One of the leading methods of recovery over the last hundred years has been the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). There are twelve step groups all over the world for different drugs of choice, including Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), and even Heroin Anonymous (HA). Alcoholics Anonymous started in the 1930’s when the founder, Bill Wilson, had a spiritual experience that removed the desire to drink and he began living according to the principles of the Oxford Group. This was a Christian group aimed at leading people into a relationship with God and living a Godly life. The twelve steps evolved from Biblical principles, but have allowed room for people to come up with their own conception of God. The twelve steps were a massive part of my early freedom journey and I am grateful for the role they have played in my life. Although the twelve steps have helped multitudes of people relieve their desire to drink and have played a part in my story, they are incomplete in many ways. In this short blog, I will address four of those shortcomings with hopes of leading you into a more abundant life.
One of the main shortcomings of the twelve steps is the longevity of the solution. The aim of the twelve steps is to help people stop drinking and have a more fulfilled life on earth, without any consideration of what happens when we die. This is like if you came to me with a gunshot wound and I gave you a handful of oxycontin and a bandaid. It may relieve the pain temporarily and cover the bloody wound, but it does not help you solve the real problem.
We will all spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell. The emptiness in our souls that led us to alcoholism and drug addiction is meant to lead us back to God through Christ, which results in eternal life. If we rid ourselves of the temporary problem of addiction without fixing our eternal problem, we have just put a bandaid on a bullet wound. CS Lewis once said, “Aim for heaven and get earth thrown in; aim for earth and get neither” (Lewis; The Joyful Christian). The principles found in the Bible lead to more than sobriety on earth. Through scripture we can know the God of the bible, live a godly life, and experience the joy He offers now and for eternity.
One of the walls I often run into with sharing Jesus with people in twelve step recovery is the idea of religion. This stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of religion. Religion, at its core, is man’s approach to God. It is the belief that we can earn our way back to God. This is at the root of every single world religion, other than Christianity. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and even many Catholics have this mentality. Because God is holy and we are flawed, they believe we must climb the ladder of good works and religious duty to earn our way to right relationship with God.
Christianity stands alone in stark opposition to this. The Bible teaches that we are unable to earn God’s approval through our good works, but only through the grace of God. God doesn’t wait for you to climb the steps of religion, but rather He came to earth, lived a perfect life in your place, and took your punishment upon Himself on the cross. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Without the grace of God, the twelve steps are just another form of religion. They teach the way to “unblock ourselves” from God is by human steps. In other words, the twelve step model teaches we must climb the ladder back to God through good works. This is like a man tirelessly running on a treadmill. He believes if he jumps off he will surely drink again. The treadmill continues to speed up until the man is gasping for air. The twelve steps without the grace of God teaches that to stay right with God you must run harder and faster for the rest of your life. Many have lasted many years in this constant striving, but Jesus invites you to get off the treadmill. “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30 MSG). God does not just want you to live a godly life, but He wants you to live a life of soul rest in His grace. When you place your faith in Christ, you can get off the treadmill.
AA teaches its members that once you are an alcoholic or addict, you remain in this state forever. Whenever a member speaks at a meeting, they open with, “Hi, I’m Chris, and I am an alcoholic.” They find their identity in their deficiency in order to remind themselves they can never drink or use again. Identifying with the past keeps them enslaved.
The Bible teaches that once you place your faith in Christ you are a new creation. This means that all of the old labels you used to carry around have been replaced with all that Christ has bought for you. After giving a list of sinful identities, including drunkard, Paul says, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). The spiritual principles of AA may be able to change your outward actions, but the Gospel changes the very core of who you are. You and I can now boldly say, “Hi, my name is Chris, and I am a new creation.”
Lastly, and most importantly, the twelve steps fall short of the main issue of life--who is my god? The point of life is to know God. The point of the Gospel is to get God. The problem with the world is that we look to things other than God to be our god, and they always fall short. Without a relationship with God through the Gospel, we have just made something else our god (principles, group, program, etc.) that still won’t satisfy the deepest longings of our soul. The crux of the issue with the twelve steps is that they allow you to pick a “god of your understanding.” We want God on our terms, which is the problem with all addiction and sin. God will not allow for this. God is God and He doesn’t conform to our understanding.
The point of the Biblical principles of the Oxford group is to lead us into a more intimate relationship with God. Without Him, the principles are just like learning principles for a healthy marriage, but having no spouse. It’s like learning how to swim with no pool. We are practicing the principles, yet missing the Person who is the Point. We have traded one false god, drugs and alcohol, in for another false god, sobriety or the program of AA. We aren’t emancipated from our jail cell, but rather moved from one jail to another one in a different county. The cuffs still haven’t come off.
There is one true God. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). A god of your own understanding or higher power may trick you into sobriety, but there is One God who you were made to be in relationship with. He is the Holiday at Sea you have been longing for.
In conclusion, the twelve steps have merit, in the sense that their source is the Bible, but they fall short in many devastating ways; mainly eternity, grace, identity, and idolatry. The principles are profound if understood in the context of the Gospel. I have heard many twelve step advocates say, “Religion (lumping Christianity into this category) is for people who don’t want to go to hell. Spirituality (meaning twelve step programs) is for people who have already been there.” I will close by adding one more line to this equation:
Religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell.
Spirituality is for people who have already been there.
Christianity is for people who are never going back.