Spirituality and the Twelve Steps

April 18th, 2018

Addiction and the twelve steps

In 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was cofounded by William Griffith Wilson, normally referred to as Bill W., and Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, better known as Dr. Bob. Drinking had nearly destroyed the lives of both men, and together they discovered that if they wanted to stay sober, they would need the fellowship and support of other alcoholics.

The centerpiece of AA is the twelve action steps, most commonly called the Twelve Steps. The fellowship describes these well-known steps as “spiritual in their nature,” and AA argues that these practices, if used throughout all of life, “can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”

Today there are more than 61,000 volunteer-led AA fellowships in the United States alone. Countless treatment centers also utilize AA’s twelve-step method. Twelve-step programs address many different types of addiction. Groups have used the Twelve Steps to deal with addictions ranging from drugs to gambling to overeating to sexual behavior and many others. Regardless of the addiction, all of these programs rely on the spiritual-but-not-religious framework of the Twelve Steps, which involve admitting powerlessness, believing in a higher power, and making amends to those the addict has wronged.

Spirituality as essential

Since one of the Twelve Steps includes addicts turning their wills and lives over to the care of the God of their understanding, some within the church have questioned whether the Twelve Steps and Christianity are aligned. While twelve-step programs don’t require belief in particular doctrines, a spiritual relationship is at the heart of the model. It’s not uncommon to hear longtime AA members say that “talking about the spiritual part of the program is like talking about the wet part of the ocean.”

The Twelve Steps are rooted in action. The process begins with the addict admitting that their life has become unmanageable. Later steps include making a “fearless moral inventory,” admitting these wrongs both to God and to another person and making amends to those who have been harmed.

AA’s earliest members believed that these actions must be rooted in spirituality. In 1940, Bill W. wrote to the wife of Clarence S., another fellowship member, saying, “We believed that Faith without works was dead, but we have now conclusively proved that works without Faith is dead also.”

Speaking about the relationship between Christianity and AA, Christian author Dallas Willard wrote that AA “has much to give back to the church that has largely lost its grip on spiritual formation as a standard path of Christian life. Any successful plan for spiritual formation, whether for the individual or group, will in fact be significantly similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous program.

While Christian ideas and practices strongly influenced the development of the Twelve Steps, AA members know that attaching their fellowship to any particular faith would mean excluding many people who desperately want to stop drinking. You will sometimes hear longtime fellowship members say that AA has just two things to say regarding God: “First, there is one. And second, you’re not it.” The rest of the details are for members to explore themselves.


Reflecting on pain and spirituality in their book The Spirituality of Imperfection, authors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham write, “The first prayer [is] a scream, a cry for help.” They suggest that it’s in our utter desolation, in our realization that we can do nothing without God, that the spiritual journey begins.

It’s no accident that the first of the Twelve Steps involves admitting powerlessness over addiction and acknowledging that the addict’s life has become unmanageable. While many of us may not have experienced this powerlessness in regards to alcohol or drugs, each of us understands the need for healing that we cannot provide ourselves. In his book Breathing Under Water, Father Richard Rohr writes, “The experience of ‘powerlessness’ is where we all must begin. And Alcoholics Anonymous . . . is honest and humble enough to state this, just as Jesus himself always went where the pain was.”

Our culture teaches us that we can control our lives, and in good times it’s even possible for us to believe that. Pain is what brings us to the realization that we aren’t in control. “God comes through the wound,” write Kurtz and Ketcham.

Experiences of pain and the realization of powerlessness also allow us to let go of our preconceived notions about who we are. “No one likes to die to who they think they are,” Rohr writes. “Yet all mature spirituality, in one sense or another, is about letting go and unlearning.”


Before founding AA, Bill W. had experienced a few months of sobriety when he was struck by a sudden urge to drink. He then realized, “I don’t need a drink — I need another alcoholic!” The next day he connected with Dr. Bob, future cofounder of AA.

Many years later, Bill W. explained that this conversation was so powerful because “our talk was a completely mutual thing. . . . I knew that I needed this alcoholic as much as he needed me.” This mutual give-and-take undergirds the Twelfth Step: “To carry this message to [other] alcoholics.”

New participants in AA are often urged to attend 90 meetings in 90 days. The experience of being with a community of others who share your struggles and your desire to stop your addictive behavior is deeply important to twelve-step recovery programs.

Because it’s difficult to see ourselves as we are, participants in a twelve-step program are urged to find a sponsor. AA documents stress that the “sponsor and sponsored meet as equals.” The sponsor is a person who has made some progress in their journey to recovery while understanding that sobriety is always a process, no matter how long they have been sober. When members work through Step Five and admit to God, themselves, and another person “the exact nature of [their] wrongs,” that other person is often their sponsor.

Storytelling and personal testimony play a large role in forming community within twelve-step groups. In an article on the Patheos website, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight writes that hearing fellow addicts talk honestly about their lives breaks down the fear many newcomers have that they will be shamed if anyone discovers who they are or what they have done.


Though twelve-step programs don’t use the language of confession and repentance, these principles are at the heart of the program. Many of the steps in the program involve admitting wrongdoing, asking God to remove character defects, making amends and taking other steps to heal past shortcomings.

Dr. John Kilzer, director of recovery ministries at Saint John’s United Methodist Church in Memphis, believes that the Twelve Steps can help churches return to our neglected practice of confession. “Even though we have corporate confession in Communion, I’m not sure how intentional we are about it,” Kilzer told me in an interview. “You can’t dodge confession in the steps.”

AA’s “Big Book” (Alcoholics Anonymous) talks about how “time after time newcomers have tried to keep to themselves certain facts about their lives. . . . Almost invariably they got drunk.” The point of admitting wrongdoing isn’t to wallow in guilt or shame; the goal is to begin the process of transformation. Often, the most surprising and life-changing outcome for the person who details their shortcomings is when they are met with compassion.

Theologian and church scholar Benedicta Ward has written about the practice of the desert fathers and mothers. Based on her work, she writes, “It is not judgement or discussion of sins, excuses, or understanding of alleviating circumstances that break the heart, but mercy and love.” For God to be able to piece our hearts and our lives back together, they must first be broken open. By placing our vulnerabilities and defects in front of God and in front of one another, we allow God’s healing to work both in them and in us.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus