In my experience growing up in evangelical circles, generally speaking, repentance was understood as an individual choice that was done or not done in a moment. The power to make this choice came, if at all, directly from God (the Holy Spirit) to the individual. That’s simply what repentance was and how it happened. One sealed the deal by walking an aisle, or raising one’s hand (with all heads bowed and eyes closed) or telling someone about our decision. Then it was up to whatever measure of individual, God-given willpower one had to “walk it out,” just me and Jesus.
One of the things that I have come to deeply appreciate in 12-step/support group wisdom and practice is the recognition that repentance–real change of one’s life that sticks–is generally neither instantaneous nor ‘lone-ranger’ style; it’s slow and, more importantly, communal. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the 12 steps are themselves 12 “steps” to effective repentance and that the meetings are there to “support” each person in this most challenging of all processes.
Here’s my question to my fellow church folk out there: How do you do repentance? Solo or communal? Do you have a Christian community, large or small, that actually encourages you to admit failures and take steps to repent/change without shaming you? In other words, do you have a community to run to for help as you are faced with your failures, or do you generally attempt to implement/pursue change alone?
Like the Vineyard, 12 step groups also put an unusually high value on the practice of honesty and see it as a fundamental way to welcome God’s grace and power. In fact, in my opinion, support groups see it as more valuable than the Vineyard. The AA saying, “you’re only as sick as your secrets” sums up the extent that honesty is connected to healing in recovery. The several embodiments of this value in 12-step practice are really too many to name in a blog post. They begin with step one of the twelve steps, and really never let up: “We admitted” are the first two words of step one. Recovery begins with being honest about having a problem (breaking out of denial—a form of dishonesty). The sole purpose of the confidentiality given to what is said at meetings and to sponsors is to encourage and protect this foundational practice of honesty.
In fact, it is not overstating to say that honesty with oneself, with God, with another human being are the foundation of the program. Further, this isn’t just an amorphous value, either. The honesty in which 12-steppers see God as particularly present is often painfully specific—about the totality of one’s defeat by addiction (step 1), about the addict’s inability to manage his or her life (step 1), about the insanity he or she has been operating in (step 2), and about everything the recovering person has done wrong (steps 4, 5). Steps 1, 5, and 10 actually contain the word “admit.” The steps hit their challenging high point in step 9, in which amends are made for all past wrongs. Then step 10 makes such admissions and amends a way of life going forward, as does the 12th, as the recovering addict seeks to “practice these principles in all [his or her] affairs.”
And the meetings themselves also reveal the value placed on honesty in support groups. Several meetings are devoted as venues for honest sharing of one’s experience with others, including especially one’s failures.
The opening lines of chapter 5 of the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous) summarizes well the importance of the practice of honesty in the program:
“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.”
It is ironic that the sacrament of confession to one another–being honest to ourselves, to others and to God about our failures–is really what the support groups have fully embraced even while most Christian traditions (which gave it to the support groups in the first place) have all but abandoned the practice. It’s fair to say, in fact, that even while Catholic churches in the West still practice and hold confession as a sacrament, support groups–not churches–are the ones mining the depths of this practice for all its power—for humility, for release from the past, for relational health and encouragement, and for real growth and transformation—practicing it both widely and deeply within their ranks, resulting in healing for millions of the most broken around the world.
If i-Monk will quit posting on themes that are shaping our church plant, I’ll quit linking to him. Here’s an excerpt on his latest post, wondering how many churches are truly “communities of repentance.” Read the whole post, titled, Is There A Place To Repent? (Or Must I Make This Journey Alone?).
I wonder how many who hear preachers inveigh against viewing internet porn are also sitting in a fellowship where there is a place one can confess, experience acceptance and become accountable for such a struggle with sin? How many are sitting in a place where Paul could write I Corinthians 6:9 with a modern list of shocking sins, but no one can say “I was one of those, but thanks to the Gospel I heard and experienced here, I am that no more?”
This is a big reason we’re prioritizing workout groups and making widespread use of our version of the 12 steps. Change happens within a supportive (and skilled) community, generally speaking, or not at all. We want to be a community of repentance for people caught in bad stuff common to us all.
This is a post in search of language, and still in the early stages, but I’m just gonna work this one out publicly. So feel free to help me out as I try to make sense of the glasses I was nearly born wearing and the ones I’m wearing now.
