Finding a New Personality? Or Uncovering the One That Got Buried?

Finding a New Personality? Or Uncovering the One That Got Buried?

I’m a Christian and am also newly in a recovery program.  But I’m confused about some of the terminology of the spiritual life that seems to me to be more similar to the faith I found before recovery than I had thought, but still different.  My question is:  In the 12-Step program I’m now in, some people talk about the process as leading toward “recovery.”  But others say “This is a program of “transformation.” After almost 27 years, I feel strongly that I am being transformed into a better, more caring, less self-centered person. And I’m happy about that.  But “transformation” implies that I’m being changed into a ‘different person’—whereas the word ‘recovery’ implies that I’ve lost something I once had and by working the program I will one day be able to recover it.

Since I’ve started thinking about this, I’m wondering if Christian transformation doesn’t raise the same question.  Is God making me into a different person than I feel like I am now?  Or does God help me to be a new and better version of the me I used to be?

I realize that this may be a dumb question.  But since I can’t imagine myself being the super-pious person some Christians seem to claim they are experiencing being, I am looking for some clarification of where we are headed on either or both spiritual journeys.


Thanks for the good questions.  These have been real questions for me, too.  But for a long time I just parked them aside.  However, after 26 years of being on a spiritual journey that in a sense combined a 12-Step program and a Christian spiritual way, I can at least tell you how these apparent differences are being resolved in my life.

My experience as a Christian and a person in a 12-Step recovery program is basically this:  In both cases I needed to recover from the effects of my intense but denied self-centeredness.  This putting myself in the center of my life where only God belongs is what Christianity calls Sin (with a capital ‘S’.)  In other words, without my realizing it, I wanted my wife and children (and everyone I worked with) to behave the way I thought they should—although I didn’t realize the extent to which that was true.

I finally saw that my behavior and attitudes were hurting the people around me and making them angry.  When I heard that if I would surrender the driver’s seat of my life to God and try to learn to live as God made me to live, I finally put myself in his hands, and I began to be able to see my sins (with a small ‘s’) that were things I did because I had put myself and my wants in the driver’s seat of my life instead of trying to find out what God would have me do.

Many years after becoming a Christian my life and relationships became very painful because of drinking alcohol to calm my fears when I tried more openly than I had before to get what I wanted.  My self-centeredness tended to override my commitment to doing God’s will as I understood it.  So when I went to treatment, I saw that I needed to recover from the use of alcohol.  And as a Christian I realized that I needed to let God transform my whole life toward being a more unselfish and loving man.

But over the years as I did the steps and worked the program, I saw that I was being transformed—but not into a different person.  No, I felt that I was, for the first time, gradually becoming the loving, honest person I had always wanted to be.

So the bottom line for me now is that both Christianity and the 12 Steps are aimed at helping me become more my authentic self.  I say this because I never did feel natural trying to be some kind of pious saint or paragon of Christian virtue or a “perfect person” or “big-book thumper” who always pretends to do the Steps and the principles of the program perfectly.

And the joy for me is that God seems to be helping me to be transformed into the loving person I always wanted to be.  Not perfect by any means, but becoming more natural and feeling more at home in my own skin—more the same person in all the different relationships and situations in my whole life.

And by surrendering my life to the God Jesus called Father every day, and asking him to teach me how to be the loving person he made me to be, I feel like I am “coming home” to enjoy being simply the person it feels like I was somehow designed to become—not super good, but more real somehow.

God, thank you that you evidently don’t want us to live a life in which we can’t feel comfortable, but that you’re freeing us to be what we really always wanted to be—but didn’t know how.  Help me to surrender to you so you can help me become who I was meant to be all along.  Amen.

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

– Romans 12:1-2, The Message

Fritz Kunkel summarized the difference of recognition of self and God as it unfolds for the individual coming to himself [or herself].  “He who really finds himself finds God…  Our true self is the final goal of our religious development.  At first it is “I;” then it becomes “We;” and at last it will be “He.”

– Fritz Kunkel, In Search of Maturity

What Does It Take to Begin?

What Does It Take to Begin?

Dear Keith, I don’t know what the matter with me is.  I have a good job and a caring family, but inside my head when I’m alone I seem to have some sort of secretive and self-defeating mental/emotional disease.  I find myself drinking and eating too much, and masturbating while looking at pornography.  And I’m a church-going Christian. 

I can’t bring myself to go for professional help because I feel like I couldn’t deal with the shame of admitting these behaviors to another person.  But I’m getting more and more isolated and frightened because I have nearly gotten caught at one or more of these habits several times recently. 

I feel like I have a terminal disease that is out to kill me.  I know that’s ridiculous, but it feels true.  Do you have any ideas about what I’m describing?


Oh yes!  Although the specific behaviors vary a lot, the disease beneath the behaviors you described so clearly is the experience of virtually all people on a serious spiritual journey. The apostle Paul describes the way it worked in his life near the end of his ministry.

“I’m full of myself…what I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.  So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for me and then do it, it becomes obvious that…I need something more!  For I know the law but still can’t keep it, and the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help!  I realize that I don’t have what it takes.  I can will it, but I can’t do it.  I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.  My decisions such as they are don’t result in action.  Something has gone wrong deep within me, and gets the better of me every time.  It happens so regularly that its predictable…Parts of me rebel and just when I least expect it, they take charge.” (Romans 7:15-23)

Although there isn’t space here to describe all that happened to me before I got to the place of powerlessness you described in your question, but I finally did.  I went for help to a treatment center, faced this spiritual “disease,” and although I’d been a sincere converted Christian for years, I discovered how to surrender to God the parts of my life that I was afraid to face with anyone and enter a process of spiritual transformation with a group of other people who wanted to face their conflicting inner lives and desires.

