked for me and leave out the ones that didn’t. They said there were no rabbis, priests, or imams, no central authority that would define my spiritual program for me. I was the one who needed to define the Higher Power I could rely on and trust to keep me sober. They told me there was a big difference between a religion and a spiritual program, and AA was based on universal spiritual values: tell the truth; treat others as you’d want to be treated; monitor your inevitable failures; apologize for them; make things right if you can do so without hurting others; and help others in need.

When I said I had no idea how to have the “spiritual awakening” necssary for a spiritual program, counselors told me not to get ahead of myself. The program promised a spiritual awakening not in Step 3, but when I’d completed all 12 steps. The only thing I had to do in Step 3 was make a decision, they said. They reminded me I had never been able to conquer my alcoholism by acts of will. In light of all the sincere, daily promises I made to myself to stop which I could never live up to, I eventually agreed my willpower as an answer to addiction was useless. They told me I had to look to some other power, a power greater I had, to accomplish what I couldn’t do on my own.

When I said I had no understanding of God, they congratulated me and said that was a good start. Incredibly, they said, “Fake it ‘til you make it. We understand your doubts, many of us shared similar doubts when we were newcomers.” But, they added, “Act as if it’s true.” Rational solutions are useless in dealing with the irrational obsession of addiction. They told me to make the 3rd Step decision whether I had an understanding of a Higher Power or not. They assigned me to recite the 3rd Step prayer, which starts, “God, I offer myself to thee — to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt.” Doing that every day would reinforce the admission that I couldn’t rely on my diseased brain for a solution to my diseased mind, they said.

I tried. But it didn’t help much. They said that was OK, too, just keep doing it, proceed with the rest of the Steps and eventually I would gain an understanding of my own personal Higher Power that I could rely n to stay sober.

The hospital staff also expanded what I thought of as a Higher Power. It was my choice and it didn’t have to be anyone else’s God. One counselor told me that since being completely honest with yourself was a key component of recovery, a Higher Power was any power I could find that I couldn’t lie to.

A Higher Power could also be the collective wisdom of sober AA members, they counseled, in which case “God” could be an acronym for “group of drunks.” Over the weeks, as I saw how tolerant, forgiving, compassionate and caring AA members were, how willing they were to go out of their way to help me, and how they dealt with their own challenges openly and honestly, that’s what I did. Even as I still had a hard time believing in a God I could trust and rely on, I found it increasingly easy to believe in them. As I heard one speaker at an AA meeting say of other members, “They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and I came to believe in them as a result.”

One more thing the staff told me helped. They said not to be impatient. Though some “get” the Higher Power sooner, many get it later. For a lot of newcomers it’s an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary one. I might not have a “burning bush” experience after which I’d believe. It might be a gradual opening and I should relax and wait for it to happen with an open mind.

I was so indebted to the staff for caring for me and so inspired by them, I decided to suspend my disbelief and try what they said.

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