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.