That was twenty-six years ago.  All I can tell you is that one day at a time—sometimes one hour at a time, I have learned how to face the hidden inner urges and pain that is part of every spiritual life.  I wrote three books about things I learned that have helped me face the powerful inner compulsions that once seemed impervious to change (The Secret Life of the Soul, A Hunger for Healing, and Compelled to Control).

But I believe the most striking thing about this spiritual disease (that Paul called sin and that others call the addiction disease) is that even though the kinds of things and solutions that can bring you all the help you need are available by admitting you need help and surrendering to God—the disease “tells you” that these things will NOT in fact help YOU.

To let you know how strong the negative message coming from this spiritual disease is, after twenty-six years in a spiritual recovery program that has changed virtually all my relationships and ways of letting God transform my life, last Saturday morning I almost did not go to the men’s group that has been most helpful to me for years in facing my problems and finding new solutions.  Recently I have been dealing with pain in my neck and right shoulder that is evidently connected with a broken neck I experienced in a car wreck when I was nineteen years old.  Now this pain is not even about something sinful or bad but it has been keeping me from sleeping.  I was starting to isolate and believe there was no help or support I could receive from the group.  (After all my issue was about physical pain that I could not get to stop, not compulsive behavior.)

But at the last minute, I went to the meeting and shared what was happening to me.  As I did so, I addressed some of the young men saying, “One of the worst things about this spiritual disease we share is that it tells us that meeting together will not help us.  But I want to tell you that in the next 30 days some of you will be tempted not to come share what is happening to you.  But if you listen to the disease and don’t come and share, the disease is just waiting to get you to believe that only what it tells you to do (like drinking, over-eating or compulsive selfish thoughts or sexual escape) will bring you relief.  And that’s the way it will finally ruin your life and kill you.”  When I had shared, I sat quietly and realized that I was calm and that the pain had quieted somehow.

Christians have an especially difficult time believing that going to church can help them.  And of course, if you attend a church where neither the clergy nor the congregation is dealing openly with the real areas of life that need healing, it may be very difficult to find a safe place to share.  But Jesus spent a great deal of his time alleviating the pain of the people with whom he worked and taught and I believe he was telling us that surrendering our lives to the God he called Father is the beginning of a life of healing.

Dear Lord, Thank you that when we have the courage to face who we really are, you can accept us and help us to become the persons you designed us to be.  Help us to find and walk with others walking with you.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

“Nothing, I suspect, is more astonishing in any man’s life than the discovery that there do exist people very, very like himself.”  C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy


“How often we hide behind masks and hug delusions with compulsive passions, because we are afraid to be known, to be loved. … We cannot really respect a person unless we know him.  We cannot love what we do not know.”   Fr. William McNamara, The Art of Being Human


I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.  (Romans 7:24-25)


What Was it About Hank—That Changed Our Lives?

Saturday at Riverbend Church here in Austin, TX, a large number of people gathered to say a formal “Goodbye,” and “We love you, Hank!” to our dear remarkable, unpretentious friend, Francis Leo “Hank” McNamara.

It was a strange mix: some 50 or 60 family members; many Austinites who had known Hank since grade school; at least as many who had known him in recovery programs—some only for a few days or months.  The atmosphere seemed to be permeated by…love, at least that’s what I kept thinking as I met dozens of them.

The day after he died, his wife, Trish, asked me to speak at his funeral.  I nodded my thanks, went home and cried. 

Ten months earlier, Hank had broken his neck.  It would not heal, which meant that if he tripped or bumped into a wall wrong the second vertebra would shift and he’d be dead—or paralyzed.  Since he already had a bad heart and several other serious physical issues, his prognosis did not look good. 

One day several months ago I asked Hank if he would like to tell his family who he really was and what he thought of them (he had a very large family).  He said he really would.  Shortly after that, using a tape recorder, we started on a joint trip through his whole life that for me was a life-changing journey.  I swore to him that I would never reveal what he said on tape until he had edited it and given me permission to reveal it. 

After only a couple of sessions, I realized that he had raised or co-raised thirteen children who lived in various places around the country.  After we had finishing a taping session, I asked him if he would like to say something specifically to them.  If he would, we could structure that into our sessions together.  Hank said he would.  He told me (not on tape) that although he’d been married three times before he wanted each of his children to know that he had loved their mother, that he loved each one of them and his grandchildren especially, and he was glad he’d gotten to be their old man.  And he wanted to tell them before it was too late.  Unfortunately Hank died before we had any more recording sessions.   But because he had told that to me in a personal conversation when the tape machine was off, I could pass that part of our conversations on to them at the funeral.  Also I could tell Trish that she was the love of his life—even though I’m sure she already knew that.

Although I never can type and share the information on those tapes now, I learned a lot about Hank McNamara in the last few weeks before his death that I could and did pass on to those who are his friends and family members at the funeral.

Hank was a remarkable man.  I can still see him coming up the sidewalk.  He had to wear a kind of neck support made up of four rods (two at either side of his face and two at the back corners of his head) going up several inches over his head and connected by wires—like some sort of futuristic scaffolding.  He had oxygen tubes in his nostrils, was pulling an oxygen tank, and as I recall, carrying an aluminum cane.  And yet he was smiling and gracious to everyone he met.  He was going through some of the most scary and painful things a human being can experience, and yet he was filled with gratitude—gratitude for his beloved Trish (he was very much in love), but also I never saw him when he wasn’t grateful “for another day.”

The “magic” Hank brought with him everywhere he went was amazing.  The day he died I heard a young woman say that she had come for help to a meeting Hank had started, feeling shame and worthlessness.  But the way Hank shook her hand, smiled and greeted her—as if she were a fine worthwhile person—awakened a belief in her that maybe she could become those things someday.  I heard many similar stories during the next few days.  

