God, as we understood him (By James R.)
August 9, 2008, 7:51 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The following is my story as it was published in the collection Point of Return, edited by Andrew Martin of Serene Center. The book is a collection of recovery stories that each answer the same question: What was the one thing most important to your recovery? (link)

At the time of my spiritual awakening I was six months dry in a little room above a drugstore in the hills of Western Maine. I spent those days wandering the streets in solitude, talking to myself. I worked in a little shack behind a gas station where I counted the empty cans that people brought in for redemption. The customers that approached my shack would hear a lively conversation going on within. Then they’d find me in there, wild-eyed and alone.

Six months dry wasn’t much fun. It was like having an itch in my head I couldn’t scratch, and that itch gave me weird ideas. I thought everyone was looking at me all the time, talking about me or thinking bad things. I heard scratching on the walls of my room at night, scratching that wouldn’t go away until I drew a crucifix on the wall in just the right spot. I also had the idea that I was on the fast track to literary greatness. People didn’t appreciate me—not yet—I was going to show them. I was designing a novel machine on the walls of my studio apartment. Plastic sheets with markings in black ink and an elaborate system of sticky notes and yarn decorated my living space. Dominoes and dice scattered around the floor were the key to the whole system, although I’m not sure I could have explained that system to anyone if I’d had the chance. Nevertheless, I was going to show all the jerks that ever hurt me. They’d be sorry they were cruel to me when I was winking at the Queen of Sweden and accepting the Nobel Prize.

That’s how it was with me when I went dry for a while. I’d get sober. I’d go to meetings. I’d slowly lose my grip on reality.

“Keep coming back,” they’d tell me. And I would for a while, but how long can a man go to meetings when he’s busy pretending he’s a genius and avoiding all those people who want to creep into his mind?

Anyway, meetings didn’t seem to offer much. You’d steal down into some church basement and take a chair in a roomful of people just as crazy as you, and then they’d all start talking. Some would bitch about their lives. Some would tell stories about getting drunk and high. Some would talk real loud about God. And some would do what I did—they’d drink up the coffee and shift around in their seats nervously until it was time to go. It was all a waste of time, really, except for the free coffee. “If you want what we’ve got…” they said, but I never wanted anything anybody had in those rooms. The people who were sober the longest were more miserable than I was, so who needs it?

The worst meetings were the ones where they talked about God. I’d heard plenty of God-talk when I was growing up Baptist and I sure as Hellfire did not need some long-winded, self-righteous drunk to remind me of all that crap. It made me mad. So I stayed away from those meetings. Sometimes, after hearing somebody preach at a meeting, I’d stay away from meetings altogether for a while.

My pattern was to bounce in and out. I’d be “in the program” for a few months, and then I’d get sick of people and go it alone. When the isolation got to be too much, I’d drop in on some other meetings for a while. By bouncing in and out, I could put as much as a few years of sobriety together without having to really be one of those sad-sack has-beens whining their lives away anonymously in four-dollar chairs.

But then something happened to me when I was living in Maine. It was a fairly ordinary something, the kind of thing that happens to people all the time—sober, high, or otherwise—but when it happened to me, things started to change in my life.

As it happened, I had myself a girlfriend. In the state I was in, there weren’t too many women that would have me, but I somehow managed to find one and we had our way with each other for a few weeks anyway. Then, on my birthday, it happened. She dumped me. Two weeks into our “relationship,” she figured out that I was too desperate, insane, and needy to make for a good boyfriend, and she let me know.

Now break-ups happen all the time. I’d lost a number of women in and out of sobriety, so this was nothing new to me. Maybe it was the fact that it was my birthday that gave that break up a special punch, or maybe I was finally getting tired of being such a freak. The truth was that I didn’t really know how to be a human being. I was giving it my best shot, but I always seemed to end up all itchy and irritable and uncomfortable in my own skin. In order to get by in life I needed to have something around me to take the edge off. Weed worked. Beer worked. So did a number of other drugs. But when I was staying dry, I needed something else to get me through the day, and I liked a woman for that. A woman, when she has a mind to do it, can make a man feel satisfied. So when I could get with someone, I did.

When women dumped me, I was thrown back into my solitude. I had to scratch my own itches again. I had to go back to pretending to be a human being while all the time I felt like an inhuman creep. Break-ups were never any fun for me, but after this particular break-up, I was given a special grace—I got to take a hard look at my life.

Did I have anything left that was going to make my life amount to anything?


Was there anything at all that could distract me from myself and my pain for any considerable amount of time?


Could I think of anything that I hadn’t tried yet to make myself feel okay?

No, I could not.

I’d tried everything I could think of to make James function as a proper example of Homo Sapiens, and none of it worked. Drugs made me crazy. Not using drugs made me crazy. Meetings made me sick to my stomach. Rehabs were fun for a while, but then you had to go back to the real world again. The nut house was the same way; you could have a good time there, and then they’d throw you out on your ass. I’d climbed mountains and read books. I’d lived in five different states and two foreign countries. I’d seen pill doctors and “talk therapy” doctors. I’d sat alone in the corner of hipster coffee shops and filled journal after journal with sad notes about myself.

None of it worked.

After she broke up with me, I cried for a while. Then I left my house and went down to a meeting I’d heard about from this guy I’d met through a mutual friend. I didn’t go expecting to find anything useful. I just went because I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was in pain, so I had to have a way to kill some time.

That’s where I was spiritually on the night that I first met the Living Spirit—I was a sad, self-piteous, half-crazy jerk showing up at a meeting just to kill some time.

The meeting started like most others. There were a few readings, people said some prayers. Then the chairperson started reading out of a book. He read a while, and then talked about what he’d read. When he was done talking, he paused to see if anyone else wanted to speak. As it turned out, someone did want to speak, and she went on for a while about something she liked in the reading. Someone else picked up the conversation after her, and so on.

I can’t quote you verbatim what was said that night, but I can tell you that it was a message unlike any that I had ever heard before in five years of hopping in and out of meetings from state to state. Anywhere I ever went—AA, NA, whatever—the people spoke about their lives as addicts and how happy they were that they didn’t have to drink or use that day. Sometimes they spoke about their daily struggles with staying clean and sober, and when they did the message usually boiled down to something like this: “My life sucks, but I didn’t get high over it.” That was the sort of thing people “in the program” called “strength and hope.”

At this meeting, the message was different. They weren’t talking about how much their lives sucked when they were using, they spoke about the pain and chaos they used to live in when they were dry for a while without a spiritual experience. They described the restlessness, the paranoia, the sleepless nights. They spoke about the trail of broken relationships and the jobs they left behind them every time they went on a “dry bender.” (One man had lost his wife when he was two years clean in NA!) Several people voiced the opinion that they were more pleasant to be around high than dry.

They told “war stories” not about the using days, although they had plenty of those as well, but about the days of bare abstinence, when all they did was show up at meetings and talk.

The stories these people told were the stories of my life, life as I was living it right then. When one man described his daily affairs when he lacked a spiritual experience, I was convinced that he had been following me around and taking notes. How did these people know so much about me? How could they describe the inner workings of my mind? Clearly, they were not suffering from the symptoms they described. Their eyes were clear, and they could laugh about things that were still terribly painful for me, sensitive guy that I was.

These people also spoke about God. A lot. I hadn’t heard so much God-talk since I was in a youth-group Bible study. It made my skin crawl, and yet I could tell there was something different about these folks. They weren’t just banging on a pulpit and talking out the side of their necks. They knew what it was like to suffer, yet they were no longer suffering. They had a real solution to the problem of addiction—high or dry. Not only that, but they had a different way of talking about God.

As far as I knew then, most people who talked about God had an agenda for you. They wanted you to sign off on a set of doctrines and were willing to bully and intimidate you with hellfire threats if it would bring you on board. These people though—these drunks and junkies and alanons—they didn’t seem to have any thing to sell. “You can think whatever you want about God,” they said. “God’s not an idea, God is a living power.” “This isn’t about what you believe, it’s about what you do.” “Just throw out everything you think you know about God and start over.”

