Step Four: Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
When we begin recovering from addictive substances and behaviors and join our first 12-step recovery program, many of us are put off by what seems to be a daunting task: working the fourth step. The step calls on us to do a "searching and fearless moral inventory," but where do we start? What, whom do we include? How far back? How much detail should we go into? There's no "right" way to do a fourth step inventory, but there are ways to keep our processes focused and simple. Faced with the prospect of listing a lifetime of resentments about every wrong we thought had ever been done to us, and an equally vast list of all the things we did to harm others, we could write volumes. Our inventories invariably include family members, friends, employers, coworkers, institutions and of course those we think of as our enemies. It can be easy to get bogged down in so much history -- so much wreckage of our pasts. The good news is that there is a clear and straightforward format for a personal inventory outlined in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. It provides the first and I think still the best roadmap for what A.A.'s cofounders, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, originally described as "cleaning house." Using this approach to the inventory, we list all our resentments, identify who or what caused them, state how each resentment has affected us, and specify the role we played in each of these dynamics. This simple, powerful tool helps us eliminate the "terminal vagueness" (a wonderful term from Debtors Anonymous) about the symptoms and effects of our addictive attitudes and behaviors. Doing the fourth step, vagueness gives way to the light of clarity. Just as step one stripped away our denial about our addictions and compulsions, step four lays bare the exact nature of our wrongs. With step four, we begin to become accountable for our actions.
The entire program of 12-step recovery seems counterintuitive at first with its central concept of surrender and the admission of powerlessness providing the path to true empowerment. Taking the fourth step is a frightening prospect with its call to rigorous honesty. But paradoxically, the fourth step, taken with the fifth, is incredibly freeing. As my late sponsor Bob concluded succinctly after hearing my fifth step back in 1992, "it's all about fear." When we're active in our disease, a vast and nebulous cloud of fear surrounds us -- things that we said and did that make us feel ashamed, and the anticipation of dire consequences resulting from actions taken under the influence. The fear that grows out of our addiction is, as A.A. describes alcoholism (and by extension, all addictions and compulsions), "cunning, baffling and powerful." This fear is based on terrible truths. Our drinking and drugging and acting out compulsively caused us to lose so much: jobs, families, relationships, homes, security, happiness, peace of mind, and even our health, our freedom, and for too many, our very lives.
By way of personal testimony, I am permanently partially blind in one eye because of alcoholic malnutrition caused by my years of active addiction. I thought that alcoholic blindness was something that happened to bums on the Bowery, not to good little upper-middle-class preacher's kids like me! But it did and I have the impaired vision to show for it for the rest of my life. Our behavior has consequences.
In recovery, as in our life in Christ, it helps to remember what Luke taught (12:2-3): "there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever you have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which you have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops." Step four takes away the denial about what we did, to others and to ourselves, and helps us move on into a new life based on honesty and openness. We're only as sick as our secrets and doing the fourth step exposes our darkest secrets, where in the light of day, they lose their power over us. If fear gets in the way of our process of becoming rigorously honest, we can find help in prayers such as this one from the Big Book: "God, relieve me of this fear and direct my attention to what you would have me be." (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 68)
The fourth step frees us through its cleansing nature. By revealing our shortcomings and character defects -- the things that bring us the greatest shame, we empty ourselves of toxicity. Paul describes how Jesus Christ "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient."(Philippians 2:7-8) The concept of self-emptying, known in Christian history by the Greek name kenosis, is common to many of the world's religions. In clearing away our own baggage, our ego, our obsession with self, we can open ourselves to God's power to work wonders in us. The gift and promise of the fourth step comes from the "transcendence," in the words of Rabbi Michael Lerner, that comes from breaking the bonds of "repetition-compulsion." Rabbi Lerner explains that we "can break that chain of pain through God, the force of transformation."
Step four is our preparation for what I believe is the most powerful step, five, where we share our personal inventory with another person in the presence of God, and in so doing, are able to let the baggage go. When we take the fifth step, the process of kenosis in recovery is complete. We have let go not only of the actual addictive substances and behaviors, we now let go of the soul-sickening garbage. So with joy and hope of new freedom, let's take the fourth step, where we "search and try our ways, and," in doing so, "turn again to the Lord." (Lamentations 3:40)