As I thought about Hank’s life over the twenty years I’ve known him, I realized that he had changed the focus of his approach to helping people in trouble.  For the last several years he had begun to “stand by the door” of the places where people in trouble were frantically searching for God.  He had begun to spend more and more of his time helping “newcomers” to get started on a spiritual journey that could lead them to become the people they had lost hope of ever becoming—or becoming again after a life of failure and running from reality and God.

That night before Hank’s funeral, I remembered a poem I had read years before.  It had been written by a man who I consider to have been one of the most outstanding men in the 20th century regarding helping people into a life of faith.  The man had sent it to me in October of 1961.  I decided to read a couple of stanzas of this poem at his funeral because I recognized Hank within in the lines (although I am almost certain that He did not know about the poem).

SO I STAY NEAR THE DOOR—An Apologia for My Life.

I stay near the door.

I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,

The door is the most important door in the world—

It is the door through which men walk when they find God.

There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,

When so many are still outside, and they, as much as I,

Crave to know where the door is.

And all that so many ever find

Is only the wall where a door ought to be.

They creep along the wall like blind men,

With outstretched, groping hands,

Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,

Yet they never find it…

So I stay near the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world

Is for men to find that door—the door to God.

The most important thing any man can do

Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,

And put it on the latch–the latch that only clicks

And opens to the man’s own touch.

Men die outside that door, as starving beggars die

On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter–

Die for want of what is within their grasp.

They live, on the other side of it–because they have found it.

Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,

And open it, and walk in, and find Him – – –

So I stay near the door.

There is another reason why I stay there.

Some people get part way in and become afraid

Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;

For God is so very great, and asks all of us.

And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia.

And want to get out. Let me out! they cry.

And the people way inside only terrify them more.

Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled

For the old life, they have seen too much;

Once taste God, and nothing but God will do any more.

Somebody must be watching for the frightened

Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,

To tell them how much better it is inside.

The people too far in do not see how near these are

To leaving—preoccupied with the wonder of it all.

Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,

But would run away. So for them, too,

I stay near the door.

The startling thing about this poem is that it was written by the man who was “standing near the door” when Bill Wilson’s friend Eby brought Bill to Calvary Church in New York.  That man, The Rev. Sam Shoemaker, put Bill Wilson’s hand on the latch of the door.  Sam showed him how to commit his whole life to God.  And then, at Bill’s request, Sam helped Bill to frame Alcoholics Anonymous and to put the spirituality into the “Big Book”, and The Twelve Steps and the Twelve Tradition’s.  And this anonymous movement became the fastest growing spiritual movement in the 20th century during a time when many organized religious organizations were shrinking or floundering.

It was this incredible realization about Hank that made me realize the deep significance of his life:  Our friend Hank McNamara (who did not consider himself to be “religious”) had realized—as Sam Shoemaker had half a century before him—that the future of the movement that saved Hank’s life and the lives of so many of us, might be continued only by loving persons willing to stand near the door—wherever they live—to guide the hands of a few lost people onto the latch of the door through which they may find Life—and God.

I am very grateful that I got a chance to know Hank McNamara, a real man of God.

“If you hear me call and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you.”

-Revelations 3:20, The Message

Okay, I Surrendered—But Nothing Happened

Okay, I Surrendered—But Nothing Happened

Keith, what if we have let God in our lives and into the driver’s seat and nothing happened?  I still have the same struggles that I have always had.  Is there ever a way out?  I am really wondering and feel as though I am constantly in a spiritual battle between God and the devil.  Thanks,  R.

This is a question that most Christians don’t have the guts to ask.  And yet for anyone who has consciously and seriously tried to put God in the driver’s seat of her or his life, it is the question to ask.

There are a couple of times Jesus dealt directly with that question.  “What’s necessary to put God in the driver’s seat where the decisions are made?”   One is recorded in Matt. 19.  A rich young man came to Jesus and told him that he wanted to quit being a listener and start being one of Jesus’ committed disciples—which in terms of our conversation would be saying, “I am ready to put the God you call Father in the driver’s seat of my life.”

Jesus said in effect, “Great, “If you want to enter the life of God, just do what he tells you.”

The young man said, “What in particular?

Jesus said, “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you do yourself.”

(R., can you say that you are following what Jesus says?  I suspect you are from the tone of your inquiry.)  Anyway, the young man said in effect, “I’ve done all that.”  (I’ve put God in the driver’s seat and am willing to keep all his commandments.)

Then Jesus must have looked at the man and said, “This young man is a serious player.”  But then Jesus says something completely of the wall.  He asked the young man to give up the thing that was really most important to him that wasn’t even a “bad” thing, but was the thing that bottom-line motivated and determined his most crucial decisions (what was really in the driver’s seat of his life—but he had never seen it that way.)  Jesus told him that if you really want to trust God with your whole life, then, “go sell all your possessions; give everything to the poor.  All your wealth will then be in heaven.  Then come follow me.”

What I think Jesus is saying to the young man, and what I heard  him saying to me (that for years stopped me in my tracks) was that I already had a god sitting in the driver’s seat of my life—in fact several as it turned out–and until I was willing to see and admit that something or someone who was not God was the most important thing in my life (“in the driver’s seat determining my private decisions”), I could not really surrender my whole life to God at all.

The young man in the story’s response was: “That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so crestfallen, he walked away.  He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn’t bear to let go.[1]

What Jesus does still, it seems to me, is to help us see that when we come and want to follow God totally, we already have a god we do not realize is a trump card to our attempts to put God in the driver’s seat (or maybe several gods that we obey when they call.)  The young man’s god was his money, or possessions.  And until we see and admit that these gods which unconscious to us are already in the driver’s seat, we are not free to surrender our whole lives to God and are baffled that we are constantly in internal battles we don’t understand.

