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The God of the 12 Steps and the God of the Bible- by an Orthodox priest in recovery

The God of the 12 Steps and the God of the Bible

By an Orthodox priest in recovery

There are many Orthodox Christians worry about whether 12 Step programs somehow conflict with the tenets of the Orthodox Faith.  Specifically, many object to the use of the term ‘Higher Power’ and think this implies some type of pagan deity or New Age idol.

In order to comprehend why the group Alcoholics Anonymous used this term, one must first grasp the history of the movement in its time.  Only then will it become clear that the 12 Step approach to God is, in fact, entirely understandable from an Orthodox perspective.

But, before we begin, some basic statistics are called for.  In the primary 12-Step text, Alcoholics Anonymous, the word ‘God’ appears 138 times.  The term ‘Power greater than ourselves’ appears 18 times.  ‘Higher Power’ appears twice, as do ‘Power’ and ‘Supreme Being’ as synonyms for God.  The synonym ‘Creator’ appears 12 times.  The phrase ‘God as we understood Him’ appears six times.  In single instances, God is also referred to in single instances as ‘Spirit of the Universe,’ ‘Presence of Infinite Power and Love,’ ‘One is God,’ ‘Great Reality of a Loving and All-powerful Creator,’ and ‘God as you understand Him.’

Then, there is this quote (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 181): “Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!”

From this, it is easy to see that the AA tradition, which gave birth to the 12 Steps, is founded upon the notion of the single God figure.  ‘Higher Power’ or ‘Power’ are used to denote an attribute of God rather than to portray Him as an ethereal, impersonal being such as an energy field.  God is powerful, and more powerful than man.  Thus He is called the ‘Higher Power,’ not unlike the Biblical names of God including ‘Almighty,’ ‘King,’ and even ‘Lord.’  We will explore this in greater detail at a later point.

Returning to the history of AA’s formation in 1935, we must understand that in this time period the Orthodox faith was almost entirely inaccessible to Americans.  The first attempt to publish an English version of the basic services of the Orthodox Church was blessed by St. Tikhon of Moscow in 1917.  Sadly, the October Revolution prevented his ever seeing the final copy in 1922.  The first complete copy of the Orthodox Menaion was published in 2005.

Only in the last 30 years has English become the predominant language of the American Orthodox community.  Up until this time, most converts to the Orthodox Faith would be expected to stand through services in Slavonic, Koine Greek, Classical Arabic, Romanian, and whatever other language the immigrant community spoke.  Converts were indeed rare until after the Great Patriotic War [i.e. World War II], and the notion of conversion itself was not popularized until the late 1980s.

So, the Church and Her Faith have largely been hidden from Americans.  America was settled by Protestants and Roman Catholics, and Orthodox immigrants did not appear on the US mainland in large numbers until the late 19th century after the nation was well-established.

This being the case, Americans had only these Roman Catholic and Protestant spiritual forms to work with when dealing with the problems of alcoholism.  And, as one would expect, there was very little progress in this regard.  Charlatans and extremists plied their deceptions among the people, who continuously fell victim to the disease of alcoholism.

When the founders of AA, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, met for the first time in Akron, Ohio, in 1935, they had no idea that Orthodox Christianity even existed.  However, they had access to the Bible and the many movements which expressed dissatisfaction with the heretical forms of Christianity in the Western milieu, such as the Oxford Group.  This particular movement was an attempt in the West to return to ‘ancient Christianity’ without actually forming a denomination or religion.

There was an immediate problem: these men noted that their ‘Christian’ religiosity was insufficient for getting them sober.  While they had experienced spiritual insights that convinced them of the truths contained in the Bible, they could find no Protestant denomination, or even Roman Catholicism for that matter, that had the ‘solution’ to their problem of alcoholism.

By attempting to put into action the truths contained in the Bible, these men eventually developed the 12 Steps.  What this required them to do, however, was to set aside the overtly ‘Christian’ language of the Bible.

