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Amends and Forgiveness: Taking Step Eight

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Step Eight: Made a list of all people we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

In the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, the description of Step Seven concludes with the Seventh Step Prayer: "My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen."

In Step Eight, we take concrete steps to "repair the damage done in the past. We attempt to sweep away the debris which has accumulated out of our effort to live on self-will and run the show ourselves. If we haven't the will to do this, we ask [God] until it comes. [As we] agreed at the beginning, we would go to any lengths for victory over" our addictions (A.A. Big Book, p.76).

For many alcoholics, addicts and compulsives, one the most potent and toxic character defects is holding on to old resentments we have against others. A related defect is holding on to guilt and shame about the way we treated other people. Bearing "justifiable anger" or crippling guilt represents two sides of the same destructive force that jeopardize whatever serenity and peace of mind we have gained in recovery. The work we have done in Steps One through Seven inevitably bring us to the point where, emotionally and spiritually, we can no longer bear the pain of negative emotions connected with unfinished business in our relationships. We hold onto feelings of anger and guilt toward people as well as institutions. And these feelings occupy space in our psyche that crowds out new, positive and life-affirming ways of thinking and feeling. There is great wisdom in the Book of Proverbs admonition that "fools mock at making amends, but goodwill is found among the upright" (Proverbs14:9). We hold on to our anger and resentments -- and shame and guilt -- at the peril of our own serenity and recovery.

When I first came to the rooms of recovery in fall 1990, I remember reading the Twelve Steps displayed on windowshade-like scrolls hanging on the walls. Though I was too new to sobriety to comprehend how I would do these Steps, I was certain of one thing. When I read the Eighth Step, I muttered to myself: "I will never make amends to" a particular person in my past. This individual had, I felt, wronged me and that was out of the question. My resentments were so deep that they overshadowed the wrongs I had committed in the relationship. It took several years of recovery for me to become willing to make this critical amend, and then only because the pain of this unfinished business was taking a great toll on my peace of mind.

The need for reconciliation is at the heart of the Gospel message, and it is at the heart of Twelve Step recovery as well. In Matthew (5:23-24) Jesus instructs that if a believer is about to offer his or her "gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." Without reconciliation, a right relationship with God -- and peace of mind -- is not possible.

In the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches that "blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy" (Matthew 5:7) and "blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Matt 5:9). Both those who practice mercy -- forgiveness -- and those who seek reconciliation -- peace -- will be "blessed," or to use a different translation favored by some biblical scholars, "happy." The state of heart and mind of being "happy, joyous, and free," is something that people in recovery discover, sometimes for the first time in their lives.

In taking the Eighth Step, we hold in our hearts the names of those people, organizations and institutions that we believe have harmed us -- and toward whom we hold so much resentment, anger and even hatred. In doing so, we come to recognize how much violence these negative emotions do to us and to those around us. We pray to God to give us the willingness to let go of these poisonous, venomous feelings -- for God to wash them away with the spirit of forgiveness and love. In praying to become willing to let go in this way, we do not have to admit that those who wronged us are right. We do not have to forget our histories and our pain. We only need to ask God to do what only God can do: to remove hatred from our hearts and replace it with love, that we might live more peacefully and comfortably. And so we pray: "Gracious God, we ask that you accept these names as we lift them up and grant us the willingness to forgive each of these."

And likewise, filled with the loving Spirit of God, we lift up the names of those we know we have harmed -- friends and family members, employers and employees, and all other people, and institutions, and organizations we have exploited, injured and otherwise done damage to. We ask God to help us to accept and own our responsibility in each of these damaged relationships. We accept responsibility both for our sins of commission -- all the ways we have actively caused damage and destruction -- as well as for our sins of omission -- the ways we have caused harm through our absence (physical or emotional) while in the grip of our addictions and compulsions. Having done all this, we make our list of those we have harmed, and we pray: "Gracious God, we ask that you accept these names as we lift them up and grant us the willingness to make amends to each of these."

We ask God to help us to do the right thing in repairing the damage done in our pasts, as God opens our hearts to enable us to forgive those who have hurt us. We follow Paul's instructions to the Ephesians: "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:31-32) Having again turned our will, our lives, and now our resentments and anger over to the care of God, we prepare for God to work wonders in us, preparing us to take the Ninth Step and make direct amends to those we have harmed.