I was absolutely shocked when I tried to see what was really most important to me—because consciously God was number one.  Some of the things I have had to admit were keeping me from surrendering my whole life were—at different times—financial security, sexual fantasies or actions, the love of my wife or one of my children (more than anything), my vocational success, drinking too much, my reputation as a fine Christian man, and my writing and speaking ministry.  A mentor helped me realize that each of these things was at times more important than God, when I would spend time thinking about and doing one of them to the detriment of my clear duties as a father, husband, and Christian man “surrendered wholly to God.”  Many of these things were not even “bad” things, but they kept my focus on me and what I wanted, instead of what I knew was the priority of God for me, and were detrimental to my growing up to be the man God had in mind for me to become.[2]

But after many years of meeting with other men and women wanting to follow Jesus and be his people, I finally realized that although I can’t just “put God first,” I can tell him that I am willing to, and give Him permission to show me those things that I have consciously and unconsciously put in the driver’s seat of my life and relationships.  In fact working with individuals and small groups to help them –and me—to discover, confess and commit God those other hidden gods, so that together we can uncover and achieve the dreams and vocations God has for each us—this became my life’s work for God. 

These positive changes in direction came about when some bad decisions I made because of obeying some of the competitive gods I had not faced caused me such pain that I became willing to surrender my entire life to God, realizing that only He could give me the courage and insight to even want Him that much.

But the other part of what happened when I specifically set out to give God permission to sit in the driver’s seat in my life was that I agreed to start doing the disciplines that could help me learn how God wants me to live.  For me this has entailed learning all I could about what Jesus said the Father wants us to do in the new Kingdom (Reign) of God in his people’s lives.  I read the scriptures, concentrating first on the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-2), the parables, and the teachings of Jesus describing the character and purposes of God, realizing that God wants us to live out of these same characteristics.  That includes loving the poor and marginalized people, but also Jesus said people will know we are his followers by the way we (Christians) love each other.  (John 13:35)   And I prayed almost every day about what I was learning, asking God to show me where my life needed to be different, and to help me to stop clinging to my old ways of running my life as I learned how to let God be in control.

And when I saw how Jesus said God wants us to live, I examined my life and saw not only the false gods in the driver’s seat, but also self-centeredness everywhere.  And when I discovered I had hurt someone I had to learn to confess to God, then go and confess to the person I had harmed and make amends to that person.  All of this became part of a running conversation with God about the life of loving I was discovering that I’d always wanted to live but was afraid to try because I might look “pious” or “holier than thou.”  Now I don’t care.  I just want to love people and learn how to use the gifts God has given me in the process.

And all I can tell you is that what has happened to me has made me more loving, aware of my good traits as well as those which derail my best intensions and conscious motivations.

I started not to tell you all this, but since I found that God accepts us the minute we come to him in as complete trust as we have, I have discovered the life I always suspected might be out there somewhere for me.  I am still only a child trying to obey his intimate heavenly “daddy.”  But I also care enough about you to tell you these things, whatever you may think me.  And that—as anyone who has known me many years will tell you—is a real miracle.

“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”

John 13:34-35

 The Message


“I am talking about a revolutionary way of living. Religion isn’t something to be added to our other duties, and thus make our lives more complex. The life with God is the center of life, and all else is remodeled and integrated by it. It gives singleness of eye. The most important thing is not to be perpetually passing out cups of cold water to a thirsty world. We can get so fearlessly busy trying to carry out the second commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” that we are undeveloped in our devoted life to God as well as neighbor”

Thomas Merton

A Testament of Devotion


“We live in a world of unreality and dreams. To give up our imaginary position as the center, to renounce it, not only intellectually but in the imaginative part of our soul, that means to awaken to what is real and eternal, to see the true light and hear the true silence…. To empty ourselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the center of the world in imagination, to discern that all points in the world are equally centers and the true center is outside the world, this is to consent…. Such consent is love.”

Simone Weil

Waiting for God


“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through.  We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.  We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.  We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.  No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.  That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.  We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.  Self-seeking will slip away.  Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.  Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.  We will intuitively know how to handle situations which use to baffle us.  We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises?  We think not.  They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.  They will always materialize if we work for them.” 

Alcoholics Anonymous

Third Edition, page 83-84


P.S. If you want to check out a way a Christian or group of Christians can use the 12 Steps as a guide to spiritual wholeness see A Hunger for Healing: The Twelve Steps as a Classic Model for Christian Spiritual Growth. 

[1] If you want to see a case in which Jesus did the same kind of helping someone see the ‘god’ that was already in the driver’s seat of her life, but upon seeing that god was ready to put Jesus’ God first, see the story of the woman at the well—and what happened to her life when she made the decision to put God before her secret god (i.e. Relationships with men—or sex.)  See John 4.

[2] R. – I am not suggesting that you have any particular ‘gods’—just sharing what happened to me when I faced this very question.

Okay, I Surrendered—But Nothing Happened

Shame and Guilt

Keith, Are there specific ways of dealing with the awful feelings of guilt and shame that come over people sometimes in the middle of the night and prevent sleep, etc.  Also, if one has these feelings, does it mean that he or she really isn’t committed to God?


That is a great question.  I don’t know how many times I’ve wrestled with feelings of guilt and shame in the middle of the night, and wished I could find a way never to have to deal with them ever again.  But I’ve come to believe that they’re really helpful experiences, warning systems for all human beings to help us to become what God wants us to be. And there is a way to work through them and learn where we may be off track concerning the way we’re living our lives. 

Let’s just imagine that you have a warning system in your mind, like a burglar alarm.  When the alarm goes off and you look at it, there are two panels; one is “guilt” and one is “shame.”  The feeling is very similar—one of having no value, or as if you’ve been bad, are a bad person, that sort of thing.  First it’s good to figure out which panel is giving me the signal:  is it guilt or shame?

