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.
The following is one of several posts on all kinds of spiritual practices (including especially the every-day, not seen as spiritual variety) that Christine Sine has organized at her blog. Whether you like my contribution or not, I highly recommend the series.
What a powerful phrase. What an underrated, nonreligious way–available to us all–to cooperate with God’s work in this world. It’s truly amazing what all can be accomplished by a good apology. For the one apologizing, the process can (momentarily) defeat one’s pride, halt one’s cooperation with destructive forces and begin one’s cooperation with God. In apologizing, we overcome our fear of judgment; become vulnerable to another person, and we become truly free from our past. By themselves, those are pretty significant outcomes–and that’s just for the person apologizing. But simultaneously and more importantly, for the one receiving an apology, the process can be the best available aid to their healing, the opportunity to lose bitterness and pain, and to have their sense of value and what is right and “normal” to be (re)aligned with God’s ideas instead of something much less. The apology changes the culture into which it is uttered. It resets the standard of conduct in a relationship from a perverted state, but only by risking the messenger, not the hearer(s). The apology is literally a powerhouse for progress in the inward and outward work of God, and occasions for its use are everywhere, every day: at home, at work, with our spouses, friends, neighbors, and children. Yet, for all its power and frequent opportunity, it is not common, and it is not hard to imagine why. To apologize goes against the core of all we are and seek apart from Christ.
Now, don’t misunderstand me; when I say “apology,” I’m not just talking about words. I’ve been married 14 years. My relationship with my wife is better now than it has ever been and practicing the apology has been absolutely critical to that. I’ve heard and given more apologies than I can remember. My marriage has taught me the crucial role that attitude and body language plays in the messy yet beautiful and deeply necessary work of apologizing for failings, large and small. Words alone are often insufficient. The apology, done rightly, is a whole mind, body and soul experience, not to mention whatever it takes to arrange for restitution, to whatever extent possible. When it comes to apologizing, we’ve either secured at least 51% of our heart, mind, body and tone of voice in the work, or we’re doing something other than apologizing. And usually that “something else” is defending or justifying or avenging ourselves, no matter what our words are.
I wonder–I know countless fights and arguments have been avoided by the practice of apologizing; how many divorces been avoided? Church splits? Wars?
It’s not hard, when I take time to think about it, for me to realize the central role that apologizing must play in my tasks as a husband, father, lawyer, especially as these must be shaped in light of God’s mission. Unfortunately, it is also amazingly easy to forget this central role, especially in the rough and tumble of work, of dealing with children and the pressures of each day. To apologize is to open ourselves to attack, to provide others with the justification to judge us, give them the ammunition they could use to fire at us, and I, at least, am often so tired and scared of being attacked.
So, towards the goal of remembering how critical apologizing is to the mission of God and overcoming fear and pride, I sometimes take a few seconds or minutes (especially if I realize I need to apologize and don’t want to) and think about any one of the following amazing facts. I’d encourage anyone to do the same:
Deep and lasting relationships are only available to those who are willing to apologize.
Like any loving parent of warring siblings, Jesus always cares more about me apologizing to the specific people I’ve hurt than he does about any offering I may give to him, regardless of what the prized practices of church may be.
I’m either gathering things together with Jesus, or I’m scattering them further apart. I can’t be part of the ministry of reconciliation and not apologize.
No one trusts people who never apologize, nor should they.
Even if everyone else abandons me for my failings, Jesus won’t, so don’t sweat it.
Helping others at personal risk to one’s self is the way Jesus loves.
I recently led our church through a series on the 12 steps (made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous) as a possible community rule for Christians. Almost without exception, the step that is the most intimidating to people, even to experienced Christians, is step 9 (it certainly was to me!), which is making amends to everyone we’ve harmed. The fact that this step is almost universally intimidating to Christians tells me something. We obviously have left many apologies unsaid, many of our own wrongs un-righted, even though we’ve confessed them to God, even as we work in ministries to right the wrongs of others. We don’t see how Jesus prioritizes our apologizing to people for our wrongs over most other gifts we could bring him. Of course he does so for everyone’s sake, including our own.