Excerpt from One Day at a Time

A Note on the Twelve Steps from a Nonalcoholic

You may be wondering how I, a nonalcoholic, came across the Twelve Step program. Allow me to share a little bit of my story with you. 

Over the years I have struggled with the need for change in many areas of my life. When I was younger, I battled with an addiction to gambling in the area of horse racing. Twenty-five years of marriage have brought home the subtle depths of my own self-centeredness. Moments of extreme tiredness have exposed compulsive tendencies to overwork and overcommit. My children, especially, have helped me to recognize how hard I find it to lighten up and really enjoy myself. These issues and others as well have caused much heartache and pain and struggle — not only for myself but also for those around me. 

However, while wrestling with this need for change I discovered the helpfulness of the Twelve Step program. Here is how it happened. 

Some of my friends happen to be recovering alcoholics. We often get together to talk about the struggles and joys of our lives. Whenever I spoke about my own compulsions and character defects, like those mentioned above, they would point me toward the program. One day a friend told me bluntly, Trevor, just work the Twelve Steps.” I began to do so and have continued it on a day-by-day basis, even now. This is how I came to discover the power and value of the Twelve Step program. 

When I look back over this time, I can see clearly that the Twelve Steps have become God’s surprising way of keeping my life on track. I have little doubt that without the wisdom and practical guidance they offer my life would have been very much poorer today at every level. They have given me a way of dealing with my tendency toward compulsive behavior, helped me take a closer look at my weaknesses and provided me with practical tools for spiritual growth and healing. In a nutshell, the Twelve Steps have become profoundly helpful in my own ongoing personal journey of change. 

However, I should not really have been surprised. Literally millions of people around the world can testify to the blessings and benefits of working the Twelve Step program, not just in Alcoholics Anonymous but in many other recovery and healing programs. These wonderful gifts include things like peace of mind, newfound freedom, and the joy found in serving others. Furthermore, they have provided for many people a solid and realistic plan for growing spiritually. Small wonder that Dallas Willard, one of the most respected spiritual writers of our time, comments in one of his books: Any successful plan for spiritual formation, whether for the individual or group, will in fact be significantly similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous program.”

Step Eleven: Find God’s Will

Step Eleven — We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God … , praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out. 
Going a little farther, [Jesus] threw himself on the ground and prayed, My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” —Matthew 26:39

A little boy was watching his granny rub some cream onto her face. He was intrigued and asked why she was doing this. She replied simply that she hoped the cream would take away her wrinkles. He became quiet, and continued to look closely at her face, obviously concerned. After a long silence, he said, Granny, I’m sorry, but it’s not working.” 

It is easy to have this attitude toward prayer, especially when we ask God to do something and nothing seems to happen. It may be a request to find a partner, to become pregnant, for a business deal to go through, for the health of a loved one to improve, or something else that we desperately want to see happen. Often in the painful shadow of unanswered prayers like these, we begin to wonder whether prayer really works. We find ourselves asking questions like, Why do I bother to pray?” and What am I supposed to pray for?” Sometimes we may even give up praying. 

I often wrestle with these questions myself. In my search to find sensible answers I have read many books, listened to many talks, spoken to many people. All these have helped in some way, some more than others. What has helped most, however, has been the simple wisdom of the Eleventh Step. Here is how I would word it: 

We must try to improve our connection with God through two-way communication, always asking that we may come to know and have the strength to do God’s will. 

This step describes clearly why we should pray and what we should pray for. Prayer works, as the Big Book of AA states, if we develop the proper attitude towards it. I hope the following suggestions will encourage you to step out into a more meaningful journey of prayer, even if you have been disappointed by unanswered prayers in the past. 

Improve Our Conscious Contact With God

Prayer works when we know why we pray. The first part of the Eleventh Step gives us a clear purpose for prayer. It suggests that the main reason we pray is to improve our conscious contact with God. The wording is careful and assumes that if we have been doing the other ten steps we will by now have some awareness of God working in our life. At this point, the program in effect says to us: The time has come for you to deepen your connection with God, to make it stronger and more vital. The best way to do this is through prayer and meditation.” 