Andrea and I learned about these two emotions from Pia Mellody.  Andrea wrote Pia’s first three books with her, and I consulted with them about connections to psychological literature that had already been written.  According to Pia, in Facing Codependence, “Guilt is an uncomfortable or gnawing feeling in the abdomen about an action or thought that transgresses our value system, accompanied by a sense of wrongness.  Guilt is often confused with shame, which is experienced as embarrassment and perhaps a flushed face, accompanied by a sense of fallibility.”[1]

For example, if I lie to somebody, or steal something, the resulting feeling is guilt.  If somebody saw me spill my coffee all over my lap and the floor, the resulting feeling would be shame—I’m a fallible human being who makes mistakes, and mistakes can be embarrassing.  The more you think you should be perfect and never make mistakes, the more likely you are to feel shame whenever a mistake becomes known to other people.  In fact, trying to avoid feeling shame about a mistake (breaking a valuable vase, or damaging a car, or getting somebody’s name wrong at a party) often motivates people to try to conceal or camouflage mistakes by lying, blaming someone else, or omitting certain facts when explaining what happened. And in some instances, if a mistake is pointed out to a person, that person may react with anger and rejection because of being in the throes of what we call a “shame attack.”  So if truth telling or treating others with respect and kindness are moral/ethical values, the hiding or raging often lead to feelings of guilt—which combines with the shame, making a roiling tide of painful emotion. 

Dealing with Guilt

So if your alarm system goes off and you determine that the panel giving you a warning is the one marked “guilt,” you’ll be able to recognize what you’ve done to transgress a law or value.  In this case, Christianity has a very specific way of dealing with guilt.  You confess to God that you have broken the rule, being specific about what you’ve done, such as stolen something or lied about something or cheated on your wife.  And that’s step one.  The next thing to do is to make things right with that person.  If you stole someone’s lawnmower, you take it back, and say “I’m sorry I took your lawnmower.  I’ll pay you if I’ve damaged it in any way.”  Jesus was pretty specific about this.  He said that it’s more important to handle this feeling of guilt than it is to worship God.  In the 5th chapter of Matthew, he said if you bring your gift to the altar,  and you remember that somebody has something against you—that you have hurt or damaged someone in some way, then you leave your gift at the altar and you go and get things straightened out with the person first, and then come back and worship God.  Because if you don’t get the guilt handled, you won’t be able to really worship God.  It’s that important, Jesus said. (Matt. 5:23-24)

The Twelve-Step program has a wonderful way of handling guilt.  There are definite steps whereby you surrender your life to God and then you recognize you’re powerless to handle guilt by yourself, as well as any addictions or compulsions you may have.  Then you make a decision to turn your life and will over to God.  Then you specifically make a list of all the things you’ve done as far back as you can remember that have broken the rules, ways you’ve hurt people, cheated, lied, stolen been disloyal, and things like that.  Then you read that list to another human being—a sponsor or minister.[2]  Then there is a process for going to the person you have offended and making amends.[3]  It’s very important not to harm people by confessing to a misdeed to them or their families, or business associate.  But when you’ve done these steps, the guilt is almost always gone.  You transgressed a moral, ethical or spiritual value, you’ve recognized it, confessed it, and done everything you could, and then you’re clear.

Dealing with Shame

If you really can’t think of any specific law or value that you’ve transgressed, then the alarm panel marked “shame” is giving you the warning.  For example, when I was a kid, I used to come home from parties and often cringe because I’d think I’d made a fool out of myself.  There wasn’t anything specific.  I just thought I’d been too brassy or silly.  I thought my nose was too big, my ears were too big.  Physically I wasn’t what I thought I ought to be.  It was just a feeling of “not being enough” somehow.  And this feeling chases people through life even if they are very attractive and very successful. 

Dealing with shame is a different process because there isn’t anything to confess or make amends about.  I have come to see that God specializes in handling shame through a community of people on his spiritual journey.  And it seems to involve a process done in a group based on honesty and caring love.  But unless you find a group of his people who are committed to sharing their lives honestly with respect and love, you may not find relief for shame.  This may be why groups based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous may have constituted the fastest growing spiritual group in the world in the twentieth century.

I got in a group about twenty-five years ago.  It was a Twelve-Step group.  At first I didn’t want anyone to know anything bad about me so I tried to look like I just wandered in to check the meeting out.  After a few meetings I heard people say that their healing and transformation began when they started to get honest about their problems and began to feel relief.  I realized that if I wanted to get well from my addiction, then I had to face my problems by revealing myself.  In these meetings I heard people tell about what they had done:  how they had drunk too much and lied and hurt people, what their addiction caused them to do.  At first I couldn’t reveal very much. The fact that I had done so many things that transgressed my value system brought a strong wave of shame over me every time I even thought about them.  And telling other people about them seemed impossible—the wave of shame threatened to overwhelm me.  But I noticed that no one laughed or looked disgusted or lectured anyone else who talked about these things.  They listened with a quiet respect.  So I began to talk.  It was sort of like pulling a thread out of my mouth, something small enough that I could stand the shame.  I looked around afterward and nobody looked away.  They just nodded.    So at a later meeting I pulled out a little more vulnerable admission—like a string attached to the thread I had started with.  And then over a period of time of listening to honest sharing in a matter of fact way, I pulled out a rope, then a chain and then a whole bucket of things I’d made up my mind I’d never share.  After I’d done this for some time, I realized that I didn’t feel so bad about myself.  The shame had subsided, and I didn’t feel like a bad person any more. 

These people seemed to love me more when I was honest about the fact that I’m very self-centered and have had some unethical and immoral behavior in my life that I’d never faced before.  And the more they found out about me as I worked through the steps of the program with a sponsor, the less I felt alienated or not enough. 