Why?  Very simply put, many addicts fall into addiction because of faulty definitions of God the Father and Jesus Christ, either because of personal error or heresy.  Here is how this idea is expressed (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 45):

Some of us have been violently anti-religious. To others, the word “God” brought up a particular idea of Him with which someone had tried to impress them during childhood. Perhaps we rejected this particular conception because it seemed inadequate. With that rejection we imagined we had abandoned the God idea entirely.
So, the question becomes one of pragmatism: how does one get sober through the power of God while yoked to heresy? 

The answer is just as simple: by removing the heretical versions of Christ and God the Father from the 12 Step program, people are free to approach God in an ‘anonymous’ fashion and experience Him in truth rather than through the blinders of heresy.

This is how the concept came into being:

Despite the living example of my friend there remained in me the vestiges of my old prejudice. The word God still aroused a certain antipathy. When the thought was expressed that there might be a God personal to me this feeling was intensified. I didn’t like the idea. I could go for such conceptions as Creative Intelligence, Universal Mind or Spirit of Nature but I resisted the thought of a Czar of the Heavens, however loving His sway might be.  I have since talked with scores of men who felt the same way.
My friend suggested what then seemed a novel idea. He said, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?”
That statement hit me hard. It melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered many years. I stood in the sunlight at last.
It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning. I saw that growth could start from that point. Upon a foundation of complete willingness I might build what I saw in my friend. Would I have it? Of course I would!
Thus was I convinced that God is concerned with us humans when we want Him enough. At long last I saw, I felt, I believed. Scales of pride and prejudice fell from my eyes. A new world came into view.
The God that Bill W. was ‘choosing’ to believe in was one that was ‘other’ than the heretical version of God he previously held.  He was choosing to believe in a God greater than himself!  Read this again and see… his choice was to believe in a Power greater than himself!  He had been willing to believe in an impersonal, and thus largely ineffectual, ‘Creative Intelligence’ or ‘Universal Mind.’

Again, notice how he emphasizes that this decision was all it took to ‘make a beginning.’  He was open at this point to learn more about God.  Once he accepted God in this new, open way, he became teachable.  Yet, this teaching of what would amount to a religion is something that AA and other 12 Step groups do not engage in.  The Steps merely prepare one to receive the Truth.

Because AA does not represent itself as a religion or a church, it does not present any type of challenge to Orthodox Dogma.  Rather, AA encourages its members to seek out the Church.  Here is an example taken directly from Alcoholics Anonymous (p. 74):

Those of us belonging to a religious denomination which requires confession must, and of course, will want to go to the properly appointed authority whose duty it is to receive it. Though we have no religious connection, we may still do well to talk with someone ordained by an established religion. We often find such a person quick to see and understand our problem.
Notice the imperative ‘must.’  This is rare in the book, which offers most of its instructions as ‘suggestions,’ even offering such disclaimers as ‘we know only a little.’  Now, if one considers the time and place of this statement (America of 1935), what ‘religious denomination’ were they speaking of?  Baptists?  Pentecostals?  Roman Catholicism?  If so, why did they not specify it?  Protestantism has no tradition of requiring Confession, leaving only two churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.

This ‘God as we understand Him’ is, therefore, an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of heresy while earnestly seeking out God on God’s terms.  Once one mentions ‘Father’ or ‘Jesus Christ,’ the addict’s mind returns to his faulty understanding of God as expressed in these words.  The addict is prisoner to these definitions given to him by heterodox groups.

Orthodox addicts have a faulty personal understanding of who God is.  Otherwise, he would not drink or use drugs.  For this reason, it is important for the Orthodox addict to step back from his defective understanding of the Church and ‘return’ to her through the process of repentance even of his religious opinions until he is ready to accept God as taught by the Church.

This is why the absence of Orthodox terminology in the 12 Steps is vital for the recovery of Orthodox addicts.  Too often the addict assumes he understands what the Church is saying because he has a rudimentary understanding of the vocabulary.  However, in practical experience, he reacts to the world in a manner contrary to the teachings of the Church.

