12 spiritual steps – structural overview

Years ago, I was introduced to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous by a good friend and sober Alcoholic. Having my interest piqued during our frequent conversations, I’ve continued to interact with them, and have become convinced of their value and wisdom for human flourishing in general and Christian discipleship in particular.

In this post, I want to restrain myself from rambling into detail, and focus my reflections on the wisdom of how the steps are structured. The overarching structure for the steps divides into three sections, with the middle section containing three pairings.

Steps 1-3

  • 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  • 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Recovery is hard work and results don’t always come immediately, which is why a long term approach is needed. Instead of diving straight into the hard work of a difficult exploration of your life, identifying character traits that need changing and working to repair the damage in various relationships, steps 1-3 are steps of surrender and preparation.

Steps 4-9

The middle six steps are divided into three pairs. Each pair consists of first taking stock, and secondly taking appropriate action.

  • 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  • 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

With steps 4 & 5, one first takes stock of their entire lives in a very thorough and humble way, and then takes action by taking the findings to a trusted person, as well as processing them with one’s self and God.

  • 6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  • 7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Steps 6 & 7 are another two-stage process, first a stage of awareness of the character problems revealed in the previous steps and readiness to have them removed, and then a stage which begins the life-long journey of partnering (avoiding overly active or overly passive extremes!) with God to become a gradually more healthy person.

  • 8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • 9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

The final pairing takes the restoration project outward into past and present relationships. Step 8 is a preparation step, working on awareness of harm done and the proper motivation to make amends to those we have harmed; then in step 9 the process begins of discerning (with a wise experienced guide or sponsor) if, how and when to reach out to those people and make amends.

Steps 10-12

  • 10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  • 11. 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.
  • 12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The last three steps turn the recovery process into a recovery lifestyle. They are often called ‘maintenance steps’. The lifestyle of recovery involves learning (step 10) to look quickly for your own mistakes and fess up just as quickly, (step 11) to simplify and focus your spiritual life through prayer and meditation that seeks ‘only’ to know God’s will for us and power do do that, and (step 12) to share our recovery with others who need it.

I recently discerned some echoes in the last three steps of the first three steps. Steps 1 and 10 both use the word ‘admitted’, and involve a kind of surrender – not trying to be right, not trying to cling to power. Steps 2 and 11 both have to do with a Higher Power, particularly relating to that Power, not only through basic trust but developing the relationship through prayer and meditation. Finally, steps 3 and 12 both have to do with our wider lives, which are not only placed in God’s hands, but actively infused with and awakened by the practical principles of the steps as a whole.