The first of the Twelve Steps requires the “admission of powerlessness”; the addict cannot gain access to sobriety without traveling through that ugly door. To quote Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, “The principle that we shall find no enduring strength until we first admit complete defeat is the main taproot from which our society has sprung and flowered” (p. 22). In a practical sense, this means that the addict who is not in a state of despair about his or her plight needs to be made to feel worse if they are ever to find lasting sobriety. It is sometimes said in AA that “a person doesn’t attend AA in order to stay sober; they attend in order to remember that they are drunks.”
In theological terms, this tells us something about God: He is a God who meets people in their weakness, not their strength. He is a God who saves people from themselves. Rescue is the thrust of the Bible and the heart of the Christian Gospel. Sadly, this simple catch-22 – that the only way you can find God is if you desperately need Him – stands in direct opposition to the widespread, even dominant notion in today’s churches that spiritual life finds its origin in decision-making/virtuous intention/choosing God. There is some talk in churches of God as redeemer, but there is also an enormous amount of talk of God as teacher, friend, inspiration, coach, etc. In AA there is only one thing: God is who you need to save you. And if you do not find him, you are in serious trouble – in exactly the way St. Paul talks about or the way the jaywalking example illustrates.
AA rejects the notion that spiritual growth is ever ultimately fueled by virtue, insisting that all sanctification is born out of continued need. A classic line from the Twelve & Twelve posits: “Pain [is] the touchstone of all spiritual progress” (p. 93-94). In sobriety, attention is always focused on those areas where holiness seems to be lacking, whereas little to no attention is paid to perceived progress. The need for help also creates and fosters the desire to pray. Without struggle, the believer would never need to pray, but with continued weakness, there always remains an open channel of prayer and trust in God as the deliverer and counselor.
Because the struggles of life remain essentially the same for the sober and drinking alcoholic, there is little stratification between the members of a recovery group; both the 25-year sober drunk and the 5-day sober drunk need the same thing, which is the gift of sobriety, God’s gracious gift of reprieval. It is often said in AA that the sober alcoholic who wakes up first on any given day has the most sobriety of anyone in the program.
Consequently, the addict believes there is no distinction to be drawn between the message that should be given to newcomers (in Christian terms, non-believers and new converts), and mature AAs (members of church leadership and stalwart long-term adherents of the faith). The church that believes its Gospel message applies exactly the same way to both newcomer and aging saint alike is a rare bird indeed. In AA the same gospel that saves a drunk can also do the miraculous trick of sanctifying him (i.e., keeping him saved), no matter how long he has been coming. The same message that gets you in, also keeps you in. To put it a different way, spiritual growth is understood to be cyclical rather than linear: it is a constant return to the beginning instead of a clear progress from A to B.