“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.”
Perhaps one of the most overused images for the spiritual life is as a journey. It is overused only in the sense that it often leads to trite and not-so-helpful platitudes that sound good but are of little practical use, things like “It’s the journey, not the destination” or “just enjoy the journey”. While these phrases point to spiritual truths, in my experience they are often said to people struggling with real challenges as a way of not actually responding to the challenges. My hunch is that they are often said to make the speaker, not the hearer, feel better.
A much more helpful image, in my opinion, is to think of the spiritual life as a road. The distinction is subtle, but important. Roads go places. They have definite boundaries, that is to say, there is road and not-road. And while the journey on the road is itself an opportunity for joy, wonder and growth, those things are experienced with some goal in mind (be that heaven, salvation, higher consciousness, or my favorite, communion with God). Moreover, if one is interested in moving towards that goal, one seeks, as much as possible, to stay on the road rather than in the ditch on either side.
Step Three of the Twelve Steps invites the practitioner to make a definite decision about how he or she will relate to God: made a decision to turn our will and our lives over the care of God as we understood him. To continue with the road analogy, this decision might be thought of as the road between two ditches. One the one side is the ditch of self-negation, a kind of “Jesus, take the wheel!” approach to life that abdicates all responsibility for the direction of one’s life. An extreme and absurd example of this would be the person who says, “If God wants me to have a job, he’ll provide me with one,” but then never actually fills out any job applications. (Don’t laugh too hard; this example is based on real life.) A more common example might be the person who makes life decisions by praying, “God, show me your will” and then flipping a coin (also a real life example). The problem with the ditch of self-negation is that God didn’t create humans to be robots. As human beings, we are endowed with the ability to think, to reason, to weigh options and to discern possibilities. It seems fantastical to think that God would provide human beings with agency and will and then endorse the idea of completely neglecting those gifts.
The ditch on the other side of the road might be called, for lack of a better term, selfishness or self-centeredness. This is the belief that one’s own will and determination is the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, the ultimate end and goal of human life. The more extremely this view is held, the more painful the collisions with other humans it creates. It leads to a mentality of blame and finger-pointing, for if the self is supreme, then when things go off the rails it must be the fault of someone else. If my wisdom is the deepest wisdom, my intelligence is the greatest intelligence, and my will is the ultimate goal, then sooner or later I am sure to come into conflict with you, and when I do, it will of course be your fault. When the ultimate point of reference is one’s own thoughts, feelings, goals and desires, true communion with God or another human being is all but impossible. As Bill W. writes in Alcoholics Anonymous,
“Selfishness – self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate.”
To see how well this works as a basis for life in community with other humans, one need look no further than the evening news.
Sadly, it is entirely possible to have strong religious beliefs and still drive into this ditch. (If you think modern American political life is nasty, you ought to see a good old-fashioned church fight.) That’s why Step Two points us to belief in God, not to a set of beliefs about God, that is to say, trusting God rather than assenting to a set of creedal statements about God. I believe in the existence of Vladimir Putin, that he is the president of Russia, that he was born in Leningrad and used to be a KGB officer, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to trust in his care for me or seek his direction for my life. Many people, on a functional level at least, believe in God in much the same way.
(It is worth noting that this is one way of parsing out the distinction between theology and spirituality: theology is our set of beliefs about God, while spirituality is the way in which we translate those beliefs into trust in God. Both are valuable in their own right, but either in isolation is unsatisfying at best.)
So, if those are the two ditches, what then is the road? The road, quite simply, consists in seeking to know God’s will and offering ourselves to God as God’s agents in the world. We do this, oddly enough, by asking. The Third Step Prayer is a good template for how to ask; this is a slightly modernized version:
God, I offer myself to you – to build with me and to do with me as you will. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do your will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of your power, your love, and your way of life. May I do your will always. Amen.
Of course, one may express the same desire to know God’s will and the same openness to God’s direction in other terms; many people find it helpful to develop their own prayers around these themes. What matters is an earnest desire to take direction from the God who is the object of one’s ultimate trust.
Naturally, we will not perfectly know God’s will; in fact, we may sometimes get far off the mark. To borrow our road analogy from earlier: new drivers are much more likely to find themselves in the ditch on one side or the other, and even experienced drivers can wind up there because of distractions, inattention, bad weather or other reasons. The spiritual life is much the same. It’s important to remember that while our road is moving us toward a definite goal, we don’t expect to arrive there instantly. The idea is to move closer to that goal each day. This is why twelve-step programs strongly encourage attendance at meetings. In meetings, recovering people share their experience, strength and hope with each other and learn from each other’s experience on the road. (And it is often the case that we gain as much or more from hearing the stories of detours into the ditch as we do from stories of trouble-free mileage.) This is why authentic community is so important in the church. We need to hear one another’s stories from the road, especially the stories of detours into the ditch. If we accept the premise that we are all humans anonymous, all recovering from something, then we can listen to one another’s stories, relate to those ditch-detours and offer one another a hand, rather than looking down our noses at our brothers and sisters in the ditch (which is the surest possible way of driving into the ditch ourselves).
People in recovery are also encouraged to work with a sponsor, someone experienced in living the program who can point out potholes and wrong turns along the way. For those not in recovery, a pastor, minister or spiritual director can be a helpful guide. These trusted people can help us to guard against self-delusion and convincing ourselves that something is really God’s will when it is actually our own.
This step is not a one-and-done event. Like the rest of the spiritual principles covered in this series, it is something that one needs to practice on a daily basis, savoring and celebrating signs of growth and being gentle with oneself in the wake of set-backs. When I was in early recovery and was attempting to live more fully into this principle, a wise old-timer asked me a riddle.
Q: If three frogs are sitting on a log and one makes a decision to jump into the water, how many frogs are left sitting on the log?
A: Three. A decision is just a decision until it is put into action.
More on that action next week.
Next in the series: Taking Inventory