How do prayer and meditation connect us more deeply with God? To answer, let me offer a simple picture. Think of someone close to you. It could be your spouse, your child, your parent, or a good friend. If you want to strengthen your relationship with others, there needs to be open and honest two-way communication. Not only do you need to share yourself with the other persons, they also need to be able to share themselves with you. This dialogue is necessary for the growth of any human relationship. If communication is only one way, the relationship will definitely not grow. 

In the same way, if we want to strengthen our connection with God, there needs to be two-way communication. On the one hand, we need to share ourselves openly with God. We call this talking to God prayer. Some may argue that it is a waste of time to tell God anything. After all, surely God knows everything about us already. However, it’s not a question of giving new information to God. It’s much rather a matter of trust and transparency — learning to speak openly with God about everything in our life and then experiencing the closeness that this kind of transparency brings to our relationship with God. 

I remember learning how to do this. A close friend suggested that when I prayed I should put an empty chair near my bed. He told me to imagine Jesus sitting there and to speak with him as I would with a very good friend. I used this method regularly for a number of years. Sitting on the side of my bed, I would share with the Lord my deepest longings, my joys, my sorrows, my achievements, my shame. Sharing myself with Christ like this often brought me a deep sense of God’s presence. While I don’t use an empty chair any longer, to this day I continue speaking aloud with God whenever I pray. I imagine the Lord is present with me, and I seek to share honestly my thoughts and feelings, whatever they may be. 

On the other hand, we also need to listen to God. If we understand prayer to be talking to God, then meditation can be described as listening to God. When we meditate, it simply means thinking about life and about things in God’s presence. It could involve thinking about a passage from the Bible, our plans for the day that lies ahead, a problem or a conversation, or a character defect that keeps tripping us up. Whatever it is that we may decide to focus our thoughts on, the important thing in meditation is trying to hear what God may be saying so that we will end up doing what God wants us to do. 

Almost every time I try to explain what meditation involves, someone will ask, But how can I be sure that it is God speaking to me?” The answer is very simple. Thoughts influenced by God usually have a certain feel” about them. They prompt us to do loving things, lead us in the direction of a more creative life, and invite us to take better care of ourselves. They never accuse or condemn but often urge us toward a better way of doing things. They draw us into a closer walk with God. Learning to discern the divine whisper in our thoughts can become one of our greatest adventures in life. 

Praying Only For Knowledge Of God’s Will For Us And For The Power To Carry It Out

Prayer works when we know what to pray for. The second part of this step gives us a clear focus. It suggests that we focus on a knowledge of God’s will and the power to carry it out. This is the Twelve Step program’s main insight on prayer. We do not pray just to get God to do what we want. We pray so that we get to know God’s will and find the strength to do it. Jesus exemplifies this when he prays to his Father in the garden of Gethsemane: “‘Not as I will, but as you will’” (Matt. 26:39NIV). 

Now, in one respect there is no great mystery surrounding the will of God. Generally speaking, we know what God wants. We know that God wants us to be loving, to be honest, to serve others, to use our gifts, and to do as much good as we can. What we still need to know, however, is what God’s general will may mean to us in specific situations in our everyday lives. When we pray for this knowledge, it often happens that God gives us special insights and promptings that enrich our lives and the lives of those around us. We begin to live and act in a way that is in line with God’s will and purpose for us. 

This focus of praying to know God’s will has made a huge difference in the way I pray. For years I assumed that I knew what was best for myself and others. I would then ask God to bring about what I wanted to see done. When this didn’t happen, I would think that my prayers were not working. Today I pray in a very different way. Rather than tell God what to do in a specific situation, I ask God how I need to respond. Lord, please show me your will and give me the strength to do it,” has become an almost daily prayer for me. 

Praying like this does not always mean that we will get an answer in bright neon lights or on a computer printout; nor does it mean that everything will work out smoothly, neatly, and tidily. God’s will usually shows itself to us gradually. My experience is that we may receive just enough light to know what to do next. Like a handheld lamp that lights up the next few steps along a dark pathway, God gives us just enough light to keep walking. As we walk in the light we are given, another bit of illumination will come along, guiding us further. And so we proceed, one step at a time, one day at a time. All the time we keep trusting that God is lovingly walking with us in whatever it is we are going through. 

