Spiritual Growth … Not an Option
An alcoholic or addict is either growing spiritually or getting ready to use.1
As a friend, sponsor, and mentor to many alcoholics and addicts for more than 25 years, I have watched men and women commence to work the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and begin to experience many of the promises that the program offers—including the expulsion of the deadly obsession to use and drink—only to fall back into the insanity of using in a short period of time.
Frustrating and painful to the addict and those who love them; heartbreaking to all and even deadly in our present environment of designer drugs and the present opioid crisis.2
What happens to cause these relapses?3 In my opinion, based on decades of experience and observation, the alcoholic and addict who has worked the first seven steps of the program are beginning to truly experience the freedom from the deadly obsession to use and or drink. The screaming has stopped. Pain is diminished. Anxiety and fears that were once the driving forces of their lives have been replaced with peace and serenity and sobriety. And for many, they will tell you that this new life feels so different and so good, that they are frightened of it and being brand-new to a life of spiritual growth, they return to the old way of living.
The AA Big Book instructs us that we are to make a strenuous effort to face and be rid of the things blocking us from God.4 In these steps, we “faced” what was keeping us from the desired relationship with God when we do Step Four and Five and we experienced the “be rid of” in Steps Six and Seven.
There is always a natural tendency to ease up, to rest and relax; to take it easy. Many have well-meaning sponsors who, unfortunately, have no idea of the need for continuing to grow spiritually to experience real, long-term sobriety.5
In the Spiritual Growth classes of our recovery program, we often study The Bible story of Naaman the Leper.6 Naaman had an unsolvable problem. He was a leper. He was told of a possible solution by a Hebrew slave girl. She told him of a prophet in Samaria who was known to be able to cure leprosy. Naaman then made a decision. He took action based only on a willingness to believe that there was a solution to his problem, and with the hopelessness and desperation of a dying man, he arrived in Samaria at the Prophet Elisha’s front door.
Naaman was given simple instructions by the prophet to go and dip in the Jordan River seven times. Not four or five, not even six—but seven. And when he took all the steps as directed, he experienced the hoped-for solution.
So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child and he was clean.7
He followed the specific directions and experienced the promised solution. He was relieved of his leprosy.
The Program of Alcoholics Anonymous is meant to be worked in its entirety, all Twelve Steps in order, following the directions contained in the Big Book. Anything less means we have decided to work another program or no program at all.
“Half measures availed us nothing.”8
“Complacency is easy … and it is a deadly foe of spiritual growth.” ~A. W. Tozer
The Big Book warns us of this complacency:
“It is easy to let up on the spiritual program of action and rest on our laurels. We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe. We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities. “How can I best serve Thee – Thy will (not mine) be done.” These are thoughts which must go with us constantly. We can exercise our willpower along this line all we wish. It is the proper use of the will. Much has already been said about receiving strength, inspiration, and direction from Him who has all knowledge and power. If we have carefully followed directions, we have begun to sense the flow of His Spirit into us. To some extent we have become God-conscious. We have begun to develop this vital sixth sense. But we must go further and that means more action.”9
There is no official and precise definition of spiritual growth. The program of Alcoholics Anonymous and many others use the term spiritual growth along with other terms like God consciousness, spiritual experience, or spiritual awakening. All mean to be changed on the inside by God.
Bill Wilson wrote of “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism.”10 In the program of AA, that change must occur, and we must continue to grow spiritually. That is what the program defines as “spiritual growth.”
Like all of the Twelve Steps, the Big Book offers us specific, precise, and clear-cut directions for recovery. Steps Ten, Eleven, and Twelve work as a unit to ensure that the growth and change continues.
“There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation, and prayer. Taken separately, these practices can bring much relief and benefit. But when they are logically related and interwoven, the result is an unshakable foundation for life.”11
Unlike the first nine steps in our program that are to be taken in order in a timely manner according to the instructions of the Big Book, Steps Ten and Eleven are designed to be worked together, along with Step Twelve, each and every day of sobriety. They are connected in such a way that it is virtually impossible to act on one without doing on the other. Likewise, failure to take the action of one will lead to failure to do either one.
The experiences of recovered alcoholics shared in the Big Book should make it clear to the reader that spiritual growth is not optional. Lack of growth in our spiritual lives—in our new relationship with God—does not result in stagnation or staying where we are. Lack of growing means a return to our old ways.
As Bill Wilson wrote in the forward to the Twelve and Twelve, “A.A.’s Twelve Steps are a group of principles, spiritual in nature, which if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”12
“If practiced as a way of life” indicates that we are to continue to take the action steps of the program every day for the rest of our lives. This is the design for spiritual growth that is essential to maintain our sobriety and grow in our relationship with God.
