"I've turned the problem of alcohol over to the Higher Power, but I have trouble in many other things. How do we go about turning our whole lives over? This subject has come up at our beginners' meeting, but we can't seem to clarify our understanding that the suggested Third Step does not pertain solely to the problem of alcohol or just the first drink."
Thus writes an AA member who is perplexed by a problem that baffles countless other AAs: Just what is meant by turning our will and lives over to God and how do we do it? Should His help be sought only in solving the drinking problem? Or does it involve everything we do? And are we being both selfish and naive if we expect Him to hand down guidance and help in dealing with our social, business and health problems?
Many AAs dispose of these questions with a good-natured but revealing comment: "Pray for potatoes, but grab a hoe. "Clearly, this saying suggests that God's action in human affairs--if it exists at all--is slight and is certainly no substitute for human effort. "Go ahead and seek spiritual guidance," the newcomer might be told, "but don't expect to hear bells or see bolts of lightning."
Yet these remarks hardly answer the needs of many earnest and troubled AAs who have met complete frustration and defeat from problems that are fully as baffling and terrifying as alcohol proved to be. They might wonder, with a great deal of justification, if they've escaped from the fleshpots of Egypt only to perish in the desert. Freedom from John Barleycorn's house of bondage--however priceless a gift--is difficult to appreciate fully when one feels overwhelmed by numerous other problems. Can we turn these over and expect results?
We can and we should; indeed, this is the true meaning of the Third Step. It does not directly concern itself with the first drink or the drinking problem; rather it calls for turning our will and our lives over to the Higher Power. A nonalcoholic can take this Step in exactly the same way that an AA member might follow it. Many do. Our goal should be to seek and develop a God-consciousness within ourselves which will govern our lives. The experience of many AAs is that this God-consciousness can be found and that it works. Prayer does change things, and always for the better.
It should be understood that taking the Third Step--letting go and letting God--is not an abdication of personal responsibility or duty; it will not do away with the need for hoeing the potato patch. But it is a way--perhaps the only way--of facing our responsibilities in the proper spirit and performing our duties more perfectly. For the sad story of man without God is that he does far too much hoeing for too few potatoes.
Let it never be said that the spiritual way is a cowardly or escapist approach to life. On the contrary, it requires maximum diligence and persistence to seek divine guidance when all the evidence of our eyes and ears tries to tell us that life is largely physical, intellectual and emotional. It means constant work to exclude from our own minds the doubts and fears that interfere with this God-consciousness. It means putting the spiritual life ahead of all else whenever possible, to seek the long-term gains of spiritual well-being over short-term pleasures that get in the way of spiritual progress. But those who seek the spiritual approach will, in the end, not only come to terms with all their problems, their strength of character and calmness of mind will be admired by the same people who scoff at this 'God business.'
If all this is accepted as being true, how then do we go about making our contact with God--turning things over? How does one know if it's working--if our prayers are being answered? What can we do to improve the success of our prayers?
Since God doesn't usually reveal Himself by ringing bells or sending bolts of lightning, we can go only by our own feelings about specific matters. If we feel a sense of God's presence in our affairs, however slight and fleeting it sometimes seems to be, then it's likely that we're making our approach in a suitable manner. We should also remember that God's power is ready to come into our lives whenever we are ready; we are seeking Somebody whose presence is all around us but goes unnoticed because of our own doubts, fears and lack of faith. The job is essentially one of getting ourselves out of the way of our own good.
The AA member who knows all this but still feels he's being held back--that some things are just too difficult to turn over--might consider approaching God by three distinct means: prayer and meditation, love, and service. For it may be that God wants us to seek Him while bending to help somebody as well as while bending the knee in prayer. If our own prayers seem to go unheeded, it may partly be due to our own selfish lack of concern about others who need our help. If our faith seems dead, we might try bringing it to life with good works, particularly those that require some effort and sacrifice on our part.
The good life of an AA member who is seeking these three approaches to God is like a fruit tree. Prayer and meditation are the water and fertilizer, love is the golden sunlight, and service is the pruning and picking. Such a tree must always bear fruit.
All are perhaps equally important, but in AA the emphasis has often been on service, or action. That's understandable, for without service AA would die. The AA message does not carry itself; somebody must carry it. It's interesting; also, that AA began with an act of service--when another alcoholic thought of paying a visit to his old friend, Bill W., and telling him about a simple program that had helped to keep him sober. This action set the pattern for all the AA service that was to come; without it, AA couldn't have been born.
Some form of service may be the only immediate solution for the AA member who is facing complete defeat or frustration from other problems. This may seem escapist, but it's not. What is more practical than to get one's own spiritual house in order before attempting to straighten out some of the confusion in one's environment? For unless a person is able to approach his problems with an uplifted state of mind, the chances are high that he'll never solve them; he'll only cause more confusion.
Service is God in action; when we seek to help others, we automatically serve God. If we cannot approach service spontaneously and lovingly, we should do the next best thing: we should serve because we need to serve for our own good.
Any AA member can begin to change his life by finding better ways to serve others. There are, of course, many opportunities to serve by working with newcomers and attending meetings, but there are also other forms of service that include everybody who enters our lives in any way. We can serve others by thinking well of them; our changed attitude toward them is bound to have an uplifting effect on their lives. We can put an end to gossip, jealousy, criticism, or any other disharmony among members of our family and friends. If there's any good that we can do for anybody, we can take the time to do it. And if there's something in us that balks at these suggestions, then we ought to find out what it is, for that's part of the barrier that lies between us and our ultimate realization of God's presence.