They said stuff like that, and they meant it. Not only were they serious about the God-stuff, but they were demonstrating through their testimonies that something had radically changed their lives, and that something had to be beyond human power. They were like me; they’d tried everything else they could think of before they turned to God, and nothing ever worked.

The meeting left me terribly rattled. They pushed my “God button” pretty hard and I was sore about it. I wanted to tell them all to screw and never go back again, but I couldn’t get up the nerve. The feeling in that room haunted me. These were real people, who really had an answer to the problems that were bugging me. They had something that I’d never seen anywhere else in the fellowships. They had what I wanted.

So I went back.

I went back and I kept going back. That guy who told me about the meeting eventually became my sponsor and he put me to work on the Twelve Steps. And the Twelve Steps pushed my “God button” all over again.

If you’ve ever read the Steps, you know what’s going on at the heart of this program. There’s a lot of talk in meetings about “Take what works and leave the rest,” but when you read the Steps you know—this program is about God all the way through. In the past, I’d always read the Steps and skipped over the God stuff, because I felt that I could leave out the parts I wasn’t interested in.

The trouble with that approach is that when you take out the God stuff, there’s not much program left. You can’t get past Step Two without having to believe. So if you really try to work Steps without God, you end up powerless with an unmanageable life, sitting in those meetings in a world of hurt and just barely staying dry.

When my new sponsor started working me through the Steps, he didn’t soft-pedal the God-stuff at all. Either I was going to come to terms with my resentments against God, or this program wasn’t going to work. A doorknob or a roomful of drunks was not going to fit the bill either. I had to let real, live Spiritual Power into my life so that it could make some necessary changes. Furthermore, I didn’t get to have any say over what this Power did and did not change. I couldn’t hold on to anything. God was going to have it all, and God could do whatever he wanted with me. My job was just to let go and get out of the way.

For a guy that’s actively resentful of his Christian upbringing, Surrender is a hard pill to swallow. I hated the very idea of God, so how was I supposed to get willing to let God take over my everything? Fortunately, Step Three was carefully worded for hard cases like me. I didn’t have to turn my life over to “Jesus,” or “Buddha,” or “Allah.” I had to turn it over to “God, as we understood him.”

As adamant as my sponsor was about the fact that I had to give up everything to this invisible Spirit that I didn’t believe in, he was equally willing to let me believe whatever I wanted about it. In fact, I didn’t even have to believe in God at all.

“You don’t have to believe in God,” he said, “You just have to give him a try.”

Give him a try. That was new. I could bring all my resentment and doubts to the table. I didn’t have to sign off on any statement of faith, and I could still have a shot at having one of those spiritual experiences these guys kept talking about. After I had my own spiritual experience, I could make up my own mind, and nobody was going to tell me any different. If God didn’t exist or couldn’t help me, then I hadn’t lost anything on the deal. I could go back to my miserable life knowing that I’d at least given this a try. That phrase—God, as we understood him—meant that I was granted total intellectual freedom in the realm of faith. The only catch was that I would have to give God everything I had—my personality, my future, my interests, my beliefs—and let this Power reshape them as it saw fit.

When my sponsor saw that I understood the terms of my surrender, he gave me a week to think about it. “Spend some time with this,” he said. “Don’t take it lightly.”

Lightly? I took it darned seriously. Was I really going to get down on my knees and hold this guy’s hands and tell God he could have me? I was afraid I’d just be making a total ass out of myself. It wasn’t going to work anyway, right? So why even bother? What was I even thinking by hanging out with these people? I struggled with doubts and reservations for the next five days, and then I had my first experience with the Power that hangs around AA.

It was the end of autumn, and I was stir-crazy so I went out for an evening stroll. I headed for the library, and on the way, of course, I was struggling with this question of whether or not I was really going to turn my life over to God.

