Step Three: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
Shakespeare once said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.” For the addict, the analogy of the stage of life — so eloquently drawn by Shakespeare — could not be more apropos. That being so, the Third Step thus presents a choice — will the actor star in a new role, or will the tragedy continue to unfold under the current script?
At this point, it is apparent to me that my drinking and using drugs was but a symptom of far deeper problems. This does not mean that particular people or circumstances of my past (or present) are subject to blame. Moving beyond the superficial, it is obvious that my “design for living” — that which primarily includes my ideas about happiness and my plans to achieve that — simply have not worked very well. The truth is that left to my own devices, I have repeatedly engaged in self-destructive behavior that has harmed myself and others. The outward behavior (or, my life) was fueled by destructive self-will. The analogy of the “play of life” as it relates to destructive self-will continues in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:
Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great . . . In making these arrangements our actor may be quite virtuous. He may be kind, considerate, patient, generous . . . on the other hand, he may be mean, egotistical, selfish, and dishonest . . . What usually happens? The show doesn’t come off very well. He begins to think life doesn’t treat him right. He decides to exert himself more. He becomes, on the next occasion still more demanding or gracious as the case may be . . . he is sure that other people are more to blame . . . Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness our of this world if he only manages well . . . even in his best moments, [is he not] a producer of confusion rather than harmony?
The point of the description is to illustrate that when the focus of my life is to direct my will in such a way as to manipulate an outcome which I think will bring me happiness, I often end up producing exactly the opposite result. The problem consists of both how I direct my will (in a selfish, self-centered way) and my beliefs about the purpose of life and happiness. When thus disjointed, I am operating exclusively on self-centered fear. — I am afraid that I am either a) going to lose something that I think makes me happy; or b) that I am not going to get something that I think will make me happy. Returning to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:
Selfishness — self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made a decision based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt . . . So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic [and addict] is an extreme example of self-will run riot.
It is important to differentiate between the proper use of the will and destructive self-will. The surrender which began in the First Step and continues in the Third Step does not mean that I cannot pursue my goals, make plans, and make changes in my life. The NA Step Working Guides provide guidance in the form of questions I might ask myself when evaluating whether or not I am exercising my self-will constructively, or destructively. For example, “will pursuing my goals harm anyone?”; “will I have to compromise any of my principles to achieve this goal? (for example: will I have to be dishonest? cruel? disloyal?”) To these questions, I would also add “am I trying to manipulate an outcome based upon a conception of happiness which has been proven faulty?” If I can answer “yes” to any of these questions, then I am most likely engaged in the destructive use of my own willpower.
I have the power to choose whether to direct my self-will in a constructive manner, or in a destructive manner.
The God of My Understanding
In My Personal Second Step, I discussed several examples of “Powers Greater than Myself”. Now, in the Third Step, the terminology has shifted from nebulous Powers to the word God. Again, I must guard against the tendency to allow my prejudicedes against organized religion to deter me here. As was true of the Higher Power concept in the Second Step, according to the NA Step Working Guides, God can represent the Power of the Program, spiritual principles, or any other conception that I may have. The change in semantics from “Higher Power” to “God” is only as significant as I make it. If I were looking for a reason to forestall the process of my own recovery, I could certainly claim (as I have in the past) that the transition from the Second Step to the Third Step is a poorly veiled bait-and-switch.
To avoid experiencing the same pitfall of perception, I had to confront — once and for all — my thoughts and feelings about God. I had to be honest to myself about not only what I could believe, but what I could not believe as well. Open-mindedness as an indispensable spiritual principle in this Step does not mean that I must accept another person’s God-concept. What it means for me is that I must not allow my own disbelief as it relates to some conceptions of God to foreclose my willingness to find a concept in which I can believe and trust. Though the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is often times very dogmatic while claiming to be spiritual, it must be remembered that the founders of that movement also implored in the text that I “not allow any prejudice [I] may have against spiritual terms [such as ‘Father’, ‘Creator’, etc.] deter [me] from honestly asking [myself] what they mean to [me].” In my research article, An Appeal for Pantheism, I took them at their word.
The God of my understanding is just that — the God of my understanding. So long as I can believe in and trust my concept, I have made a sufficient beginning.
Making a Decision
Take a look at the picture below of a frog sitting upon a log in a stream. If this frog were to decide to jump into the water, how many frogs would be left on the log?
The answer is: one frog will remain on the log. The point is that a decision which is not followed up with action is just that — a bare decision. So if the frog merely decides to jump without taking the action of jumping, then the same frog will remain on the log. I’ve made many well-intentioned decisions in my life, but rarely have I followed those decisions with sustained action. Like those other decisions, my decision to turn my will (thoughts) and my life (actions) over to the care of God of my understanding will amount to nothing more than a mental exercise in futility if I do not follow up with the necessary action.
This is where the Third Step, as a practical matter, is detached from the issue of God-concept (to the extent that one’s God-concept is more than the principles of the program as embodied by the Steps – which is of itself, again, sufficient for recovery). Therefore, ultimately, any lingering doubts with regard to the role of God or a Higher Power in my recovery are secondary to how I put my decision into action. In this respect my decision to turn it over is demonstrated by my working the remainder of the Steps. It is demonstrated by my taking the suggestions of my sponsor. It is demonstrated by my attending meetings. It is demonstrated by my directing my will in a constructive, rather than destructive, manner. Absent this sort of continued effort (and action), the Third Step would be rendered moot.
The decision I am making in the Third Step, as a practical matter, is a decision to work the remainder of the Steps, and to follow the suggestions of those who have recovered. Thus, the decision must be followed by action for it to yield any positive results.
Each Step provides me the opportunity to experience the application of spiritual principles in my life. In this respect, the 12 Steps are “mini-lessons” in the ultimate goal of (as the 12th Step states) “practicing these principles in all my affairs.”
Like the First Step, the Third Step involves an element of surrender. Instead of surrendering to my addiction, however, I am now surrendering to a new way of life based upon my conclusion that my old ways of thinking and acting do not work for me.
I demonstrate willingness and commitment by taking action upon the decision I’ve made to change my life. As above described, the commitment I have made in the Third Step will have no effect in my life if I do not take the remainder of the Steps. My levels of willingness and commitment to recovery are measured by the action I am taking to recover — not in the words that I speak.
Finally, the hope that was found in the Second Step begins to transform to faith in the Third Step. To me, faith is belief that a particular course of action will lead to a positive outcome. Therefore, my faith is rationally based and does not require suspension of belief. I have faith that I too can recover because others have demonstrated this to me. As I take the suggested action of the 12 Steps by applying the principles of hope and faith, and as my life begins to change in a positive way, I learn to trust the process of recovery.