Step Ten and Step Eleven are given to us as a foundation to grow spiritually. They are a vital and essential part of our program. Steps Ten and Eleven contain the directions for the needed action we take to continue and improve our conscious contact with God.
So many have labored through the self-examination and confession of Steps Four and Five and experience the freedom from the obsession when we are convicted and converted in Steps Six and Seven, but then abandon the fundamental “Steps” for their former plan for growing spiritually or no plan at all. The obsession returns, and they use again.
The Apostle Paul writes of the same difficulty facing the members of the church in Galatia.
But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage.13
Like the baseball player who was struggling to get a hit and striking out nearly every at-bat while batting right handed, he changed his stance to bat left handed. Suddenly, he is hitting home run after home run. After a period of success, for some inexplicable reason, he decides to go back to his old way of batting, and of course, fails miserably.
Unlike a sporting event, the danger of returning to a way that wasn’t working from one that is can be dangerous and even deadly. Obviously, if the actions that we were taking before we found relief in the working of the early steps would have been sufficient to overcome our addiction, we would never have been struggling in the first place or would never have needed to get involved in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Many often follow suggestions offered by well-meaning friends and even clergymen to seek God and sobriety, which may or may not work. Some go back to doing nothing at all. Most struggle and fail.
Reading The Bible, asking for God to keep us sober every morning, thanking Him for our sobriety at the end of the day, reading meditation literature, and even church and meeting attendance are great aides to growing spiritually … but if they were enough to keep us sober, we would have never needed to work the Twelve-Step Program.
“We are only operating a spiritual kindergarten in which people are enabled to get over drinking and find the grace to go on living to better effect. Each man’s theology has to be his own quest, his own affair.”14
Bill Wilson compared the program of Alcoholics Anonymous to a spiritual kindergarten. Bill placed an emphasis on the idea that the Twelve Steps stress the most basic of spiritual truths. The Twelve Steps place a high value on the fundamentals, and they offer us instruction and guidance to put into practice these basic principles if we are willing to do so.
Like kindergarten is designed to be a transition from home to school, so the steps are designed to bring about a transformation from our former way of living to a new spiritual life. The Big Book tells us that AA’s Twelve Steps are a “design for living that really works.”15 In our early educational years, we were taught the basics in reading and writing and arithmetic. This teaching was not designed to keep us in kindergarten but to give us a foundation on which to grow. This is the purpose of AA’s Steps Ten and Eleven when we speak of spiritual growth.
The Apostle Paul speaks of such necessary fundamentals in Scripture when he tells the Corinthians:
I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able.16
The words for spiritual milk that Paul speaks of in The Bible are derived from the Greek meaning “basic and elemental.”17 But like kindergartners, new believers were never intended to stay on a milk diet. They were to grow in understanding to teach and lead.18
By following the simple instructions on pages 84-88 in the Big Book, we will experience the truth that only God can do this for us.
“It works. It really does.”19
I have seen hundreds of men and women who were once considered the dregs of society begin their path to spiritual growth by working these fundamentals offered in the Big Book of AA and not only stay sober but grow spiritually and become leaders of recovery programs, pastors of churches, business owners and managers. They own cars and houses, pay taxes, raise families, and become contributing members of society. They have all grown spiritually and each have their own beliefs and methods to maintain their conscious contact with God. … But all of them began their path of spiritual growth the same way, by following the directions offered in the Big Book on pages 84-88.
1 We Have Recovered, Page 175, Paragraph 2
2 “Every day, more than 115 people in the United States die after overdosing on drugs.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, March, 2018
3 Relapse by definition means return to a former state of mind or body.
4 Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Page 64, Paragraph 1
5 “AA’s weakest link is the sponsor who knows little or nothing of the AA program of recovery.” Dick Burns, AA Historian
6 2 Kings, Chapter Five
7 2 Kings 5:14, NASB
8 Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Page 59, Paragraph 2
9 Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Page 85, Paragraph 2
10 Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Page 567, Paragraph 1
11 Twelve and Twelve, Page 98, Paragraph 2
12 Twelve and Twelve, Page 15, Paragraph 3
13 Galatians 4:9 NIV Bible
14 As Bill Sees It, Page 95 from 1954 Letter
15 Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Page 88, Paragraph3
16 I Corinthians 3:2
17 Greek Gala, Strong’s Concordance #G1051
18 Hebrews 5:12, NASB
19 Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Page 88, Paragraph 2
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