It started to snow. When it snows, everything gets quiet. I thought about all the life decision I’d made since I came of age. I’d dropped out of church. I’d dropped out of high school. I had hitch-hiked around the state for a while. Of course, I had started to get high. And then there was a string of of relationships that didn’t work and a restless wandering from state to state. When faced with any major life decision, my process was always the same; I’d ask myself what I wanted the most, and then I went to work. When I got tired of high school, I dropped out. When I got sick of reality, I got high. When I had trouble in my personal life, I picked up and moved somewhere else. I’d gone along far enough on this path that I was now in a sad state of affairs. I couldn’t even hang on to a relatively easy-going woman for more than a couple of weeks.

When I looked at the record, life on my own terms didn’t amount to much. Even if I surrendered my everything to God, I wasn’t giving up much. I felt like a guy with a car in such a bad state of repair that he was going to have to call the dump and pay them to take it away. All I had was junk, so why not let God have it?

Then, a single line from the Lord’s Prayer came to me, falling over my mind like the snow fell over the earth: “Thy will be done.” The words drifted through me. “Thy will be done. Thy will be done.”

This phrase used to make me bristle at the neck. I once thought it meant that God wouldn’t have anything to do with his creatures unless they gave up their freedom and became their Creator’s slaves. Why would anyone want to give up their free will to someone like that? Thy will be done. The words sounded different to me then. I stopped walking and let the words wash over me. Thy will be done. I’d had my fill of “freedom.” All this time I’d been convinced that I was only doing what people were supposed to do—I was doing my best to get by on my own. As far as I knew until that moment, there wasn’t any other choice for me but to keep on going the way I was going, taking the edge off as best I could as I slowly drifted off the edge of sanity “one day at a time.”

But now I had a choice. Thy will be done. I wasn’t bound to my own will, doomed to carry it out. I could let another Power take over my life and change me. God wasn’t asking me to become his slave; he was offering me a way out.

That little moment in the snow was quite powerful for me. I’d been resisting the idea of God for a long time, and now, suddenly, all that resistance was gone.

As I entered the library, I started to sob. I caught a concerned look from the librarian, so I hurried to the bathroom and locked myself in. The strength went out of my legs, and I fell to my knees. My sponsor had shown me a Third Step prayer, but I couldn’t remember it. I just did the best I could:

“God, please help me.

I don’t want to be like this anymore.”

A few days later my sponsor took me hiking and had me do my “official” Third Step. I said the prayer the way it’s written in the book with him as my witness. This time, I didn’t weep or have any huge insights into my life story. But I did make a formal commitment to God and to this program in front of another human being. A week earlier I had been a confirmed atheist.

As the Steps progressed, my faith and commitment to God only grew deeper. In Step Four, I had to rely on God for insight into my moral failings. In Step Five, I confessed to God everything I’d been shown. In Step Six, I spent an hour alone, meditating and asking God to show me anything I was still holding back. In Step Seven, I said another prayer and asked God to take all of me, good and bad. In Step Eight, I asked God to show me all the people I had harmed, and I wrote down their names. In Step Nine, I prayed my little butt off every time I had to face one of those people. I did not have the power or the courage to face those folks, and I didn’t have the insight to say anything to them that might actually help. So I had to rely on God completely in those moments when I made amends.

Steps Ten, Eleven, and Twelve are Steps that I continue to work daily. The longer I’m on this program, the more I feel connected to the deeper meaning of these Steps. In Step Ten, I work over the same tools I was taught in the first Nine Steps. I make a lot of amends—to my wife and son almost daily—and it never gets easier. I always have to ask for help when I’ve done wrong and have to go back to make right. In Step Eleven I go to God at least twice daily and Surrender. I ask that God take my will and my life, and I ask that my heart be moved in any way God desires. When a day goes by without prayer, I end up in a foul mood, so I try to stay regular.

In Step Twelve, I do what I can to look out for the needs of others. I learn more about God and the Life of the Spirit in doing this work than I do anywhere else in the Steps. When I get to see someone surrender themselves to God and transform their lives, I feel connected to a Power and Purpose that far transcends anything I could ever accomplish on my own. The Spirit was around long before I arrived in this world, and it will be changing lives long after I’m gone. In the meantime, I just feel grateful that I’m able to take part in its work with the little time that I have.

God takes care of me, and I do what I can to take care of God’s children.

