Continuing with our series of previews of our recent publication Grace in Addiction: The Good News of Alcoholics Anonymous for Everybody, we move to a section from the chapter having to do with Step 7, i.e. “Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.”
“Although people do sometimes have a sense of peace with God… nevertheless, in a given situation it is not so much peace with God that is the true mark of the Holy Spirit at work, but birth pangs.” -Christoph Blumhardt
Another image of God’s work in a person’s life comes from John’s Gospel: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (3:8). During the 7th Step, defects can often seem to get worse, as though God’s power is blowing fickly from one random branch of our lives to the next.
On some days there seems to be very little wind. On other days things are gusty and inconsistent. Occasionally, the feeling of God’s presence in the midst of problematic situations is almost overwhelming. In each case, the individual has very little control over how it goes. Good sponsors consequently tend to encourage their sponsees to practice the 7th Step relentlessly for at least a month or two without forming any judgment on whether or not it’s “working.” You can imagine that a sapling, if it is dug up every day to check for root growth, will have a much harder time growing than one that is simply watered, exposed to sunlight, and left alone.
Why wouldn’t God remove defects in a way that is easily measurable to the recipient? A few reasons: First, it teaches us to rely upon God and not upon ourselves. Second, we must question the level of insight we have into our lives. Few people see themselves accurately, alcoholic or not. For people in a romantic relationship, for example, a significant other usually recognizes 7th Step changes first. Third, it draws our focus away from the areas where God is, in fact, improving things in us. True changes sometimes happen slowly and are difficult for us to recognize. This allows us to remain prayerful and focused on the only place where true solutions are found. While we’re preoccupied with one part of life, God is usually at work in another area, unbeknownst to us.
Fourth, it often feels like things are getting worse because we are starting to view our lives by a new set of incredibly stringent standards – not necessarily because we actually are getting worse. As C. S. Lewis once commented, “The closer you get to the sun, the bigger the shadow.” An AA doing the 7th Step has begun to view her life from God’s perspective, rather than her own. The old life is no longer easily justified. Nor is it defended. If nothing else, entering into this mindset brings about a fresh measure of humility. As Chuck T. used to say: “The thing about meekness [which is good] and weakness [which we think is bad] is that they feel the same.”
Finally, a person who is praying for God to remove his shortcomings might not be able to detect any answer because a new approach to life is being developed in them. This has more to do with praying than with having prayers answered. In many important respects, the prayer itself is the answer to the shortcoming. Our self-reliance is eroding and continual reliance upon God is taking its place. It’s actually the most wonderful thing in the world!
In my own experience, I remember being incredibly frustrated by the 7th Step and God’s failure to answer my prayers in a lasting fashion. I remember exaggerating stories and dishonestly embellishing in my conversations with friends, for example. Then I would awkwardly apologize, correcting the details in the middle of re-telling a story.
After the conversation was over, I would run through the series of events in my head, praying, “God, forgive me for being dishonest, and please remove my dishonesty.” And then, seemingly five minutes later, I would find myself doing the same thing again. If I was not repeating the lying, like our earlier whack-a-mole analogy, I would be thinking some incredibly judgmental thought about another person in place of the still-smarting lie. This went on for weeks and months, and my alone time, walking to and from the subway, was riddled with endless self-criticism and confused attempts at 7th Step prayer. After a few months of this, I called my father, who is a minister and – to my way of thinking – a very spiritual man.
I burst out, “Dad, I must be doing something wrong. I pray for God to forgive me and to help me not do whatever it is I’ve just done again…and then five minutes later, I do it again. I’m trapped in this cycle and I honestly feel like I’m going insane!” After a brief pause, my father replied, “Son… welcome to the Christian life.”
An important part of Step 7 is acknowledging the fact that a person never graduates from the need for dependence upon God’s grace in the midst of life’s difficulties. St. Paul famously described this dynamic at the end of his Second Letter to the Corinthian Church. He recounted having a “thorn in the flesh,” which he repeatedly prayed for God to remove. God did no such thing, and for this, Paul later came to be incredibly grateful.