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.

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