06/11/2012 07:23 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2012

Removing the Anesthesia: A Reflection on Step 6

Step 6: We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Scripture references: Psalm 119:28-40, Romans 6:11,12, Philippians 2: 12-13, Philippians 3: 12-14

The Sixth Step's call to become "entirely ready to have God remove all our defects of character" sounds nearly impossible. Achieving such a level of perfection is out of human reach. We can only do our best to work toward a lifelong goal that none of us ever reach. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, expresses a similar thought:

"Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:12-14)

This combination of a positive attitude and an energetic effort is part of the mystery of our cooperation with God. As Paul explains, "just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13).

The Twelfth Step of AA calls on people in recovery to "to practice these principles [of recovery] in all our affairs." In order to be comfortable in recovery, we need to work the steps one day at a time, but every day of our lives. We can't and shouldn't demand perfection of ourselves, but we must always keep moving ahead, challenging ourselves to move past our personal zones of comfort. While moving forward, we need to avoid the impulse to change everything about ourselves and our lives immediately. As addicts and compulsives, we are given to quick fixes. This is why we stuffed our feelings with substances, behaviors, relationships, anything to try to make uncomfortable feelings go away. The Promises, in AA's Big Book, remind us that our goal is "spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection." No human being can achieve perfection. Even Jesus, who lived a perfect and blameless life, went down to the Jordan to be baptized by John, to cleanse himself of sin. If Jesus thought he was in need of such purification, who are we to hold on to our character defects? "Sin" is not a word commonly used in recovery as the concept equates addiction with badness. We believe that addicts aren't bad people trying to become good -- to rid themselves of sin -- but rather sick people working toward wellness -- recovery.

Working the Steps in our recovery program teaches us that our character defects will drag us down and kill us if we don't let go of them. If there is a place for "sin" in recovery, it is in our attachment to character defects and our idolatry of addictive substances and behaviors. We turn away from addiction (sin) by turning toward recovery (God's path of love, light and healing). On this journey, God strengthens and encourages us, as long as we remember that it is God's will, not ours, that we should be seeking to do. This is the lesson of the Sixth Step, willingness and readiness, followed by the Seventh Step, where we take that great leap of faith. Some people get stuck on the Sixth Step for years because they never feel ready enough, they hear the word "entirely." It seems like an impossible goal, and they give up. But Paul's words to the Philippians show us how the Step works: "let God be at work in you," and ask God to "remove the false way from [us]" (Psalm 119:29). If we get out of our own way and become willing to let our character defects go, they will be replaced with what God desires for us. That empty place we filled with addictive behaviors and unhealthy relationships can be filled by God's love and hope and possibility. Opening ourselves to this kind of radical change is like preparing for surgery by first removing the anesthesia. When we were active in our addiction, the anesthesia took the form of the substances that numbed our feelings. Now, well into our recovery, sometimes we continue to anesthetize ourselves with our own mood-altering behaviors and attitudes.

Letting go of our familiar character defects leaves us feeling vulnerable and raw, perhaps even wounded. But as Rumi tells us, "the wound is the place where the light enters you." This is our imperative: we must be open, willing and fearless to trust that God will always take care of us through any trial or challenge. God brought us into sobriety, and God can work with us to rebuild our character. There is nothing we can't face with God's help, with Christ at our side, with the Spirit dwelling in us. The simple, basic truth of the Sixth Step is that nothing is impossible if we let God into our lives and let God do for us "what we cannot do for ourselves."

In doing the Sixth Step, we become willing to release the negative power of our character defects as "we pray to embody a character asset" instead, in the wise words of a woman in the rooms of recovery. The A.A. Big Book's Promises state: "Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them." And Paul ensures us that "it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for [God's] good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).

Having cultivated an attitude of readiness, we are now as "entirely ready" as we can possibly be, ready to let go and let God accompany us into the Seventh Step and the road to a "new freedom and a new happiness" in spiritual recovery.