Conquering Addiction: Steps to Recovery

When Jon Cumming, Lisa Santomen Hellberg, and I stayed down at Cookman Church for a week, we attended a couple of the Narcotics Anonymous meetings that were held there several times a week. It’s one of the reasons that I know it is a tragedy that that church is now closed. Dozens, maybe hundreds of people, would gather in their main hall on those hot nights of the summer and you could tell from listening to them talk that these meetings were a life-line for them.

Person after person stood and said “My name is David and I am an alcoholic” or an addict and then tell their painful personal story, often with tears and visible grief and pain. They told about the grief they had caused themselves, but more often talked about the grief they had caused their children or other loved ones. When they said, “Today I have been sober for 1 week” the whole room would erupt in applause and support – authentic appreciation for the magnitude of that accomplishment. The group appreciated the person with one full day of sobriety with more enthusiasm than anybody – though maybe with not the same awe as when someone announced that that day was the anniversary of their 10th year of sober living. I was deeply moved by hearing their stories and seeing the concrete and powerful support people offered to each other.

Sunday before last we began to talk about the 12 steps in 12 step programs. We got through the first 7 steps. After the service, a few people asked me for a handout of the 12 steps, so I have those for today, with the headings I have been using for each step. You can pick up the sheet in the back of the church.

Let me this morning review the first 7 steps before we go on to the last 5. The first step is honesty, admitting we are powerless over our addiction – that our lives have become unmanageable. Second is hope – coming to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Third is faith – making a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God. Fourth is courage – making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Fifth is integrity, admitting to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Sixth is willingness, being entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. And seventh is humility, humbly asking God to remove our shortcomings. As you can imagine, we could talk about each of those steps for longer than a sermon could cover; each of those steps receives attention and care in a 12 step program.

The Big Book is a kind of handbook for people in the 12 step program. It tells a number of personal stories of people who have struggled with their alcoholism and ended up conquering their addiction through following the 12 steps to recovery. The book and the program have been highly influential in convincing our society that alcoholism is a disease, not a decision or a habit that can be controlled or eradicated through punishment.

So let me get to the eighth step. We’ll call it Discipline and Action. It is the step highlighted on the strange TV comedy called “My Name is Earl” where the main character is obsessed with confessing and making amends to everyone he is harmed. This step is actually quite difficult and powerful, inviting the addict to make a list of all people he or she has harmed through their addiction and finding ways to make amends to each person.

The process of making direct amends to each person, whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others, is the ninth step. We call this step “forgiveness” because it actually requires a forgiveness of one’s self to take the risk of reaching out to people who have been harmed. Forgiveness from other people may or may not come, but the act of making amends allows a person to really take in God’s forgiveness.

Tenth is acceptance, continuing to take personal inventory and when you’re wrong promptly admitting it. These last three steps are called maintenance steps. Where the earlier steps were about cleaning up past messes, these final steps are about making sure one doesn’t accumulate a whole bunch of new messes. This step requires watching for dishonesty, resentment and fear, and making amends quickly when necessary. It requires watching for triggers to addictive behavior and asking for help whenever it’s needed.
Step 11 is awareness – seeking through prayer and meditation to improve conscious contact with God as you understand God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for you and for the power to carry out God’s will. People in the program report that with practice in prayer, God becomes less abstract and more personal, and that prayer is often not just to discern God’s will for your life, but a simple prayer of gratitude and awe at the power of healing that has happened in their lives.

The final step is gratitude, which recognizes the spiritual awakening that has happened in your life as a result of following these steps, and involves sharing the message of healing with others who are addicted and who need to help. I have seen that gratitude in practice- that willingness to reach out to other people in quite generous ways. It’s awesome to see and to experience.

It is amazing to me how much Paul’s words either anticipated or influenced the insights of AA. He understood the struggles of the body, and the need to give yourself to a Higher Power. He understood on a level that most of us only get through struggling with addiction, the need to be set free from sin and death through a “life in Christ Jesus.” He talks about belonging to Christ, and being raised through the Spirit – and he knows that the alternative is death.

Responsive Hymn: 2214 Lead Me, Guide Me