But suppose no clear guidance comes,” you may ask, what then?” When this happens, we need to assume that it may be God’s will for us to take responsibility and make up our own minds. God has given us the good gifts of common sense, reason, and the ability to think. Using all these gifts, we then try to decide how we can best be faithful to God’s general will. In moments like these, when no clear light is shed on our specific situations, our choices and decisions reveal whether our lives have really been surrendered to God or not. 

Into Action

When it comes to putting the Eleventh Step into practice, it’s hard to improve on what the Big Book of AA suggests. These suggestions are described so well that I suspect the writers were guided by God in what they wrote. The down-to-earth language outlines clearly what a daily discipline of prayer and meditation can look like. Here are their suggestions with some of my thoughts as well: 

  • In the evening, the writers suggest a nightly review… The important thing about praying at night is to reflect on God’s presence on the day gone by. We should give thanks for everything that was good, apologize for where we went wrong, and ask God to show us where we need to put things right. Simple prayer like this keeps our connection with God alive. It also helps us to sleep better and to wake up feeling closer to God. 
  • In the morning the writers suggest that we think about the day facing us. We could ask God to direct our lives. If we are facing specific situations that make us worried or afraid, we could consciously place them in God’s hands for the next twenty-four hours and ask for the help and guidance we need. Here is one way you could build this morning prayer time. It is the five P” approach to prayer. 
    • Place: Find a place where you can be uninterrupted and have quality time alone with God. Close human relationships are always nurtured by special places. So too with God. Therefore ask yourself: Where is the best place for me to pray, given the actual circumstances of my life? 
    • Prepare: Take some time to settle down before you begin your time of meditation and prayer. You might like to breathe deeply for a few moments. Breathe in the presence of God and breathe out whatever negative feelings you may have. Have a lighted candle to look at sometimes or listen to some soothing music or quietly repeat a chosen word that describes God for you. 
    • Passage: Read slowly a portion from one of your favorite devotional books. The book through which God most often speaks to me is the Bible. Often when I read or reread a scripture passage, a word or phrase or sentence stands out for me and invites my attention. 
    • Ponder: Spend a few minutes in silence, thinking more deeply about what you have read. Ask what it might mean for your life, especially in the light of the day that lies ahead. Imagine what your life might look like if you were to put this new insight into immediate practice. 
    • Prayer: Talk to God about whatever you are thinking and feeling. Thank God for specific persons or things. Ask God to help you understand what you are to do during the next twenty-four hours and to give you the power to carry it out. Commit yourself to God again, along with all the things that you are anxious and concerned about in the day ahead. 
  • During the day the writers suggest that we direct our thoughts as often as we can toward God. When familiar character defects appear, we could ask God to remove them. When we are confronted with situations where we really do not know what to do or when we feel frantic and uptight, we could renew our focus by saying quietly, Your will, not mine be done.” When things go well, or some good comes our way, we could thank God. To quote the well-known words of Brother Lawrence, we must try to practice the presence of God” in all these different ways. 

However much we have emphasized the value of prayer and meditation in this chapter, we should never neglect the importance of action. It is not enough merely to ask God for a knowledge of the divine will — we must act on whatever light we receive. We may pray, but it is still our responsibility to do the legwork. Only then will the power of God flow through us. As one AA writer put it: We ask for God’s Will for us through verbal prayer; we learn God’s Will for us through meditation; we do the Will of God by action.” When these three things come together, prayer really works! 

Taking It Further In Group Sharing

  1. How would you describe your God-connection at the moment? 
  2. Share one struggle that you experience in prayer and meditation.
  3. What did you find most helpful in this chapter for your own practice of prayer and meditation? 
  4. What is your response to the invitation to take Step Eleven?

Excerpted from One Day at a Time by Trevor Hudson. Published by Upper Room. © 2007 Trevor Hudson. Used with permission.