04/13/2012 12:13 pm ET Updated Jun 13, 2012

Step Five: Diving Into the Wreck, Admitting Our Wrongs

Step Five: "Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs."

Psalm 139:23 offers this prayer: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts." Having done a searching and fearless moral inventory in Step Four, it is time to shine daylight onto our character defects by taking the Fifth Step. We do so with a person we trust -- a sponsor, clergyperson, therapist -- and in the presence of God, because for a recovering addict,"solitary self appraisal [is] insufficient" (AA Big Book, p. 72).

How many times when we were active in our disease did we mentally catalogue and fervently regret the wrongs we caused, vowing to do better the next time? The Fifth Step demands that we let go of the "terminal vagueness" that characterizes our disease. We must become completely clear about what exactly we did, when and where, and to whom. If we don't, we won't move forward in our recovery, and we may not be able to remain sober and abstinent at all. Stepping out in faith, we take Step Five: "approach[ing] the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16).

Step Five calls upon us to "trust God and clean house" (Big Book, p. 98). We share our list of the people and institutions we harmed in the days of our active addiction and talk about our feelings of anger, hurt, and resentment. We express all the ways we feel we were wronged along with the wrongs we have done others. When I did my Fifth Step for the first time with my late sponsor Bob, I went through my pages of names, using the format for the Fourth Step suggested in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. In three columns with the headers "I'm Resentful At," "The Cause" and "Affects My," I listed everyone and everything that had caused my resentments, fears and anger. In doing this, I revealed not only what I believed had been "done to me," but my own part in each situation. I began to take responsibility for my actions. The program tells us that "once we have taken this step, withholding nothing, we ... can be alone at perfect peace and ease. Our fears fall from us. We begin to feel the nearness of our Creator" (Big Book, p. 75).

The Fifth Step represents a kind of baptism for people on the journey of recovery. It brings to mind the story in the Gospel of Mark (1:9-15) of the baptism of Jesus by John. Imagine the scene. Jesus and John are standing, let's say waist deep, in the Jordan River. John prays with Jesus and blessed him, as a preparation to both anoint and purify Jesus through the act of baptism, which requires us to believe that Jesus was in need of any kind of purification. John places his hand on Jesus' head and supports him as he gently lowers him into the water. As John lifts him back up and Jesus breaks through the surface of the water, Jesus looks up and sees the heavens torn, ripped apart. And the voice of God comes from heaven, saying "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

No sooner has God singled Jesus out than he's driven into the wilderness -- by the Spirit of God. Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness on the threshold of the life he's lived up to this point and the new life ahead of him of ministry, healing and proclamation. In the wilderness, Jesus faces temptations from the forces of Evil -- Satan and wild beasts. God never leaves Jesus alone in his struggle. All the while, Jesus is accompanied by the forces of good in the form of angels watching over him. At the end of the 40 days, triumphant over Evil, Jesus leaves the wilderness, strengthened and transformed.

Mark 1:9-15 is traditionally is read during the season of Lent, a time of reflection and repentance leading up to Easter that follows Jesus' time in the wilderness. Many people "give something up" for the 40 days of Lent -- things like chocolate, alcohol, some favorite form of unproductive behavior -- playing videogames, gambling. Abstinence, for addicts and "civilians" alike, makes us conscious of our bodily desires. It invites us, like Jesus, into a wilderness place where we can look honestly at the temptations that keep us off course, and clear the way toward understanding of God's will for us.

For people in recovery, the process of doing the Fourth and Fifth Steps mirrors the Lenten journey. In writing and then sharing our personal inventory, as with Jesus in the wilderness, God calls us to have the faith that we are not alone. With God's companionship, we are strengthened to do what the late poet Adrienne Rich described as "diving into the wreck." In her poem of the same name, Rich writes:

I came to explore the wreck....
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.

Rich presents the image of a deep-sea diver going into a shipwreck to discover what is submerged, metaphorically, within the diver's own soul, both the deep truths and the false beliefs. As we dive down past our denial into the hard truth of our behavior and its consequences, God invites us, like the diver, to expose and explore "the wreckage of our past." Diving into the wreck, we face our fears in order to understand them and in so doing, we take away their power. Through the Fifth Step, God gives us the courage to go to the dark places in our souls by assuring us that we will rise back up from the depths, from the wreck, newly strengthened to face whatever comes next. And God is present with us through it all: "When God has tried [us], we shall come forth as gold" (Job 23:10).