Having been a seriously committed Christian for more than fifty years, it seems to me that Christianity at its best is more equipped to handle guilt but doesn’t deal much with shame. And there may be a lot of Christians who wake up at night feeling awful—shameful.  They feel their children don’t love them enough; they’ve been a bad parent, or whatever.  It’s a more amorphous feeling of being a bad or inadequate person, or that one’s life is going by and amounting to nothing.  But these thoughts that lead to shameful feelings are often not based on reality.  That’s a firm conviction that I’ve discovered in biblical Christianity—that everything God created was good.  

So now when my emotional alarm wakes me up at night (or any time it goes off), I look at the red blinking light and say to myself, “There’s something wrong I need to tend to.”  I ask myself “Is this guilt or shame.”   Often a picture will come up of something I’ve done, which indicates the feeling is guilt.  And then I know what to do.  I’ll confess that to God and share it with a small group of Christians I meet with and make restitution when possible. 

And if I can’t think of anything specific, I’ll recognize the feeling as shame.  Then I’ll identify the thought or attitude about being less-than, or having looked like a fool or made a mistake about somebody’s name—whatever I can locate.  And I’ll surrender my entire future to God again, and remind myself that we’re all sinners, or so we claim, and go to a meeting and share—or share with a sponsor or friend on the spiritual journey.  One definition of sin is that we have failed to hit the mark of perfection that we’re shooting at.  We miss the mark and according to both programs, “all have sinned and fallen short” of God’s best for us. 

But if we don’t face our own sins as Jesus advised us to, we have obviously decided that Jesus made a mistake in telling us how important it is for us to learn how to (as James put it) “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other, so that you can live together whole and healthy.”  (James 5:16)

That’s just a very brief picture of our (Andrea’s and my) experience of guilt and shame and how these things can be handled in spiritual programs like Christianity and the Twelve Steps.[4]

Lord, thank you for your consistent love even when I take control of my life and try to make it work on my own.  Forgive me for the ways I hurt others and myself (and you) during these times.  Thank you for the feelings of guilt and shame that alert me to the fact that I have gone off on my own.  Help me to pay attention to them when I feel them.  And thank you for the loving welcome I receive when I get honest with you about what I have done and surrender to your guidance once again.  In Jesus’ name, amen.


Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift. 

– Matt. 5:23-24 (NIV)


Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed.

– James 5:16, (The Message)


“The difference between guilt and shame is very clear—in theory. We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.”                                                                                

 – Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace


“A guilty mind can be eased by nothing but repentance; by which what was ill done is revoked and morally voided and undone.”

– Benjamin Whichcote, Moral and Religious Aphorisms


[1] Page 95

[2] There are important guidelines about finding a trustworthy person with whom to share this part of your life.

[3] See Steps Four, Five, and Nine, pages (pp58-103) Alcoholics Anonymous, Third Edition.

[4] If you want to read more about handling guilt and shame and how if not dealt with they can lead to serious control issues and relationship breakdowns—you may want to read:  Facing Codependence and Compelled to Control.

Okay, I Surrendered—But Nothing Happened

Don’t Look Behind the Curtain

Although I am a committed Christian, I have realized that I am also a compulsive “fixer.”  After my family rebelled against my attempts to help them I started working almost constantly in ministry.  I can’t seem to take time off just to live.  My fear is about losing touch with my family, and feeling lonely and resentful that no one seems to care about me any more.


I can certainly relate to your feelings and to being so involved in ministry it feels like there is no time left for you just to live.  At one point in my life I got burned out trying to serve God and minister to people.  I went to a counselor and discovered a mystery, a secret about myself that had been hidden behind my confident smile and attempts to be God’s person.  Much to my surprise I saw that crouching behind my compulsive religious working and overachieving was a lonely and starved self, like a lost child—which in one sense I’d felt like all my life.  That was true even though I had caring parents and a brother and we lived in a “Christian home” and I had won all kinds of honors in school. 

I saw that I was almost completely focused on getting love and attention.  I used everything I had—all my talent and energy—to manipulate the people and things around me, often “for their own good,” but really so they would love me and think I was a great person.  I saw, in short, that I am an almost completely self-centered person, one who puts himself in the center and tries desperately to control his world and the people in it—traits I have always abhorred in other people.  Since this had not been conscious, I’d never faced these behaviors and when I made a serious commitment of my adult life to God I began to build a life and a ministry trying to solve this need to feel okay.

As I began to face myself at this new level I was horrified to see that this self-centered grandiosity, this playing God, I’d been involved in was “addictive.”  I could somehow hide it from myself, but despite all my resolve, I couldn’t stop it.  I realized that this compulsive, driving busy-ness as a Christian to be enough, do enough, to please people (to get their attention, approval, or love),to lead them to Christ and/or fix them in order to become okay myself, operated like any other addiction.  I had an uncontrollable compulsion to repeat these self-defeating behaviors that was disastrous to me.  Sometimes I felt as though I must be crazy not to be able to change simple habits I wanted to be rid of.

For example, I kept getting snarled up with people close to me.  I would promise not to tell them what to do or try to run their lives.  But then, against my own will it seemed, I would catch myself doing the very thing I had promised myself (and them) I would never do again.  I was like a drug addict promising not to use chemicals and then going right back out and doing it.  I could decide I was not going to give people close to me unsolicited advice or try to influence their decisions, yet at the end of every phone call or visit with certain people in my family I would see that I’d done it again—and again.  I could hear the anger and discouragement in their voices.

I discovered that I used work, intensity, alcohol, and religious activities to cover and blot out the feelings that would have revealed to me that though I might look like a humble Christian (and truly want to be one), I was playing God in people’s lives to get the attention and approval I needed so desperately from them and/or even from God.

These may not seem like important issues to you unless you have made resolutions—to change your eating habits, exercising habits, or drinking habits, to get rid of resentments or fears, or not to do things that are irritating to those around you.  But I tried to change some of these things and was baffled when I could not.  I saw that what I was doing was Sin* and I also saw that it was addictive.

