Dear Keith,

I am in the process of working the Twelve Steps in a small group and am amazed at the challenge and healing it has already brought into my life.  Though I have been a Christian for twenty years, and was raised in a wonderful church, I feel like a new person!  I have lived my life, even as a Christian, as a fearful person, and attempted to control so many of my loved ones rather than actually loving them.  God has revealed this sin in my heart, and with his help and a strong community of honest friends, I am rebuilding my relationships on new and free foundations.

But a problem has come up.  A friend has asked me about the Twelve-Step process, then argued that it seemed like I was becoming addicted to God.  He said that perhaps the Twelve-Step process I am working is just another attempt to control God, my ego, or the people around me.  He equated it to a spiritual high people get after a rousing conference that produces false or short-lived change.”

Could you address these questions?  1.  Can we become addicted to God?  2.  Is working the Twelve-Step process a short-lived and false solution and really just a substitution of one type of control to another?

Thanks for taking the time to write me about this.  Your friend has raised some interesting questions.  I’m familiar with the Twelve-Step process and have adopted them as my primary spiritual guidelines for the past twenty-five years— not as a substitute for church, but as a supporting enhancement.  Following this process has transformed my life enough to cause me to do research of all kinds in helping people all over the world to find God and peace and relief from their addictions.

I have come to see the Twelve Steps as the opposite of a control strategy because they ask the follower to give up control and surrender one’s life and will to God as one understands God very early in the process—in the first three steps.  The fact is that if someone is not willing to surrender his or her life and will to God, then this program won’t alleviate an addiction or transform a life.

Working these Steps with a group of people also trying to live by this process is another basic necessity, because the primary symptom of all addictive diseases is denial.  That is, we cannot see our own destructive behaviors by ourselves even though we can pinpoint them clearly in other people.  I couldn’t see that I was controlling people.  I thought I was just trying to help them.  But by listening to other people in a group talk about their discoveries of control in their own lives, I could see what my family had been trying to tell me—that I had controlled them for years and that I just couldn’t be wrong—I had to be right all the time.

Also I have learned what to do about the relationships that were/are harmed by my destructive controlling and my intense need to be right: to confess and make amends.  This is advised by James, who says “Confess your sins to one another and pray for each other so that you may live together whole and healthy.” (James 5:16)

So as to question number one, let’s begin by looking at what an addiction is.  Webster defines an addiction as “a persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.” But you have found that as you work the Twelve Steps your relationships are getting better.  You’re trying not to control people.  You’re loving them instead of trying to fix them.  This is the evidence in your life that this is real. Surrendering to God and loving God and other people is not harmful if you are not trying to control them.  As a person is able to surrender more and more to God, he or she becomes more loving and helpful toward other people.  This is the opposite of what an addict would do.  An addict gets into a smaller and smaller world as he or she focuses on getting satisfied from the addiction, getting in control or having people agree or getting enough of a pain-relieving substance such as alcohol or a drug.

There is one qualification I want to mention: if someone uses what he or she is learning form the Twelve Steps to try to control or convince other people that they should also work the Twelve Steps, it seems to me that some addictive controlling behavior is leaking into the person’s process of recovery.  As I understand it, working the Twelve Steps is for our own transformation, and improves our ability to love other people just as they are, with less and less control, correction or advice.

I’ve noticed that people, even Christians,  who have never faced themselves have a hard time understanding why anyone who was a “good person” would want to face “horrible things” about themselves—and then talk about them in a group.   Many Christians seem to think they are not sinners if they’ve never committed murder or adultery or stolen anything.  But the Twelve Steps indicate that when we put ourselves in the center instead of God, or put anything or any person in the center instead of God (such as an addictive substance, being a success in a career, being attractive, or pleasing a spouse or parent), then that substance, goal, behavior or person is our god.  We make our decisions on the basis of satisfying or meeting the demands of this thing or entity that is in the center of our lives.

Here’s another definition of addictive behavior that may clarify this.

“Any process that relieves intolerable reality can become an addictive process.  Substances or behaviors that relieve our distress become a priority in our lives, taking increased time and attention away from the other important parts of our lives.  And eventually the relieving substance or behavior can lead to harmful consequences that we often choose to ignore since we don’t want to give up our pain reliever.  We can learn to medicate our unwanted reality through one or more addictive processes.  But these processes become destructive forces with lives of their own.”

(Pia Mellody, Facing Codependence, p. 55. My wife, Andrea, and I wrote a 12-week study course for small groups using this book and DVD’s.)

I was fascinated to realize that the Twelve-Step process is the same process that Jesus taught people to live by.  Many people in the church have never been through this process.  I wrote a book called A Hunger for Healing: The Twelve Steps as a Classic Model for Christian Spiritual Growth about how the Twelve Steps bring biblical principles of faith to bear on the pain of contemporary people in a way that leads sufferers into a close living relationship with God.   Anyone who wants to find out what they may be putting in the center of his or her life instead of God can use the Twelve-Step model to identify such a god (with a small “g”) and begin to surrender it to God.

And as for question number two, whether the results in your life are short termed or not, you can ask your friend to wait and see, and then you can continue to pray, work the Steps and meet with your fellow adventurers on the journey into the life Jesus offers us all.

Dear Lord, you taught us that to love you with all our heart, mind and intelligence and other people as well as we love ourselves is how we were made to live.  But having free will makes it so easy to love something or someone more than we love you, and to make choices that bring frustration and pain and cause separation between us and you and between us and other people.  Thank you that you have made a way for us to return to you again and again, through surrendering once more to you, facing our own wrongdoing, acknowledging it and allowing you to transform us.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come! 2 Corinthians 5:17

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom. Galatians 5:19, The Message

If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins—make a clean breast of them—he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing. If we claim that we’ve never sinned, we out-and-out contradict God—make a liar out of him. A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God. 1 John 1:8-9 The Message

“God continually turns this “walking through the pain of life” into demonstrations of faith that are remarkable.  And perhaps that is why this may be the fastest-growing spiritual movement in America today.” J. Keith Miller, A Hunger for Healing, p. 213

“…in the Twelve Steps, where people learn about God through their experiences with him, there is no attempt to “persuade” with theology or verbal arguments.  We let pain do the persuading, because we know that it is only through pain that the hunger for healing comes that will make us ready to admit our powerlessness.  We know that until the pain of our lives was greater than the fear of swallowing our pride and going for help, we were not hungry enough for healing to go for it through the Twelve Steps.” J. Keith Miller, A Hunger for Healing, p. 199

“People change because they have paid the price in their vulnerability and willingness to surrender to God, to pray, to do the steps, go to meetings, read the Big Book, clean up their pasts and their relationships, and offer their whole lives to God so he can change them.” J. Keith Miller, A Hunger for Healing, p. 166

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