Our last post before taking a break for the holiday and the first in a series of previews of our brand new publication, Grace in Addiction: The Good News of Alcoholics for Everybody by John Z, this section comes from pages 23-25:

8317An important issue for Alcoholics Anonymous is the problem of agency: in other words, is the emphasis placed on the individual’s initiative or on God’s work upon the individual?

For starters, it should be understood that the “work-related” terminology of the Twelve Steps can just as easily be interpreted as a descriptive tool, rather than a prescriptive one. In other words, the working of the Twelve Steps is what happens to the person who finds God’s grace, rather than something that precedes the attainment of grace. ‘Grace’ here simply refers to a wholly undeserved gift, one which provides an irresistible and radical reorientation of the recipient’s life. The movement of grace often happens with our consent, but it never happens on our initiative. Perhaps an analogy will help to make the point (HT RR):

Imagine that you are riding on the deck of a cruise liner in the middle of the night. Suddenly, you slip on the slick flooring and find yourself tumbling overboard, into the cold dark waters below. You begin to flail in the choppy sea, kicking and trying to scream for help. Unfortunately, you’re a poor swimmer and can barely keep your head above water, much less get your voice to project enough to be heard by the passengers and crew still on board. Miraculously, one of your shipmates spots you and yells to the captain, “Man overboard!” The crew makes the proper adjustments, and after not too long the ship pulls within reach of you. A life preserver ring attached to a rope is thrown from the deck, and it mercifully lands in front of you, just as your strength is failing.

You grab onto it with both arms, finding immediate relief in its buoyancy. The crew then draws the line into the boat and hoist you onto the deck where you lie, coughing the water out of your lungs, completely exhausted, befuddled, and grateful. The passengers and crew wrap you in blankets and carry you to the infirmary.

Imagine now that you finally have gotten your voice back. You motion that you wish to make a brief announcement to the onlookers. Here is what you say:

“Did you see how I grabbed onto that life preserver like an expert? Did you notice the strength of my biceps and the dexterity in my wrists? I was all over that thing!”

Would not the people hearing this think you had lost your mind? Your statement misses the entire thrust of what had just occurred, which was – pure and simple – a rescue. Would not gratitude and humility be a more fitting and natural response to the whole situation?

And yet, sadly enough, some form of the above tends to be our response to most of the good things that happen to us. Winners of poker games always believe they won by skill; losers tend to believe they were the victim of bad luck. Our careers, our children, our relationships: the human race has an incredible talent for focusing on its own role in the good things of life and minimizing its culpability in negative things. Religious people are not exempt from this phenomenon. In my experience, while Christians often talk loudly about God’s power and grace, their rhetoric just as often betrays a secret belief that their own initiative and willpower played the decisive role – “did you see the way I grabbed onto that life preserver?”

In Alcoholics Anonymous, we have been disabused of our romance with our own willpower. The manner in which it failed us was dramatic, poignant, and explicit. As much as the Twelve Steps ostensibly emphasize action, the entire process is conditioned by profound dependence upon grace. Most alcoholics end up in AA after years of trying to cure themselves with self- help – indeed, self-help’s failure is a starting-point for AA. In this sense, it is desperation and not virtue that fuels one’s engagement with the AA Program. The step-‘work’ happens reflexively in the one who knows his need for rescue. To the extent that we honestly recognize our powerlessness to rescue ourselves, the message of grace breaks through by assuring us that we don’t have to save ourselves. Indeed, this idea permeates all Twelve Steps of AA. It is hard to imagine the drowning man rejecting the life preserver unless he were in some way deluded about the severity of his situation…

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