Growing up, I was told more times than I can recall about Jesus’ death and resurrection (for which I am grateful). I was told more than anything that believing that he died for my sins and was raised was the key to being justified (and I had to tell another human being about it to really complete the process). This faith in the cross and resurrection was focused on the judgment which would determine where I would spend eternity after I died. The cross and resurrection of Jesus made the biggest difference for people, or not, at the judgment. This was the story of Christianity that I was given, and I wanted it to be my story too. Let me say now that I don’t disagree with the truth of that story even now as an adult. It is, though, to use the phrase of Scot Mcknight, “right, but not right enough.”
By contrast, AA’s 12 steps focus on a different kind of belief in God, and I’m not referring to the more anonymous “Higher Power” label. Even if we stick Jesus himself into the Higher Power role, as many Christians who work the steps do, the focus of the steps simply isn’t on what happens in the afterlife. That’s not the focus of their program (which emerged from a western church whose focus wasn’t transformation). AAs say in step three that they turn “[their] will and [their] lives over to the care of God.” AA’s focus is turning today over to God, this life, one day at a time, because this life is what they need help with. The “promises” AA makes to those who work the program are true and beautiful, but have nothing to do with the afterlife. This life is the hell that alcoholics and their families know, and they want rescue from it, or better, deliverance through it. So they turn the reins of this life over to God, become “entirely willing” to change and serve others, believing or at least hoping that God’s managment will yield better results than theirs has. They pick up their cross and follow, today, letting tomorrow worry about itself.
It is obvious to me, now, that AA’s are focused on appropriating the power of Jesus’ way of life–a life lived under the management and care of the Father for the benefit of others over self, a daily cross-shaped or “cruciform” life, while evangelicals are more focused on appropriating the power of Jesus’ substitutionary death, particularly as it pertains to whether one is justified before God at the final judgment. Of course, how we think about and plan for the future has bearing on the present, and vice-versa.
Todd Hunter has said that John Wimber gave Jesus back to him, in terms of Jesus’ ministry of healing, and that Dallas Willard gave Jesus back to him in terms of his teaching. Hefty gifts, and I would echo Todd’s thankfulness. I want to add my own thanks to Michael Gorman, and to a lesser extent, Tom Wright, for giving Jesus back to me in terms of his cross and resurrection as the key to life in this age and the next. Thanks to them, I can see how AA’s aim to transform this life is best accomplished through participating in Jesus’ cross and resurrection ourselves, which the AA program, I believe, often leads folks to do implicitly rather than explicitly. And it is this participating in Jesus’ cross and resurrection, allowing ourselves to submit to the death of our self-run life and be raised to life in Christ and not merely believing its historicity, that the apostle Paul has in mind when he tells us to trust or have faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our daily or even hour by hour participation in the cross will simultaneously result in the transformation that AA’s are pursuing and the justification that my evangelical brothers and sisters are announcing, and more besides. The fruit of participation in the cross is the ultimate both/and–followed by an ellipsis (!) which at least contains all the graces of God that each of the various Christian traditions have highlighted and likely more besides.
Another reason I make a habit of the 12 steps is this:
- The Power of Sin in our lives is perhaps better thought of as a matter of addiction and not merely isolated things we do or don’t do.
Several experienced folks in the Way, too many to mention them all, have helped me by talking about idolatry or the way the powers of this age (sin, death, money, Satan, our own desires, powerful institutions, etc.) enslave us, to use the biblical term, as a problem more helpfully approached in our day as one of addiction. Here are a few that made a particular impact on me: Gordon Cosby of Church of the Savior has coined the phrase “addiction to culture” to talk to churched and unchurched about what the scriptures call ‘sin.’ More recently, Michael Gorman has used addiction as a way to give modern readers the biblical concept of sin as a power in our lives, forcing us, apart from participating in Christ’s death and resurrection, to do the things we don’t want to do. (p. 86, Reading Paul). Don Williams, one of the more astute theologians and pastors within the Vineyard, has made the same argument in various written works and sermons especially as N. T. Wright has refocused the gospel around the announcement that “Jesus is Lord (and so many powers are not)” Finally, Dallas Willard has similar assessment of Sin working as an addiction when he says this quote that still amazes me:
“Any successful plan for spiritual formation, whether for the individual or group, will in fact be significantly similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous program.” Page 85, Renovation of the Heart
It’s because sin–falling short of or even working against God’s ways–isn’t just something I do from time to time, but a power within and without of me that functions very much like an addiction that the steps are a very helpful tool for those wanting to live a Jesus-shaped kind of life.
