What about the "Twelve Step" program?

Charles A. Jennings, M.C., LPC

These were drafted as an attempt to provide alcoholics with what purports to be a Bible based systematic treatment program which was made popular by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Over the years, it has been adapted to many other issues such as drug addiction, sex addiction, overeating, personal and social enhancement issues. Each client is "sponsored" by a current AA member who introduces the client to a local AA group and provides him or her with guidance and emotional support. The client is encouraged by the sponsor and group to put into public practice each of the twelve steps, in their order, to complete the program and be set free of their addictive behavior. Below are the basic steps used by AA followed by a discussion of the program's pros and cons.

  1. We admitted we were powerless over ( whichever substance or behavior ) - that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. We are entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10.  We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11.  We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Since the introduction of the Twelve Steps, Bible scholars have had a field day with some of the precepts expressed in these steps. They say that their major issue of concern is the relationship of the addict to God. Their argument against Steps 2, 3 &11 is that to say God is what or who we understand Him to be is akin to idol worship or pantheism. We do not create God, nor is He obliged by our conception or expectations of Him.  He is bound only by His nature and clearly expressed promises, nothing more, and only to those whom He has chosen to make such promises – not the general public. For the addict to "turn his will and life" over to God as he understands Him and expect God to perform according to the addict's expectation, to magically remove his character defects, is presumptive at the very least. These teachers remind us that if we take our instruction from God's written word, rather than from well meaning but ignorant individuals, we see that He does not heal all who call for His healing touch, enrich all those who call upon Him for material blessing, rescue all who cry to him in tribulations, or remove specific character defects despite a person's sincerity and earnest pleas. He is under no pressure to live up to anyone's perceptions of Him, or meet distorted expectations of Him. He has His own way of doing what He chooses to do, when, and to whom He chooses to do it.

On the heels of that last observation, critics have observed the contradiction that the program works for those who deny the existence of any god.They say that the fact that it works for these ardent non-believers contradicts the premise of the whole program as expressed in Step One. If addicts are indeed "powerless" over their "unmanageable" life, how do we account for their success in the program when they do not seek or receive help from a god? Some answer this by saying they reject a god but believe in a "higher power."  That is tantamount to sanctioning the position that idols have power, or that there is a "force" similar to the one presented in the Star Wars Trilogy. One medical doctor at a local addiction treatment facility has gone so far as to say that proper treatment involves determining if the client's higher power is a false higher power such as self, money, or fame. The assumption there is that the client needs to adopt one of the valid alternative higher powers to ensure a positive treatment outcome. But all of this is irrelevant because thousands of non-believing clients who neither seek nor receive any higher powered source of supernatural help are successful in the Twelve-Step environment. So where are they getting the needed power to take control of their lives and bring order out of chaos?

Given that thousands of believers and non believers are getting help, why would anyone fault the program even if it is flawed at its root? Because if we are to be consistent with our position that truth and honesty are basic to recovery (Steps 4 & 5), then we need to follow our own prescription regarding the basis of our therapy lest our "recovery" will itself prove to be false. When we consider that the program seems to be effective despite the fact the premise is unsupported, our conclusion has to be that something other than a higher power is at work. If it is something else that is at work, then the right thing to do would be to discover that something and learn how to use it for other issues that might disrupt our lives. Could that "something" be the fact that people flourish and gain hope in an environment of nurturing peers and/or a caring personal sponsor which makes it easier for them to carry out decisions rooted in understanding, wisdom, and sound judgment and thus gain victory over their addiction? This seems to hold true in properly run AA groups, but not in runaway groups. I base this conclusion on the following experience which I do not pretend to be indicative of all AA group members, but certainly on a large enough sampling to warrant attention.

While I was working with addiction clients at one of Arizona's larger clinics, clients were referred to local AA groups as part of our clinic's own therapy program. While following their progress, I came face to face with some disturbing news. Many complained that the groups they attended were hypocrites, often going to a bar after the meeting adjourned. Some said their meetings were more like a dating game scene. Others said that they found groups that were clean and serious, but that nobody seemed to complete all twelve steps. I began questioning our clients and discovered that none completed the program, even though they had stopped drinking. Most of our clients reported that Step 4 seemed to be the highest achievement of any one they met or had heard about. Those who quit drinking attributed their success not to the steps themselves or a higher power but to their sponsor, or to certain fellow members with whom they bonded, who shared with them practical thinking and behavior pattern changes that worked for them. In fact, most of our successful clients admitted they never got beyond Step One!

The real eye opener came when some described how they broke free of their behavior in terms that indicated they had swapped one dependency (e.g. alcohol) for another dependency. One common example is that some became dependent on AA meetings. They feared quitting AA or even missing a meeting would result in relapse, so they attended twice a week, even though they continued to point to their close friendships with sponsors and members as the real magic ingredient. Our unsuccessful clients blamed their outcome on not having a good sponsor or group. These observations fully support what we have observed for a long time in professional counseling circles, that the client-therapist relationship can often be more therapeutic than any therapy technique with which we might be skilled. Our souls are starving for lack of intimacy.

For the Christian, swapping one dependency for another is an inappropriate option. For the Christian who bonds with non-believers as a solution to addiction, who should get the credit for change, the non-believers or God? Are we not going to the wrong medicine cabinet for our ills? Is not the antidote for an unmanageable life self control? And is not self control one facet of the fruit of the Spirit? In which group does the fruit of the Spirit, and thus self control, increase – those who grow in understanding of the nature of God and obedience to His will, or those who seek an experience with a "higher power?" If we want more fruit of the Spirit, does identifying ourselves with non Christians who share the same ailment as we do take us in the right direction? If we say that Christians cannot grow spiritually while their lives are "unmanageable," are we not saying that there is something more powerful than the Holy Spirit – that God can only work in lives after they have been mended by someone or something other than Him?

I no longer support, promote, or refer Christians to Twelve-Step programs, and I am very sorry that I ever did. By doing so, I was encouraging my clients to identify with a group of accepting and understanding individuals at a time when they were desperate for such support and therefore most vulnerable to the false teachings that were not so subtly communicated. And when they were "delivered" from their addiction, they often did so at the expense of not dealing with the underlying issue which, untreated, went on to show its ugly nature elsewhere in their lives.

I join with these Bible teachers in their concern that Christians who become involved in such secularized programs are at high risk for being deceived into trusting and worshiping a "god" other than the God of the Bible. They might gain control over their addiction at the expense being captured by a belief system that draws them away from a God centered world view toward a man centered world view. They will be placing themselves in an environment that relies on personal experience, to determine the nature of God and how He deals with men, rather than His written revelation. It is like a man who is behind on his bills and asks "God as he understands Him" to deliver him from his debts and a week later purchases a winning lottery ticket. He will surely say that God answered his prayer and might also assume, therefore, that God condones gambling, thus putting him and those who listen to him at further financial risk in the future. Like so many other counterfeits in our spiritual warfare, the Twelve-Step Program has just enough truth in its construction to attract and hold the unsuspecting while diverting their attention from the whole truth. Once it is accepted, the poisonous seeds of false teaching begin their silent, invasive, and insidious work. To this day I continue to see clients who have been influenced by such teachings and are now experiencing painful relationship and spiritually related problems as a result.

For Christians who prefer the setting of a step-by-step program, there are local churches using a modified, and possibly more biblical, version. For those who want to use only the Bible for their source of understanding, wisdom, and sound judgment, and prefer bonding with His people, counseling is available from Christian practitioners, some of whom are licensed, who will address both the addiction behavior and the underlying issue(s).