Why step two is complicated for Christians in recovery

In the Twelve Step program, step two is: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

In step one, we admit that we are powerless over addictive sexual behavior and our lives have become unmanageable. We learn that we’re not evil, rotten people, but loved by God and others, in spite of our faults. We don’t have to be alone – isolated from authentic relationships – any longer. By ourselves, we are unable to overcome the power of our dependence on sexual behavior. In essence, Step one is about admitting that we need outside help.

As old-timers in 12 step programs say, step two is about learning to see addiction is a spiritual problem that requires a spiritual solution. This point is tricky for people who have a background in Christian teaching to understand. On the one hand, it seems to be an obvious reinforcement of the essence of the message we hear Sunday after Sunday: our problems have spiritual solutions … we need to turn to God for help.

The important question here is: “who is this ‘God’ we are turning to for help, and how do we expect to receive that help?”

The genius of the 12 step movement is also the thing that causes many Christians to view it with suspicion: the vague nature of how the Steps speak about God. This makes Christians nervous, because we want to be sure that we’re focusing on the God of the Bible.

But I have come to believe that many Christian people carry around in their heads ideas about God that have been filtered and distorted by their unprocessed abuse and abandonment, and further complicated by spiritually messed-up spiritual teaching they received during their formative years. Various views about who God is and how we relate to him can sound very “biblically-correct” but contradict other clear teaching in the Bible about God, and be very damaging to our souls.

The founders and early participants of the 12 step recovery movement recognized that overcoming addiction is tied to a spiritual awakening. But they also understood that nobody comes into recovery with a blank spiritual slate.

Some people have very little spiritual interest or experience prior to recovery, and so recovery involves embracing a faith they never had.

Other people come into the program with ideas about God that are distorted and childish. For them, the “spiritual awakening of recovery” involves a shift in their understanding and experience of faith, not moving from no-faith to faith. This is usually a process, it doesn’t happen overnight.

In my life, recovery has taught me to appreciate more fully that God’s grace in its various forms comes into my life through other people (I Peter 4:10). I have come to suspect any supposed spiritual insights that don’t get validation and reinforcement from the circle of trusted friends in my life. I also have come to suspect the validity and power of spiritual movements that move people away from honest interaction with others and into isolation and subjective spiritual experiences.

I mention this because it might help you understand that “coming to believe that God can restore us to sanity” is a lot less simple and a lot more profound than it first might appear. I invite you — and encourage you — to really reflect on this step, and talk about it with other recovery friends. What keeps the people I work with from an authentic Christian experience of life with God — and from recovery — is not irreligion … it’s bad religion.

* Note: this is an excerpt from the teaching in one of the days installments of the 90 Days to Sexual Sanity program. You can learn more about this program here.

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