[This post is the tenth in a series called “Humans Anonymous” on the spirituality of twelve-step recovery and the insights it offers for anyone wanting to live a spiritually-centered life. Links to all articles in the series can be found by clicking here or by clicking the Humans Anonymous link under “Categories” on the right-hand side of this page.]
The Sixth Step in the 12-Step program of recovery is deceptively simple: were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Having made an inventory of our resentments, our fears, and various other ways in which self-will has harmed ourselves and others, and having “screwed our courage to the sticking place,” to borrow a phrase from the Bard of Avon and shared the results of that inventory with God and another human being, it might seem that being ready to have our defects of character removed would be something of a fait accompli. Indeed, this is often the case. The book Alcoholics Anonymous, takes a bare two paragraphs to describe Step Six, much of that devoted to encouraging careful review of the work done in the previous five steps.
Experience shows, though, that the devil is in the details, or, in the case of Step Six, the challenge is in the modifiers. What the step calls for is being entirely ready to have God remove all of our defects of character (emphasis added). This complete willingness is challenging enough that the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, published fourteen years after the Big Book, expands the treatment of this step from two paragraphs to six and a half pages. Clearly there is plenty here to challenge the seeker of spiritual growth.
This challenge is not unique to people in recovery, nor is it new. The idea underlies Jesus’ teaching to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:21-24)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28)
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:33-48)
To be honest, Matthew 5:48 has always been one of those things Jesus said that sends a cold shiver up my spine. Be perfect?! It seems impossible! And in much the same way, being entirely ready to have God remove all our defects of character seems equally impossible. It is helpful, though, to keep in mind certain things that make this step possible.
The first is to keep in mind that our defects of character are the things which separate us from the fullest possible communion with God and our fellow humans. While anger, fear, desire for material and emotional security, and even desire for the sex relation are entirely normal, in fact, traits with which we were created, these traits become problematic when they are allowed to exceed their intended purpose. Nor are we expected to completely repress these natural desires and emotions. What Step Six asks of us is the willingness to have them put into their proper place, and the willingness to use them as they were intended.
This leads to the second point we need to be aware of, namely that we are asked to be willing. Sometimes this complete willingness is hard to come by. We may be willing to have our anger removed to the extent that we’re not prone to explosive rages, for example, but less willing to have it removed to the extent that we stop gossiping about our neighbors or assassinating their character in ways that we are sure won’t cause us any negative consequences. We may be willing to have our lust removed to the extent that we are physically faithful in our relationships, but not to the extent that we stop flirting with or fantasizing about people other than our partners. If we persist in our willingness, though, however qualified it may be, we often find that in time it grows until we are in fact willing to let go of the lesser manifestations of our defects. Even if we are not entirely willing to let go of our defects, we can at least be willing to be willing, and ask God to increase our willingness.
Most important of all, it is important to remember that, as is so often the case in matters of spiritual growth, the emphasis here is on God’s action, not ours. A little later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his astounded disciples, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26) It is God’s work to remove our defects of character; it is our work to be willing to have them removed. While I wouldn’t want to say that God can’t do something (see Jesus’ words above), it has been my experience that my defects don’t seem to be removed against my will. This experience is shared with many of the recovering alcoholics and addicts I know. As one of my former sponsors was fond of saying, “God doesn’t remove defects I’m actively practicing.”
This brings us to the final point in achieving the readiness called for by Step Six, a principle that that same sponsor called “act as if”. Simply stated, our attitudes follow our actions at least as much as our actions follow our attitudes. If I want to be more loving, I need to act in more loving ways, and in time I will become more loving. If I want to be more forgiving, I need to act in more forgiving ways, and in time I will become more forgiving. If I want to be less fearful, I need to act in ways that are driven by my faith and not by my fear, and in time I will become less fearful. Another way of putting it is that sometimes, it is easier to act my way into a new way of thinking than it is to think my way into a new way of acting.
Even keeping all of this in mind, it should be obvious that being entirely ready to have God remove all of our defects of character is not something that happens overnight. This is one reason why, for recovering alcoholics and addicts, recovery is a lifetime process. (As one friend of mine puts it, “The alcohol went away when I put the plug in the jug; if I don’t want it to come back, I have to treat the ism every day.”) The Twelve Steps are not a series of “one and done” exercises, to be pursued, completed and forgotten. Rather, they are like girders in the frame of a building. They become the framework on which a way of life can be built, a way of life that is deeply satisfying and which is characterized by joy, freedom and loving service to humanity. That such a way of life could be possible for those formerly enslaved by alcoholism or other addictions is nothing short of miraculous, but the point of these essays is that such a way of life is available for all. Thus, for all recovering human beings, the building and maintenance of the willingness to let God shape and change us is a lifetime pursuit.