Jesus, Love, and the Twelve Steps

What does it mean to love? The Bible puts this very clearly:

“No man has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).

So what does it mean to love God? It’s not enough to just read the Bible and believe. That by itself is just intellectual information. True belief rests in the heart, not in the mind. And true belief is what we act on. What we do is a better indicator of what we believe than what we say. So if I say I believe that God provides but I worry about money a lot, I don’t really believe. If I say I love God but spend more of my time on things of this world, which do I really love? If I truly believe, my life and my actions will reflect it. More to the point, our lives and our actions tell us what we truly believe. It tells us what we really love, regardless of what we might say we love.

Love means to lay down our lives. Consider: to “lay down one’s life” doesn’t mean to die necessarily, but to risk even death because of the strength of one’s love. It is an action, a way of living. To love God means more than just to believe, or even to be willing to die for God. It means living for God in a new way of life.

What does this new life look like? The Bible speaks to this, too. Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” When Peter said he did, Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17). We shouldn’t take this too literally. Caring for a flock of sheep does include feeding them. But it also means protecting, healing, and caring for them. To love Jesus is to care about and support our brothers and sisters in whatever way is needed. We might compare this with Matthew 25, in which Jesus tells us that whatever we do to the least among us we did to him.

This kind of love doesn’t come naturally to us. Human beings tend to be self-centered and selfish, especially in our individualistic culture. But we have found things we’d be willing to die for. Those of us who abused substances would have died for our drug of choice. The rising rate of suicide tells us that people are willing to die for their depression and despair. People even work themselves to death for money.

Can we love God as diligently as we loved the destructive things we seek to escape? Are we willing to change our lives to reflect that love?

The Bible calls us to do just that. It gives instructions in various places. But they are not an organized design for living.

A century ago, a group of Christians sought to make a clear statement of what it means to practice discipleship. They identified the principles of living found in the Bible and worked to live that way. These included recognizing that God is God (and I’m not), confession, restitution for harms done, intensive prayer and meditation, and service to others.

These principles worked. In fact, they were so effective that people struggling from alcoholism found recovery among this Christian movement. They later founded their own organization, dedicated to healing alcoholics regardless of religion. But these principles of discipleship remained central, and became what we know today as the Twelve Steps.

That organization was, of course, Alcoholics Anonymous, which adopted the principles of the Oxford Groups, a Christian discipleship movement. AA has often been criticized for not being Christian. (Nonreligious people often criticize it for being too religious!) It intentionally chose this position, believing that faith was something a person could work out once they got sober. Many AA members do return to Christianity. And many people of other religions, or of no religion, find relief from their alcoholism. The Steps have also been applied by other similar programs to problems as diverse as drug addiction, gambling, debt, sex, and even the wounds of childhood abuse.

Whatever one thinks of AA, we should not lose sight of the fact that their principles of action, the Steps, are sound and biblically based. The principles stated in the Twelve Steps were being used as tools of discipleship for years before anyone thought to apply them to problems like alcoholism and addiction.

Trusting God, confession, restitution, prayer, and service are the actions a Christian life should demonstrate. They build love for God, and they reflect love for God. That is why the Twelve Steps remain important tools of discipleship, especially for those who, like those early suffering alcoholics, could not escape their afflictions without God’s help.

Healing Refuge conducts a Bible Study on the Twelve Steps every Tuesday at 7:00 pm at Parkview Mennonite Church.

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