“Having a Spiritual Awakening” and “A Quest for Wholeness” were the two traits of similarity between 12 Step programs and the church and other spiritual fellowships that I mentioned in the two previous entries of this series. Today I add “Hitting Bottom.” It seems universal that spiritual awakenings and the quest for wholeness frequently grow out of brokenness. The Apostle Paul and Bill W. (a co-founder of AA) ~ like many of us ~ struggle to make sense out of the affliction we have endured. Paul and Bill felt that their suffering was, in part, so that they might be better able to console those who turned to them for help. Bill W, like many other alcoholics, had lost nearly everything. Material possessions, relationships, as well as physical, spiritual, and mental health had disappeared. As Bill W. said about his life prior to recovery, “All of us felt at times like we were regaining control, but such intervals ~ usually brief ~ were inevitably followed by still less control, which led in time to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.”
The Apostle Paul was imprisoned many times for his beliefs and behavior. He was beaten, humiliated, denounced at trial, and even paraded through town in a cage on wheels as a public spectacle and a forewarning to others of what might happen if you dare to go against the established order. And so Paul, though never accused of being alcoholic, must have felt similarly about the “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization” that the early Christians and those in the early days of the recovery movement have endured. As Paul said, “We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.”
Bill W. believed that he had to go through all the things he had endured in “bottoming-out” in order to make his mission to alcoholics possible. Although his suffering was painful and tragic, he believed that what he had endured was part of his “call” from God to carry the message of recovery to still suffering alcoholics who were lost in the wilderness of addiction. The Apostle Paul felt similarly about going through whatever you have to go through in order to be sculpted and prepared for your purpose in life, including physical pain and emotional demoralization. As Paul said, referring to the affliction he had endured, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel” (Philippians 1:12).
There was no denying that affliction had left its mark on Paul and Bill. But while many people are afflicted with such things as the disease of alcoholism and prejudice because of their beliefs, Paul and Bill did not allow their afflictions to stop or define them. They persevered, and saw that out of affliction can come consolation. I do not believe that God will cause us to suffer so that we are better able to be of help to those similarly afflicted. But I do believe that God, or your Higher Power, will offer consolation to those who are afflicted, in part, so that they may better be able, if they so choose, to offer empathy, love and consolation to others.
Paul saw his own suffering and deprivation as a way of identifying with the suffering and deprivation that Christ went through. Paul’s suffering brought him closer to Christ. And it was suffering that gave him the comfort and strength to help others. Paul says, “Blessed be the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our afflictions so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Many of those addicted to alcohol and other substances and behaviors may, understandably, feel like failures. They feel their lives have been wasted, and missed opportunities lie like rubbish on the side of a highway.
But both Paul and Bill W. felt that “failure” can be the seed and the soil out of which “success” may bloom. Through powerlessness over things you cannot control may come a new sense of what real power is; and through brokenness comes the possibility of healing. As Paul says, “So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling… salvation has come” (Romans 11:11).
Both Paul and Bill had stumbled and fallen. Both Paul and Bill had to “get back on their horse” after Paul fell off the horse in Emmaus and Bill fell off the wagon in New York. With Paul as with Bill, supposed failure and defeat became their port of entry into a new way of life. They both had to pick up where they left off on their spiritual journey. But, for a period of time after their “spiritual awakening” ~ they were traveling blind, stumbling around, looking for a new identity, a new life, a new path, and a new relationship with God. And during this time of incapacitation and disorientation, they had to allow themselves to be led by others.
Becoming an intentional Christian and becoming an intentionally sober person requires that you “bottom-out” on your old self and your old way of being in the world.
As I mentioned in an earlier piece in this series, Bill W’s favorite book was not the Bible, it was William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” from which Bill culled three ideas that became central to his work in AA: (1) Change comes when a person reaches a state of total desperation and collapse. (2) An admission of defeat is necessary. (3) An appeal to a higher power is unconditional.
Once again, God might not intentionally break you so as to use you to help others. But in your brokenness, God very well might console you and strengthen you and choose you to be God’s voice and ears, God’s eyes and hands in ministering to others. In Paul and Bill W., God chose what was lowly and misguided. In our brokenness and vulnerability, we are often more open and receptive to allowing God into our lives.
Once within us, God just might be able to convince us to cooperate in carrying the message of hope and recovery to those less fortunate than ourselves, but every bit as much a beloved child of God.