It dawned on me with an awesome certainty that when people speak of themselves as being “sinners in need of God’s healing,” they are actually talking about being in the grips of the addictive spiritual disease that the Bible portrays in connection with Sin.  I realized that this disease can disrupt our everyday lives and relationships and never be seen to even be connected to Sin.  And I saw that this Sin-disease may well be the matrix for all compulsive, manipulative, and controlling behavior.  In an instant of clarity I saw that what we have always called Sin just might be the source, the breeding ground, of all other addictions and for the irrational destructive and addictive behaviors that are destroying our lives and institutions across the world—even our churches.

My counselor had told me that the best program ever devised for recovering from compulsive behaviors and addictions of any sort was the Twelve-Step program originally devised for alcoholics but now used by those addicted to food, people-pleasing, drugs, gambling, sex, religion, and many other compulsive habits and relationships.  I saw that I was compulsive in several areas.

As I began to work through the simple twelve steps many years ago, I realized that here was a profound program of spiritual and physical healing that got at issues of spiritual sickness I had never been able to reach or even see through the traditional theological and psychological methods I had learned in seminary, in graduate courses in psychological counseling, and during over thirty years of studying the lives of the saints.  Although those things had helped significantly and had led me to where I was, they did not deal directly with the repressed and compulsive behaviors of the Sin-disease I was now confronting.

After about a year of being in recovery I started to connect the sanity and security I was experiencing with the peace and joy that were such an integral part of the experience of the early Christian church.

I wondered if perhaps the simple spiritual program that was changing my life and the lives of thousands of people “right now” wasn’t pretty close to the early church’s clear recognition of sin and the gospel’s remedy for it.

If this was true, then countless numbers of people might find their way to freedom… and to God, using the spiritual process underlying the Twelve Steps.**

Dear Lord, thank you that your healing Spirit that was revealed in Jesus captured the hearts of some of your addicted servants and through them provided a way of healing and wholeness for millions of Christians whose lives and relationships have been bruised and broken though the same controlling compulsiveness that set up addictive drinking and acting out.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

God’s Word warns us of danger and directs us to hidden treasure.  Otherwise how will we find our way?  Or know when we play the fool?  Clean the slate, God, so we can start the day fresh!  Keep me from stupid sins, from thinking I can take over your work; then I can start this day sun-washed, scrubbed clean of the grime [and unreality] of sin.  These are the words in my mouth; these are what I chew on and pray. Accept them when I place them on the morning altar, O God, my Altar-Rock, God, Priest-of-My-Altar.

– Psalm 19:11-14, The Message


O to grace how great debtor daily I’m constrained to be!

Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee. 

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.

– Hymn lyrics by Robert Robinson


* Sin with a capital “S” being to put myself in the driver’s seat of my life where only God should be if I wanted to live as he made me to be.  Sins (with a small “s”) are things I do as a result of putting myself in the center of my life.

** See A Hunger for Healing: The Twelve Steps as a Classic Model for Christian Spiritual Growth.

Correction to “What Makes A Life Meaningful?”

On February 4th I posted a blog titled “What Makes A Life Meaningful.”  In that blog I was wrestling with the fact that as an old man (of 83) it seems to me about all I can do is help a few people find hope and meaning by helping them find sobriety and/or a new life of faith in God.

I related an incident that occurred while a group of friends and I were reading about Bill Wilson’s doctor’s opinion that Bill had little chance of ever getting sober unless he had some sort of spiritual experience.  I reported how one of Bill’s old drinking buddies named Ebby had gotten sober at Calvary Church in NYC and went to see Bill.  I said that at first Bill thought Ebby had just “gotten religion,” but something about his friend’s changed life convinced Bill to go with Ebby to meet the Rector, Sam Shoemaker.  As a result, Bill Wilson became a Christian, sobered up, and with Shoemaker’s help wrote the “Big Book” that described and inaugurated Alcoholics Anonymous’ very powerful spiritual movement during the last sixty percent of the 20th century.  To read the original post, click here.

The same day the blog came out I received an email from my friend Ruben who pointed out the following:

I remembered that Ebby probably didn’t know the amazing effect of his walking a few days with his old friend, because I’d heard that Ebby went back out and drank himself to death.  Ebby’s life did have great significance because of working a simple program for a short time.  But I also realized that whether Ebby knew it or not, those few days eventually gave meaning to lives of probably millions of men and women around the world.

Wilson stayed sober and eventually formed Alcoholics Anonymous with Dr. Bob Smith while [Ebby] Thacher soon returned to drinking. Wilson always called Thacher his “sponsor,” and even though he had returned to drinking, Wilson looked after his friend’s welfare for the rest of his life. Thacher struggled on and off with sobriety over the years, and ultimately died sober in Ballston Spa, New York from emphysema in 1966.”

Ruben’s email included several more paragraphs about Ebby’s struggle with the disease the rest of his life, but I will not quote them here since the point of my post was not about Ebby’s death, but to say that Ebby’s willingness to go see his old friend led to the founding of a great movement of healing.  And I realized that I am having a meaningful life simply by helping a few people find hope, people whom God may have plans for that are between Him and them.

And thanks to Ruben who has helped many people already, including me.

What Makes A Life Meaningful?

I was thinking I’ve had my shot.  I’m an old man and all I can do is help a few people find hope and meaning by helping them find sobriety and/or a new life of faith in God.

But helping some pretty negative and defiant people in these ways didn’t seem to me to be related to having lived a meaningful life.  Besides, lots of the young men I meet with are proud and in denial about their addictions and control issues and very rebellious about the idea of really trusting God with their lives.  Although I understand this since I have been the same way most of my life, it’s discouraging sometimes how many have to hit an iron wall before they are ready to surrender enough to get to the wonder of God’s adventure.