I’ve not had a drink or a drug since late November 1999. I have not felt the kind of despair and pain that are natural to life based on self-will since April 6th, 2001. I’m far from perfect. I do something stupid and selfish every day. My self-interest hasn’t gone away either. So, every day, I walk with God and ask him to carry me deeper into the Spirit of this program so that I might offer others a way out of their suffering. As time passes, I get a little better at getting out of my own way and letting God do the work.

When the Twelve Steps work, they work because the person working them is willing to grow closer to God in the process. The Steps don’t do anything in and of themselves; they just make certain experiences of God available to those who are willing to give God a try. They don’t do anything much for people who don’t want to give God a try, at least they didn’t for me when I was flailing around in the program just trying to scrape by on my own power.

I was the kind of guy who needs God so bad he reeks with it. But a guy like that is also a guy who won’t ever admit that he needs God; he’d rather die in a mud-hole somewhere than be caught on his knees, praying. For guys like me, the church thing just won’t work, not right away. We need to find God in a place where there aren’t any rules. We need to feel that we have complete freedom of choice when it comes to God, otherwise we’re not interested. Give us a pre-packaged God, and we don’t want anything to do with him, but give us God as we understand him and all of the sudden a spiritual life becomes possible for us. We can give up on ourselves and give this way of life a try. Yes, it is rather arrogant of us to resist all the wisdom of the world’s religions and insist on our own experience, but God doesn’t seem to mind. As far as I can tell, God is happy to make peace with anyone as soon as they get tired of trying to run their own show.

The idea is not that God can be whatever anyone wants God to be, quite the reverse. God is who and what God is—a Power beyond human understanding. Our individual ideas about God are just work in progress. We each open our hearts and lives to God on an ongoing basis, and let God teach us about himself through our experience. In living this program, we discover the Spirit at work in our daily affairs. As our relationship with God grows and changes, so does our personal theology. Because God is always speaking to us and because there is always more to be revealed, we don’t cling too tightly to any one particular idea about who God is.

The Power that has changed our lives and continues to act through us in the work of healing others cannot be fixed in place with a single rigid conception. This Power is a living Power; it cannot be defined, but it can be experienced. So we don’t spend too much time trying to figure God out. We prefer to stay close to the work of the Spirit so that we can hear whatever it is that God wants to tell us next.

In the meetings I go to today, there is a rich diversity of ideas about God. We have members of a variety of faith communities and some people who are developing their own brand of spirituality, personal to them. We don’t make any fuss over these matters. Each person is free to work out their faith in the context of their own relationship with their creator. When we get together, we don’t bicker over ideas, we share experiences. Each member, from his or her own perspective, shares what God is doing in their lives. In this way, we all benefit from the fruits of one another’s spiritual life, regardless of our individual differences.

I know that there are many devout people who would object to our type of gathering. They would call it unorthodox, or worse. And it’s true that we’re rough around the edges and perhaps a bit overly permissive. We even let those grumpy, six-month dry atheists hang out with us and pester us with their questions. Actually, we like those guys. Those guys are just like me. Sooner or later, they’ll hit the right kind of pain, and they’ll be ready to make their Surrender. I want to be there for them when that happens. It’s my job.

In my own faith tradition, we think pretty highly of a guy who walked the earth a few thousand years ago. In the stories we tell about him, he upsets the more religious members of his time by hanging out with all the low-lifes. At any given meal, our guy could be found sitting with prostitutes, tax-collectors (less reputable then than the IRS of today), lepers, and all sorts of other unwanted types.

“Why does your master eat with all those sinners?” People asked. If he’s so spiritual, why is hanging out with all the freaks?

The answer he gave then is the same answer we give today, more or less. God hangs out with the broken, with those in need. If you really want to meet God and see his Spirit at Work, you hang out with those people, too. You do what you can for them, and when they ask, you show them how to get to know their Maker.

And, if you’re smart, you don’t give them any hoops to jump through. Personally, I encourage people not to worry too much about who’s on the other side of the door. Just knock. He’ll let you in.

9 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Very cool :-).