The Prophet Isaiah heard from the Lord:

“Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid.” (Is 29:13-14)
The addict may understand the Church ‘by rote,’ but his true intentions are still in the world.  The miracle of recovery through the 12 Steps is indeed a miracle that demolished the ‘wisdom’ of Protestantism’s rejection of confession, spiritual guidance, and the transformative nature of God’s grace.  Prior to AA, Protestantism had largely become about securing ‘heavenly salvation,’ while man’s lone response was only to be self-willed moralism.

Again, it is important to remember that ‘Higher Power’ and ‘Power greater than ourselves’ are used a total of 20 times, compared to 138 occurrences of the word ‘God.’  These references are meant to describe God in such a manner as to convince the alcoholic that God has the power to heal him.  They are not meant to differentiate God in the 12 Steps from the Biblical God.

Some of you may protest, “But, this program does not specify the role of Jesus Christ, and therefore we must reject it!”  There is a very simple response: can anyone other than the One True Church preach the Name of Jesus Christ?  Of course, the answer is ‘no’… this can only be done by His Body.

AA and the 12 Steps makes this clear: it is not the Body of Christ, nor is it in any way a church, so it cannot by definition preach the Gospel.  It cannot use the Name of Christ, even though it very clearly points in this direction.

The God of the 12 Steps is:

1) Monotheistic (He is always spoken of as a unique person)

2) All Powerful (superior in power to any human person)

3) Loving

Beyond this the 12 Steps and the teachings surrounding them are silent.  They are, after all, not a religion, but rather a preparation to receive religion.  AA and other 12 Step groups break down the addict’s false beliefs so that he can receive the Gospel.

As one raised outside the Orthodox Church, I can vouch for the many Orthodox Christians like me who have found the Church through the preparatory work of the 12 Steps.  Were it not for the 12 Steps erasing my resistance to God, I would have never converted.

I can say with certainty that the God of the 12 Steps is indeed the God of the Church.  In deference to the real Church, 12 Step groups leave us to do the job of preaching and teaching about the person of Jesus Christ and to finish the spiritual work which the Steps prepares in the addict imprisoned by heresy and misunderstanding.


  1. Very wonderful article which I highly endorse as a professional Orthodox alcohol/drug counselor. This is consistent with and dovetails nicely with Fr. Webber's book. I sometimes have the occasion with a client when discussing this aspect to refer to a client I once had who defiantly told me his "leather jacket" was his "higher power."

  2. Relativism is a heresy because of its' denial that God has revealed Himself to us in the Person of Jesus Christ. AA and other 12 step programs do not prepare the way to receive the Revelation given to us by the Orthodox Church, but rather encourage members to impose their own understanding unto God. That is idolatry.

    1. Dear Cameron,
      I think you are missing the point of the article. First, AA cannot by definition proclaim the Person of Jesus Christ precisely because it is not the Church. If it did, it would be the Church and hence cease to be. Second, AA and the 12 Steps renounce relativism when it says 'as WE understand Him.' We and Relativism are mutually incompatible. Instead, there is a commonality of experience, which precisely what the Orthodox Church actually relies on... what has always been believed. If your reread the article, you will also see that AA does not encourage 'any god,' since only a certain God can meet the 'criteria' necessary for genuine sobriety... all others lead to fear and impediments to spiritual growth. The Steps are not intended to replace the Church, nor does AA make any claims to be the Church, but it does help countless people move from atheism into a more God-oriented direction. Given the fact that the Church has not been doing well with its own efforts apart from AA in stemming the tide of addiction sweeping through its communities should tell us that AA, which has a demonstrated success rate, ought to be considered in an Orthodox context.

    2. Well said Father. Step 3, indeed all of the steps do no seem to be a prescription for recovery. They are a suggested path. The steps are worded I a way that gives an account of what a group of alcoholics actually did. "God as we understood him" isn't a commandment, it sounds more likes confession. We offered ourselves to God as best we could, as best as we understood God. We didn't go to seminary before we made that decision, we simply offered ourselves to God as we knew how. And as you mention Father, the authors of the Big Book refer to it as their beginning. It was enough to make a beginning.