Recently a group of us were reading about Bill Wilson, who co-founded the multinational movement of Alcoholics Anonymous.  We read that when Wilson had just gotten out of the hospital for the last time because of his drinking problem, one of his old drinking buddies came to see him.  This friend, Ebby, had sobered up as a result of going to a soup kitchen manned by parishioners from Calvary Episcopal church in New York City.

Bill Wilson’s doctor had told him that he had to quit drinking or he might not make it.  And further his doctor believed that Wilson could never quit drinking, except for one possible chance—that of having a spiritual experience of some kind.  At first Bill thought Ebby had just “gotten religion.”  But somehow the meeting with Ebby struck a chord in Wilson’s life.  He went with Ebby to Calvary church and met the rector, Sam Shoemaker.  As a result, Bill Wilson got converted to Christianity, sobered up and with Sam Shoemaker’s help, wrote the Big Book that described and inaugurated Alcoholics Anonymous as a movement—arguably the fastest growing spiritual movement in the world during the last sixty percent of the twentieth century.

As I sat there listening to the story unfold in the pages of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, I thought about Ebby, a newly sober alcoholic, working his program by telling his friend, Bill, about what had happened to him.

I thought how grateful Ebby must have felt at the end of his life to have had such a significant role in founding one of the most significant and transformational healing movements in the world.   If Ebby never did anything else, that was meaningful, being responsible for the religious conversion and recovery from addiction of the man who founded this great healing community of A.A. would be meaning enough for a lifetime.

But as the story continued, I realized that Ebby probably never even knew what happened because of his simply doing what he was taught to do to stay sober himself—telling another alcoholic how he (Ebby) had found sobriety by surrendering his life to God. 

I remembered that Ebby probably didn’t know the amazing effect of his walking a few days with his old friend, because I’d heard that Ebby went back out and drank himself to death.  Ebby’s life did have great significance because of working a simple program for a short time.  But I also realized that whether Ebby knew it or not, those few days eventually gave meaning to lives of probably millions of men and women around the world.

And after that meeting in which we were reading about Bill Wilson’s beginning with Ebby, a man I’d mentored years ago, who had moved away from Austin, and whom I hadn’t seen in several years, walked up, and we had lunch.  I learned that the young man was not only still in recovery but had gone to seminary and was now being ordained as a minister.  I was struck after lunch by the transformation in the man’s life.  His deep faith and enthusiasm about his work touched me profoundly.  And as he left after lunch, I realized that if I never do any of the exciting things I once did, that my life would have great meaning because I encouraged this one young man and helped him get sober by working the same simple program Ebby was working when he had lunch with Bill Wilson over seventy-five years ago.  And I was very grateful that the Rev. Sam Shoemaker taught Bill Wilson the kind of spirituality that is at the heart of the life Jesus taught his disciples.

Lord, thank you for a life in which each person we love and help along the way gives our lives significance and meaning to you and sometimes to other people we may never know.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

“Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” Philippians 2:1, The Message


“Don’t begin by traveling to some far off place to convert unbelievers.  And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public concern.  Go to the lost confused people right here in the neighborhood.  …  Don’t think you have to put on a fund-raising campaign before you start.  You don’t need any equipment.  You are the equipment.” Matthew 10:6-10, The Message

Okay, I Surrendered—But Nothing Happened

God’s Fire Alarm System

 Keith, you have said that it’s better not to run from pain but to embrace it.  But I don’t get it. What on earth can be good about pain? 

You’re sure not alone with that question.  Have you noticed how many commercials on television are about ways to quiet our pain?  Yet I believe that pain plays an important—even essential—role in our spiritual growth process. 

The first time I can remember hearing anything good about pain was one day when I was about eight years old.  My mother and I were sitting at the breakfast table.  I was not in school that day because my friend Jimmy had thrown a pampas grass spear at me during a mock battle and had struck me between my right eye and right eyebrow—miraculously missing putting out my eye, which was now almost swollen shut and hurting like crazy.

“Why would God invent something as awful as pain?” I asked, wishing mine would go away.

Mother raised her eyebrows and looked out the window behind me a few seconds.  Then she said, “Well, feelings like pain are God’s way of sending helpful, even life-saving, messages to us about dangerous or harmful things we’re doing that we might not notice until it was too late.”

I scrunched up my face and asked, “What do you mean?”

She continued, “You might say that pain is like a fire alarm system God’s given us to help us pinpoint the exact place where our personal fires, our injuries or sicknesses, are.  And if we don’t pay attention, the pain usually gets louder until we do.  And God uses all kind of pain to show us where we need to change our live if we pay attention. So pain can be a life-saving friend.”

“How could pain actually save my life?”

“Well, imagine that early one morning you were running barefoot down the beach alone and you stepped on a jagged piece of glass bottle half buried in the sand, and it cut your foot, maybe nicked a large vein.  If it weren’t for pain, you might bleed to death if you didn’t happen to look back and see that you were leaving a trail of blood in your footprints.  Pain is one way you learn to take care of yourself.”

I thought about that for a few minutes, wondering if there was anything connected to the pain of my swollen eye that I could learn that would be a life-saver.  Then I asked, “You mean like my deciding not to play spear-fighting chieftains anymore?”

Mother smiled and nodded her head.  “That seems like a pretty smart change to me.”

Lord, thank you that so many kinds of pain contain a message to teach me about how to live my life.  Help me not to numb it, or avoid it, but to examine it squarely and seek the life-meaning behind it.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

“Distress that drives us to God…turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.”  Cor. 7:10, The Message


“How privileged we are to understand so well the divine paradox that strength rises from weakness, that humiliation goes before resurrection, that pain is not only the price but the very touchstone of spiritual rebirth.”  Bill Wilson, Christmas Letter, 1944

Okay, I Surrendered—But Nothing Happened

Can We Become Addicted to God?

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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