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Suffering and Alcohol Addiction

September 4, 2012

In the last blog post, I mentioned maladaptive means of coping with alienation from God.  This so-called “second level” of human suffering is integral to any hopeful analysis of suffering, because it’s precisely the level at which we have the responsibility and capability to effect change in our personal situation.   In terms of the suffering that comes as a result of alcohol or drug addiction, the actual use of alcohol or mind-altering substance is the symptom of a more deeply rooted problem.  This problem is rooted in a mindless captivity to dysfunctional thought patterns, which lead to maladaptive addictive behavior.  Those who are not familiar with the neurological disease of addiction often incorrectly believe that addiction is a matter of low willpower or bad decision-making.  However, the addict mired in his addiction is not capable of engaging the will in order to stop the behavior because the will has been rendered powerless and decision-making is flawed at best.

This is where the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous come into play.  These Steps, written by alcoholics for alcoholics, recognize that alcoholism is a disease that must be confronted on two levels-our thoughts and our behavior.  It’s instructive to note that the majority of the Steps concern the thoughts.  It is only after our dysfunctional thinking is re-oriented that our behavior can change.  This closely resembles the wisdom of the ancient fathers who describe the process of change in repentance in terms of theoria and praxis.

A closer inspection of the relationship between the Twelve Steps and the wisdom of the ancient fathers may prove beneficial at this point.

1st Step-We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable.  The AA founders understood that such an admission was a fundamental first step in recovery from addiction.  They recognized and humbly admitted that recovery was beyond the scope of their abilities. For the ancient fathers, the admission of powerlessness is at root a dogmatic statement about the absolute distinction between the created world and the Uncreated God. God is the all-powerful Creator; human beings are the work of His hand and dependent on Him. Apart from God, we get so sidetracked by desires, acquisitiveness, and fears that our lives seemed to be ruled by those diversions and not by ourselves, for we act in opposition to our own best interest, the peace of the soul in union with God. On our own, we are powerless over our passions and this makes our lives unmanageable.

2nd Step-Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  This step involves the logical next step for the addict.  It is a crucial and therapeutic turn from the inner self to One who is greater and capable of making the unmanageable manageable.  It is a step that requires the humility to ask for help.  In terms of the ancient fathers, the remembrance of God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, stood at the very beginning of the journey back to union with God, for forgetfulness of God is ultimately responsible for man’s many kinds of suffering.  And God has revealed Himself to be the Savior, Redeemer, and Physician of all the world, the only One who can restore man to the likeness of divine beauty. Furthermore as the Divine Logos, He is the source of all wisdom and reason. He alone can restore us to the sanity of watchfulness and holiness.

3rd Step-Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.  The phrase “self will run riot” is found in the Big Book of AA wherein the role of will is examined and understood to be out of control precisely because it is obsessively focused on self-gratifying pleasure and pain avoidance at all costs.  In my last post I wrote about“willfulness bound to narrow self-centered reasoning, unbridled sensuality, and relentless acquisitiveness” as a source of unmanageability, but also about the “the way out of this self-fulfilling constrictive circle of egoism…by obedience to His commandments (rather than the willful fabrication of our own commandments), by a measured life of Christian asceticism (rather than sensuality), and a generosity in a readiness for almsgiving (rather than acquisitiveness).” For the fathers, the decision to lead a life guided by the commandments, asceticism, and almsgiving is the decision to turn our will and our lives over to care of God as the Prophets, Apostles, and Saints understand Him.

4th Step-Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.  The moral inventory is usually performed with one’s AA sponsor and is the primary catalyst for behavioral change and the beginning of a new sober life.  The moral inventory is closely related to what the fathers characterized as self-reproach, an indispensable trait for growth in the spiritual life.  In my book, I note that “the repentant or penitent is someone who accuses his sins, rather than excuses them or denies them.  This mark of genuine repentance, moreover, explains why the ancient ascetics considered self-reproach to be such a fundamental virtue in the Christian life.”