      Far from soundin like a relativistic heresy of some sort, it sounds more like a humble admission. They weren't sure who God was exactly, and didn't pretend to know. They simply trusted that God cared and loved enough to help if He were sought. And with that, they confessed their ignorance, offered themselves to Him, and made their beginning.

  3. Dear Father George,
    Thank you for a very nice article. I am a longtime member of AA - since 1989. Christ revealed Himself to me in 1991 and despite my utter lack of comprehension and rebellion and subsequent struggle to stay sober, He revealed Himself to me again in 2007. Sobriety is a lot better (and continuous) with the True God than "with my own comprehension of God". But, no one can tell a rebellious alcoholic this :)

    Anyway, there are a couple of things which I hope you are able to help me with?

    1) I am convert to Orthodoxy in 2012. I become affected negatively with many of the Orthodox prayers - they seem to lack real hope for me - they focus so much on my own unworthiness in the guise of humility that they almost talk me out of even approaching God! Whereas in AA, there is encouragement and absolutes: God would and could if He were sought. Perhaps this is part of the problem in religion which you spoke about? (granted I have a lot of baggage: I as an unwanted and invisible child, so, I need God to be approachable and loving and wanting to help!)

    2) I also struggle with God in AA being the same God of the bible and the same God of the Koran and the same God of the Hindu, and the same God/dess of the New Ager, or the same God of the Great Spirit of Native Americans, etc.

    It is hard for me to pretend that the God of the bible is the same as the others. I don't know how to react to people in AA when they tell me that "oh, it's all the same!" I practiced many religtions before converting to Christianity in 2007. I can emphatically and authoritatively state that It's NOT the same. Yet, I know that God will keep them sober nevertheless.

    I realize AA says "principles before personalities" - does that mean God is also putting principles before His own personality? That He has humbled Himself to the point of stripping off religion in the same way equality with God was not something He grasped at? (He has lowered Himself in order that He might raise us up past alcoholism?) To paraphrase Mel Webber: "God is even anonymous in AA".

    3) Then further confusion comes in because I know people 20 years in sobriety whom God has not "revealed Himself" to them as anything other than the God of the 12 Steps, and I know a Jew who had visitations and spiritual revelations almost identical as a Christian in AA - It is confusing to me why God would give this consolation to a Jew without really letting her know it was Himself: Jesus Christ. I then wonder if it is God at all!

    So, I felt a twinge of hope when I saw your blog...that maybe I would be able to come to some internal peace about it all. It is lonely in the Orthodox religion without AA - there is no sense of community in the parish I attend. There is no one to speak to about these things, they only know Orthodoxy. It is "churchy" and "cliquey" and "judgemental on fasting, etc". Language of the heart is sorely lacking.

    Can you help or translate for me? :)

    Thanks very much for your time.

    1. Thanks for the comment/question! Here is my response:

  4. Greetings, Fr George. As an Orthodox Christian, should I feel strange about saying the "Our Father" at meetings with non-Orthodox? Do the Church canons prohibit the practice of praying with the non-Orthodox? Also, as a layman, I'm not sure how I feel about having a sponsee perform the 5th step (Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs) with me - this is essentially confession without the absolution, is it not? Should I be hearing someone's confession as a layman? Lastly, I see you've already tackled the subject of "God as we understood Him" - I am grateful for this, though unsure if I should advocate this approach to sponsees. At the very least, I'd be inclined to advise a sponsee to approach God as God Is, rather than approaching God with our own preconceived ideas, which may or may not fall short and hinder a genuine connection from being established. I'd appreciate any feedback you have to offer.

    1. Thanks for this question! Here's my response:

  5. just came upon your site; sorta like topping a ridge and there it was, water not poisoned. This post is a bit of the "uncommon" sense the BB speaks of. The post regarding ADHD and dyslexia is nothing less than merciful. I'm a counselor working to fashion a program spanning addiction study and Bible study. I look forward to catching up on your site and stealing your stuff. Rick