11/29/2011 01:16 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2012

Preparing for Step Four: Acceptance, Awareness, Action

Step Four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

In the meeting rooms of Twelve Step recovery, we often hear about the "threefold" nature of the disease of addiction and compulsion: physical, mental and spiritual. By working the first three Steps we start to recognize and address each of these aspects of our disease: We detox physically, we seek to think in a sane manner, and we do so by "letting go and letting God" work wonders in us. Another popular definition of the threefold disease is: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's. These three holidays are great button-pushers and triggers as we gather with our families of origin, whose members often "installed" our buttons and know how to push them better than anyone else. The joys of the holiday season are inextricably mixed with sorrows for many of us. We have unpleasant memories of holidays in which we acted out with mood-changers such as alcohol, drugs, food and money. We remember times when emotions flared hot and we said or did things we later regretted. Sometimes we didn't or couldn't show up -- literally or emotionally -- for our parents, siblings, partners, children or friends because our disease got in the way. I recall feeling so alone on any number of New Year's Eves, even when I was with other people, and trying to obliterate my feelings of isolation by drinking them away. Then came the mornings after, when I felt like I would die from the physical aftereffects of the substances I injested and the deep shame of what I said and did under the influence. Those feelings haunted me until I came into recovery and began "cleaning up my side of the street" by making amends to those I had harmed -- a miraculous and life-changing process that we'll explore in a future blog.

Recovery gives us the tools to deal with our threefold affliction. As the Letter of James (4:6-10) advises, it begins when we learn to "submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and the devil will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded." James shows us that we can live a life in tune with God's will, not our own willfulness. And James' message has clear parallels in Twelve-Step recovery. There are three guiding concepts on the pathway to freedom from addiction: Awareness, Acceptance and Action. All are made possible through God's grace, as James explains: "God gives all the more grace... God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Grace is God-given, not something we earn or work toward. For addicts, God's grace begins with the gift of awareness. We become aware of our powerlessness over the substances, behaviors, attitudes, and unhealthy relationships that drag us down, severely diminishing the quality of our lives -- that ultimately seek to kill us. We can't be in accord with God's grace if we're proud, or try to go it alone by telling ourselves, "I can handle it." As "How It Works" in the A.A. Big Book explains, "there is there is One who has all power" -- who can handle everything -- and "that One is God."

In surrendering to God, we come to awareness: we pray, God, I can't handle this, I need your help. God fills us with healing grace through the invitation of our own willingness. Once we gain that awareness, we've taken the first step toward acceptance. Through our relationship with God, we are able to "resist the devil"-- the forces of negativity and self-destruction around us and inside us. By accepting God's embracing love, the forces of evil will flee from us. AA's simple and powerful slogan states "I can't handle it, God can, Let God" -- awareness, acceptance, and the final piece of the recovery triangle, action, all in one.

James tells us to "cleanse your hands and purify your hearts." We need to amend our behaviors, to avoid getting our hands dirty with the old destructive patterns linked to our addictions. We purify our hearts when we turn toward love and away from our fears. But our disease is compelling. James captures the essence of addiction well when he says we're "double-minded." There is always a part of us that wants to turn back toward the quick fixes of substances and unhealthy behaviors that our disease tell us will make us feel better, despite all the misery we've experienced, not only on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's, but every day in our years of addiction.

We come to recovery wrapped in an embrace of death with our demons and devils. But in recovery, with God's help we begin to experience healing and hope, glimpsing God's unimaginably great plans for each of us. We can experience such great empowerment by letting God work through us to radically transform our lives. The Twelve Steps give us a roadmap for how to do this. And it didn't start with recovery, because that roadmap is right there in the New Testament, in the Hebrew Bible, in all of the world's great religions. Living the life of faith is all about putting aside our self-centered (and for addicts, too often self-destructive) needs and getting humble. Only then can a spirit, a power greater than any of us work wonders in us and through us for the betterment of the whole world. Psalm 51:10 asks God to "create in me a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within me." Having taken the first three Steps, our hearts are open and our spirits are renewed. We are now ready to move into action, with the challenge of freedom offered in Step Four.