Comment by Doug

Thank you. I first came to AA in 1991, stepped out of the light in 2000, and crawled back into the healing Light of God’s Love in 2005. I really relate to your story.

Comment by Jim


Powerful story — thanks!

Comment by Matt

I wish there were more stories like yours posted on this site. They could be a powerful path to a relationship with the Creator.

Comment by Dick B.

This part of your story says it all for me. Thank you for a powerful share …

“Each person is free to work out their faith in the context of their own relationship with their creator. When we get together, we don’t bicker over ideas, we share experiences. Each member, from his or her own perspective, shares what God is doing in their lives. In this way, we all benefit from the fruits of one another’s spiritual life, regardless of our individual differences.”

Comment by Carol

I found your recovery story moving and saw similarities in my own experience: How you felt, what you were like, what happened, and what you are like now.

I attended a recent talk by the writer Eugene Peterson. He talked about God in many of the same ways that you do. Ditto for a book of Christian short stories edited by Bret Lott.

I grew up in the Christian faith and had to throw out much of what what I understood about God and start over in order to recover from alcoholism.

A poet wrote ‘The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms’. Thanks for sharing your story.

Comment by Tim

Thank you, As I read I felt I was being 12 Stepped by one who is a power of example and not an example of power..It is always comforting to witness another giving freely what has been given to them.

Comment by stepsherpa

You stated, “We even let those grumpy, six-month dry atheists hang out with us and pester us with their questions. Actually, we like those guys. Those guys are just like me. Sooner or later, they’ll hit the right kind of pain, and they’ll be ready to make their Surrender. I want to be there for them when that happens. It’s my job.”

That’s offensive – to imply atheists are all unwitting newcomers waiting for enough pain to surrender. Here is the reality; long-time abstinent atheists no longer attend meetings as they realize they aren’t welcome in a religious setting. The bubble that is regular meeting attendance is not reflective of society as a whole.

Comment by Brad S

What’s refreshing here to me is the honest and correct representation as the Steps as they exist historically in a God-centered framework. As tools for using God to make better choices based on something outside of our twisted thinking. Tools for using God to grow. Tools for using God as a standard by which to measure our ideas and actions too.

“The idea is not that God can be whatever anyone wants God to be, quite the reverse. God is who and what God is—a Power beyond human understanding.”

Exactly right. The God we talk about in AA is still God with a capital “G.”

But here’s where the author goes off the rails:

“[The Steps] don’t do anything much for people who don’t want to give God a try, at least they didn’t for me when I was flailing around in the program just trying to scrape by on my own power.”

That’s just a false dilemma, because there are other ways to do the Steps than “scraping by on [one’s] own power.”

If you read the section of the article where the author points out all the ways God functions in the steps (paragraphs 53-55), and replace the word God with something like “Reality” “Truth” or even “the Dhamma” you will notice something. It still makes sense. With some minor adjustments it still works.

God in AA’s steps is a source of truth, and direction and inspiration. But not the ONLY one that works in the medical/psychological/transformative process that is the AA Program at root. God is the fuel for the steps and what they accomplish, the coal for the fire. But wood, and diesel–so to speak–work as well.

Are the Steps still the Steps if we use some other powerful source of truth, strength and direction in fulfilling their functions? This is just a semantic question, really, and unimportant. Who cares? Do they work well with other good sources swapped in (and mutatis mutandis)?–is the only pertinent question. Are they still a solution? And historically the answer is a resounding “yes.” Whether we’re talking about James Burwell using the group and “my better self” or Aussie Chuck and his principles of humanism (which have taken him into his third decade of sobriety.)

Still, even with the author’s misrepresenting of the choices in AA as being between “using God or my own strength,” he gets something important very right. As written historically, it’s a God Program. So let’s not pretend that ANYTHING can fit that God purpose in AA. A light bulb isn’t going to provide you with a source of truth, strength and good direction.

But let’s also not forget that God is not the ONLY idea that can serve that guiding principle in the Steps. And that nothing in our fellowship forbids us from adapting the Steps to non-theistic frameworks.

Comment by Frank M.

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