Having been a little lengthy (confession is good for the soul) in previous posts about the gospel of the kingdom & the 12 steps, I’m going to change modes. For the forseeable future, I’ll try to go with bite size pieces or observations, somewhat at random and one post at a time, about how or why I think the 12 steps work well in my specific context (which may be similar to yours) as a kind of ‘community rule’ for a group of like-minded apprentices of Jesus. The themes will be how the steps are a faithful response to the gospel of the kingdom and how, more broadly, AA can help the church in its own current task in an increasingly post-christendom, consumeristic, secular culture. As always, questions or comments concerning any of these are welcome, including the “T, you’re crazy and a heretic” variety. I’ll likely also mention some weaknesses of the steps as well (and I really want to hear what others see in that regard) and how we may modify or supplement our ‘Rule’ to deal with those weaknesses. With that, on to the first observation:
- The 12 steps are about how to proceed with life in a God-centered, serving-others way instead of a self-centered way.
As with Jesus’ twin invitations of discipleship and joining with his government, the 12 steps are about changing the way someone proceeds with life. They are directional. They are formational. They are relational. They are incarnational. They are a way of life. They don’t even mention the after-life. Of course, that is par for the course for a community rule, historically speaking. If you come to believe that the gospel of God is seeking more of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction than a transaction (more focus on the marriage and life together than the wedding, so to speak) then the 12 steps are speaking your language.
I think being raised Southern Baptist has helped give me a lifelong curiousity in ‘the gospel’ and I hope to always keep it. As I implied in the last post, I have come to see Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom–the news that the government of God has come near by virtue of Jesus showing up to assume his rightful role as the ‘Christ’-ened Lord of heaven and earth)–as the central message, with Jesus’ own story (a.k.a., the gospels) as the specific reports of how he, among other things, took that rightful place without immediately judging all of humanity for their ages-long resistance to his rule of love and selflessness. Thank God, Jesus comes announcing how we can be transformed into his cooperative friends, restoring the whole creation with and through him, rather than continue to be part of its destruction in large or small ways.
Now, you may notice that a fair summary of the gospel I’ve described in this post and before has the feel of a story of a very gracious king coming to his people who had been in various stages of rebellion against him. Instead of giving them the penalty for their treason and their other crimes against him and others, he took the consequences of their rebellion upon himself in the hopes that his people would cease their destructive rebellion and finally join with him in caring for each other and the whole creation as he envisions. Or, to put his hope another way, that they would ‘repent and trust him’ as his apprentices and constructive co-workers, that they would ‘enter’ and ‘receive’ his government as grateful and willing participants, joining his family business of making all things new though his love and power.
What you may notice is lacking from this description is any central concern about where one might be headed after death. My summaries of the gospel are focused on bringing humans back into participative, and increasingly constructive cooperation with God’s chosen king–right now in this life for the good of all we effect. Now, the implications for the after-life are clear enough. As Todd Hunter has said, if there are two options for the after life, where do you think God takes his friends? With him, of course, to finish what they have worked toward together–the new heavens and new earth. And the negative implications are also clear: what of the person who has remained hostile to Christ and to his rule of love and self-sacrifice? Out, tragically, with the rest of the trash that is committed to death. But–and this is the salient point–the focus of the gospel of the reign of God is how one wants to go forward in this life. Specifically, the issue is whether we want to ‘receive’ the new management. Do we want to actually ask God to let his name be honored above all (including ours), his government to come (not ours), his will (think, great commandments) be done in our particular corners of the earth–at least through us, or do we want to pray for and continue to seek our name, our reign, our will be done. It is a directional choice. It is a ‘how we want to live and for what?’ choice. It’s a day-by-day choice. It’s the choice God has laid before us when he sent his son proclaiming that ‘The time has come. The reign of God has come near. Repent and trust this good news’ as he healed and took apprentices, teaching them his Way.
Now, as that gospel started to get hold of me, I started looking at the 12 steps and thinking, “Is there a better way to respond, or rather, follow through in response, to that gospel, then this?” I encourage anyone to think about this gospel and what God is seeking to do in the world–really search the whole NT on that question– and ask the same question. I will go into some of the specific strengths of the steps as a kingdom-gospel response in later posts, but for now I will simply say that the steps are, in a nutshell, about turning the practical reigns of our lives over to God, especially as they inevitably involve our dealings with others. What’s more, the path of the steps aren’t taken alone, but in truly helpful relationships with others who are on the same path. The steps are about learning to actually live the way Jesus lived and taught, not just hear about it. They are a communal path to entering the reign of God, one day at a time, ceasing to be an instrument of other, darker powers such as our own selfishness and the idols we’ve counted on and followed for so long.