The Third Step: "An Unknown God" as Higher Power

10/14/2011 09:01 am ET | Updated Dec 14, 2011

"Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God." --Step Three

In the Third Step, we make "a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God." In the book of Acts (17:23-28), the Apostle Paul meets with a council of Epicurian and Stoic philosophers in Athens who want to understand the new religion that proclaimed the Good News about Jesus Christ. Paul describes how when he "went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What ... you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands." While people "search for God and ... grope for God ... God is not far from each one of us." Paul wanted us to understand that God is immanent -- here, among us, in us. All we need to do is open ourselves and recognize God's presence.

In the Second Step, we are introduced to the concept of a "power greater than ourselves" -- a Higher Power. But like the ancient philosophers, people starting out on the journey of recovery often have difficulty recognizing, or even accepting, the concept of God. Burned by organized religion, many find God-talk to be a complete turnoff, and as a result some newcomers reject the program and the great freedom and happiness that it offers. Aimed at nonbelievers, the chapter "To the Agnostic" of Alcoholics Anonymous' "Big Book" is helpful. It explains that Twelve Step recovery's purpose "is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem." People in recovery don't "need to consider another's conception of God. Our own [individual] conception, however inadequate, [is] sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact. ... As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction." In this way, Twelve Step recovery offers a "Realm of Spirit ... broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe, to all. When ... we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God." Our Higher Power is the "God of our understanding," and not necessarily the God of a particular belief system.

For some, it's possible to believe in "a power greater than ourselves"-- a Higher Power. But the idea of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the God of the Trinity, might be too much for some to accept. People in the rooms of recovery choose to simply refer to their Higher Power, or "H.P.," or to understand God as the spirit that fills a room of people in recovery. A common expression heard in Twelve Step groups is that "God is in the rooms," or "God IS the rooms of recovery." Some people build their understanding of God on the new way of life they begin once they have put down the substances, the behaviors, the attitudes and the relationships that were killing them slowly or quickly. For them, God is an acronym for "Good Orderly Direction." It works -- if you work it. This is a faith of works. An ordered life, a sober life, then becomes a life of, in, with God. With such trust comes blessing, however we understand our Higher Power. As the Prophet Jeremiah states, "blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in [God]" (17:7-8).

I, as a person of faith, and all of us -- regardless of our religious training or backgrounds --encounter Paul's "Unknown God" when we come into recovery. We meet a God of unconditional love through the people who greet us in the rooms, who love us until we can love ourselves. We meet a God of unlimited possibilities, who only requires that we surrender to God's will and shows us how life-giving and empowering this surrender can be. In this surrender, we begin to discover what George McClain calls "God's yearning for us." God desires not only that we survive, but thrive; that we live a life rich and full beyond our wildest dreams. This God who wants us to experience the Ninth Step Promises, who promises extravagant abundance, not in the material sense of receiving what we want -- "cash and prizes" -- but what we need: an abundance of blessings.

By opening ourselves to the possibility of God and then the possibility of God's help in the Third Step, we open the door to an incredible journey of personal growth and discovery. We come into recovery because we are beaten and brought to our knees by our addictions and compulsions. But once we begin to work the program by accepting that God can do for us what we could not do for ourselves, miracles begin to happen, promises begin to come true and new life begins to blossom within us.

In Psalm 61 (2-3) we read that God leads us "to the rock that is higher than" us, our "refuge, a strong power." Recognize the great hope that turning our will and our lives over to God offers and use the Third Step Prayer as a meditative tool: "God, I offer myself to Thee -- to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!" Amen.