5th-10th Steps-Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs (5th); Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character (6th); Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings (7th); Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all (8th); Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others (9th); Continued to make personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it (10th);  These steps focus on the practical steps required to effectively change maladaptive behavior.  It is noteworthy that these steps focus on God, self and others.  It is also significant that the Steps acknowledge that God is the one who removes what AA terms “defects of character”.  Although the notion of a nebulous Higher Power rightly concerns Christians Who confess one Lord Jesus Christ, the contours of these steps do align with the fathers counsel on the effects of sin, the nature of repentance, and God’s pivotal role in salvation.  Sin is not merely isolated to the sinner but affects the world in which he lives.  The rupture of relationships caused by sin must be addressed, acknowledged, and where appropriate, mended.  This program of sound praxis follows directly from the restoration of proper thought patterns.

  11th Step-Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.  Prayer and meditation are essential components of the 12 Steps because AA recognizes that the disease of addiction is fundamentally a spiritual issue.  Interestingly, the step not only encourages prayer and meditation but provides instruction on how to pray.  It is important to note that AA members are instructed to pray only for knowledge of God’s will and the power to fulfill that will.  This is precisely because selfishness lies at the root of the disease of addiction.  The 11th Step is quite similar to the ancient fathers’ counsel concerning prayer, especially regarding the Jesus Prayer.  For the AA member and the Christian, the goal of prayer is re-union with God, not the fulfillment of selfish desires.

12th Step-Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.  This spiritual awakening leads to a new creative openness to the plight of others in similar circumstances.  Rather than focusing solely on ourselves, we focus on our fellow sufferers.  This is precisely the path described by the ancient fathers for those who are earnestly engaged in the process of purification, illumination, and deification.  By the grace of God, repentant prayer is transformed into a prayer, for the entire Adam, for all the world.  The Christian who is actively engaged in repentance and self-reproach is constantly aware of the suffering and needs of those around him.

As we have seen, there are many points of convergence between the 12 Steps of AA and the spiritual life as described by the ancient fathers.  Maladaptive ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving in order to deal with human suffering are transformed and overcome by the slow transformation of one’s thoughts and behaviors.

  1. Father bless!

    Forgive the rather belated comment on this, but I came across this post while looking up Orthodox commentaries on 12-step programs, in particular. I was interested to ask what you might say for someone who’s concerned that the 1st step implies we are powerless while it might be true we would have power to choose/act otherwise. Is this the case for just those under an addiction, or would this also be the case for anyone with some passion in general, even if it’s not of an extreme, addictive nature (if one can quantify a passion—another, separate question by itself).

    Also somewhat connected, but someone could also say that we are never tempted beyond what we can resist—along the lines of 1 Cor 10:13. How would you relate that to the 12-steps?

    Sorry to bundle a bunch of questions at once. A number of thoughts and questions I’ve had while in conversation with others. I otherwise really appreciate your writing and posts on the Orthodox spiritual life in relation to contemporary psychological and counseling topics.

    • My apologies—the last sentence at the end of that first paragraph was meant to be a question.

  2. The Lord God bless you, Jon Andrew!

    I think the notion of powerlessness can be tied into Christ’s words, “without Me, you can do nothing.” In seeking victory over the passions, we are in need of deep humility and reliance on God. There are some areas of our spiritual life that we may not allow Christ to enter. There are some areas that we may feel that we can handle it on our own. And although we might not confess such a stance, in the heat of the moment that is the stance we often live by. Of course, such a stance is both proud and selfish, stemming from a trust in self that is not warranted by experience. Although we cannot be tempted beyond what we can resist as long as the eyes of our souls are riveted on Christ, the moment we take them off Christ to look at the passion or the waves the passion causes, we will also undoubtedly sink like Saint Peter who could walk on water with his gaze fixed on Christ, but could only sink when his gaze was fixed elsewhere. The continuous use of the Jesus prayer, Lord Jesus have mercy on me, is a continuous cry of powerlessness and confession of Christ’s sufficient power to heal us and protect us. But even that cry must be made with an undivided soul if it is to be efficacious. In other words, before the moment of giving into a passion there is a moment of shutting God out. We do have a choice at that moment, but thereafter, the die has been cast and we must live with the consequences until we come to repentance.

    I hope this is helpful.

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