It never can be emphasized too strongly that, in the end, our thoughts and actions toward others color our own spiritual life. We become what we do. Acts of kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness and forgiveness must inevitably strengthen those qualities within us that heighten our consciousness of God's love.
This great love is the sunlight of AA's tree of life, and any member who seeks to learn more about God should ask himself how much he really loves his fellow men, all of them. If we don't feel the need for some feeling of goodwill toward everybody--call it love--we should reflect that in approaching God we seek to contact the very source of love. In asking God to guide and direct our lives, we are asking love to take over and lead us where it will. If we are unwilling to have this happen--if, instead, we wish to retain our right to be critical and indifferent toward many of our fellows--then we're not really ready to turn our whole lives over. We only get out of AA what we put into it, and if we wish to climb great spiritual heights, we ought to remember that only fears and reservations within ourselves hold us back.
Fortunately, any of us can make a beginning, no matter how love-starved our previous lives have been. Some think that alcoholism itself grows out of love starvation and that alcoholics are actually persons born with a great capacity for love. Whatever the truth may be, it's plain that many AA members have felt a keen love for the suffering alcoholics they tried to help, though they would have snorted at the suggestion that there was something Christ like in this devotion. The origin and growth of AA itself can be described only as another expression of the great potential for love which God has placed in man.
It's also possible that if a large number of us could truly glimpse the potential of love, we could carry the AA fellowship to even greater heights of service. For we live in a love-starved world surrounded by fearful people who don't know where to turn for strength; who don't know that faith and the love of God are the only perfect answers to fear.
Another quality of love is that it brings on an automatic adjustment in personal shortcomings that might otherwise cause all sorts of trouble. When we look upon the difficulties that people have with troublesome character traits, we can't help but reflect that many of these traits are perversions of the love instinct, or exist because love is absent. The truly loving person cannot lie, cheat, steal, withhold his assistance, or do any of the despicable acts that promote so much evil in the world. It certainly must have been for this reason that Jesus stated that the only commandments really necessary were to love God and to love one's neighbor no less than oneself.
But for its highest growth the tree of life in AA needs to be watered and fertilized with prayer and meditation. If a member is already giving himself over to AA's love and service, he can bring these to mature fruition through a deliberate, sustained effort to seek God in his own thoughts.
The need for this is sometimes viewed rather lightly in AA, but even a casual reading of the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" should convince one that AA's pioneers not only relied heavily on prayer and meditation but also reported some profound results. Prayer changed their thinking and brought some marvelous blessings into their lives.
Evidently the winning qualities in prayer, as in acts of love and service, are single-mindedness and sincerity.
In any case, the purpose of prayer and meditation should be to align ourselves with God and to invite Him to lead us and inspire us according to His will ("Not my will, Father, but Thine be done.") Steps Three and Eleven in the AA program both contain this idea, the latter being only the idea applied on a daily basis. The phrase "improve our conscious contact with God" in the Eleventh Step is very meaningful, for it suggests that our prayer and meditation should be bringing about the happy result of increasing our awareness of God's presence.
No sane person would attempt to carry on a discussion with another human being who was not known to be within his hearing by one means or another. In a like manner, any talking things over with God is less effective if one doesn't really believe he's in contact with a Higher Power. So it's helpful to begin such a session by tuning in; by clearing the mind of worldly clamors and other intrusions. Otherwise there's a good chance that self-will and selfish desires will insinuate themselves into one's guidance and keep him from his highest good.
It must be clear that we shouldn't try to give orders to God, to tell him the exact direction His guidance should take. Our Father knows our needs before we ask Him, and it's actually self-defeating as well as presumptuous to tell Him how something ought to be solved. We lack the ability to see around corners, we have no periscope into tomorrow. The lucky break we crave today may turn out to be next week's liability, or the advantage we seek for ourselves may be better suited for another person.
It's also clear that we cannot with any justification ask God to help us vanquish others in competition or to hand us an advantage that works to somebody else's detriment. Being on a spiritual basis does not mean that God now favors us over other men; if anything, it means only that one should try even harder to acknowledge the rights of those who have not yet brought this blessing into their own lives.
If we're truly letting go and letting God, the probable result is that we've lost most of the fear and anxiety concerning any problem that might be troubling us at the moment. Obviously we're hopeful that the solution, whatever it may be, won't involve too much temporary pain or loss. Still, we should also be careful not to assume that God delights in causing us pain or loss, for these usually occur only as a result of our partial or total separation from Him. Surely God's will for us is that we live fully and abundantly on all levels--the physical, emotional and intellectual, as well as the spiritual.
Therefore He knows of our economic and social needs. But all too often our real need is to let go of certain things in order to make our conscious contact with God. We may be putting these things first in our own minds, looking to them for security and power that rightly ought to come from God. For this reason it's sometimes a distinct blessing when circumstances wrest them from us and force us to turn elsewhere for help. This, in fact, is what happened with our drinking problems.
Our great need, however we approach God, is to know that God loves us and needs us too, and that with Him all things are possible. If we seek Him, we find that He comes to meet us as the father in the Biblical parable rushed to meet his prodigal son. Who can ask for more than that?