10/15/2012 04:32 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Step Seven: Performing the Surgery

"Humbly asked [God] to remove our shortcomings." -- Step Seven

By the time we get to the Seventh Step in the Twelve Step recovery process, our denial has been ripped away and we've done some very deep soul-searching. We've been brought to our knees by our disease and taken the first three steps -- awareness, acceptance and action -- and we are humbled. Humbled but no longer humiliated.

As the Letter of James tells us, "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up" (James 4:10). When we first come into recovery, most of us are no strangers to humiliation -- we've been humiliated many times over by the places and the depths that our diseases have taken us. Many of us have lost a great deal, possibly everything short of our lives -- jobs, homes, relationships, money, prestige, the respect of others and most certainly our self-respect. Working the Twelve Steps with our sponsors and other peers in recovery helps us build back our self-esteem as we learn to live an honest, open, willing life. We begin to let go of our self-centeredness and start focusing on service to others.

We come to the Seventh Step in a vulnerable state. We have just taken the Sixth Step, where we became "entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character." In order to do so, we needed to let God remove the "anesthesia" that prevents us from fully experiencing our own feelings, including our own pain, all the emotions and feelings connected with a fully realized human experience that our addictive and compulsive behaviors had previously dulled and masked. Once the anesthetic has been removed, with God's help, we are ready to take Step Seven, which follows the first five Steps. In the first five Steps, we surrendered and turned our lives over to God, took a searching and fearless moral inventory, and shared it with another person in the presence of God. Through that process, we discovered that in certain areas we are still encumbered and burdened with character defects that stopping drinking and acting out didn't eliminate -- grandiosity, isolation, rage, fear, gossip, cluttering, chaos -- all the addictive and compulsive symptoms lurking below the surface of our primary addictions.

In "Easing the Ache," author David Crawford describes this as the point in recovery when the "bumps in the rug" start to appear. We put down alcohol, but our spending and debting begins to get out of control. Or we stop smoking but put on 50 pounds because we replace our nicotine fix with a sugar/salt/fat high by consuming extra, empty calories. Or we begin acting out sexually; our desire for God-given intimacy running out of control. We do the things we "do not want to do" (Romans 7:20) even if we're "poster children" of sobriety in our primary recovery programs. It's all connected: a character defect that we don't deal with will simply reemerge as an addictive/compulsive symptom in another form somewhere else. We have to get to the root of our problems, and that's where the hard and necessary work is. Here we need the support of our recovery program and, above all, God's help. Surrendering once again, we pray to God to take away our defects of character, our shortcomings.

My late sponsor, Bob, who led me through this process many years ago, described the feeling of taking the Seventh Step as being swept through a tunnel -- and that's just what it felt like, as I sat in the beautiful, intimate Christ Chapel at Riverside Church and prayed to God to remove my character defects. Having our character defects removed can be painful, like removing an infected splinter with a red-hot needle, which is why in recovery we like to say "first God removes the anesthetic, then God performs the surgery." We experience the pain that leads to healing. In the chapel, I opened myself to God performing surgery on my soul to take away the sickness and prepare the way for healing new growth to begin. What happened next surprised me: after taking the Seventh Steps, I began to become very uncomfortable. There were issues I had put on the shelf and not dealt while I had been focusing on recovering from my primary addictions of alcohol and drugs. Now these other issues came roaring back, demanding my attention. It became clear that my approach to relationships and intimacy wasn't healthy and I had to learn new ways to relate to friends and lovers in order to continue my recovery. I was immature in my relationship with money and had to work on that. Procrastination, codependence, clutter and other issues all called out for amendment, each one requiring more surgery with even less anesthesia. As uncomfortable as the experience might have been, sitting with my character defects was worse -- so much so that not taking the Seventh Step could endanger my very sobriety.

When we pray to God to remove our character defects, God delivers. Our "poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble" (Psalm 34:6). It's a leap of faith: How will we live without the behaviors that have shielded us from dealing with life on life's terms? What if we show up just as we are and deal with the way people and the world treats us, just as we are? We worry, what if we're not good enough? We disregard these inner voices of doom and take the leap of faith away from fear and toward love. This is risky, brave, courageous and painful, but importantly, it is necessary. By the time we get to Step Seven, most of us don't feel there is any choice but to turn it all over to God one more time, just like we did when we admitted our powerlessness over our addictions and compulsions, but now we do so on an even deeper, more meaningful and profound level. God is there with us in our suffering, hearing the cry of our soul, saving us from trouble. As we take this Step, we can find comfort in the words of the Psalmist, who instructs us to pray to God to "create in [us] a clean heart." When we trust in God, God will "put a new and right spirit within [us]" (Psalm 51:10).