Powerlessness: The Key to Recovery

Back in 1939, the book Alcoholics Anonymous declared, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” This, the book claimed, was the first step in recovery. The same has been held true for other addictions, trauma, and all sorts of healing. But are we really powerless?

In recent years the concept of powerlessness has gotten a bad rap. If we’re powerless, the argument goes, there’s nothing we can do. That makes us victims.

But that’s not exactly the case. Powerlessness doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. It means acknowledging that we can’t fix the problem on our own. We need help. Only when we acknowledge that we need help can we begin to make progress.

There’s another level to this, of course. Alcoholics Anonymous argued that “no human power could have relieved our alcoholism,” but that “God could and would if [God] were sought.” The help we need is not just any help. It is God’s help.

This puts the AA vision of recovery firmly outside the purview of medicine and psychology, both of which deal in hard facts. Yet research studies have shown that for those who actually participate in the AA program, success rates are among the highest of any approach to treating alcoholism. That’s a hard fact. (Harder to explain, perhaps, is why so few people who attend AA actually work the program. Recovery rates for all people who go to AA remain dismally low.)

Many Christian commentators have also taken issue with the concept of powerlessness. This seems ironic, since AA’s view on powerlessness is firmly rooted in the Bible. We need only to look at the story of Adam and Eve to find that self-reliance, turning our backs on God, was the first sin.

Let’s consider the serpent’s argument to Eve that it’s okay to eat of the forbidden fruit. One of his primary temptations is this: “You will be like God…” (Genesis 3:5). This apparently seems to Eve like a good idea. (And where was Adam during this conversation? Was he not listening?)

Later, when God casts Adam and Eve out of the Garden, removing them from the divine Presence, God gives as a reason, “The man has now become like one of us…” (Genesis 3:22). It wasn’t just because of disobedience. Trying to be our own gods is the first sin described in the Bible.

We live in a culture that worships self-sufficiency. We celebrate the self-made person. We look down on those who can’t get their lives together. We don’t like to help those who can’t seem to help themselves.

Even when we turn to God for help, we often quickly give thanks and return to our self-propelled ways. “Thanks, God. I’ll take it from here.”

Addicts live with the persistent belief that if they can just do something a little different, they can control their addiction. Alcoholics long to control their drinking so they can drink moderately. (In truth, most alcoholics would be miserable drinking only moderately.) We believe our addiction helps us control our lives, when in fact it only helps us control our pain.

Those with mental illnesses often struggle with similar beliefs that they can, or should be able to, control their affliction. Depressives are told that if they just get out and exercise, for example, they’ll be less depressed. That often makes them feel worthless because they just can’t do it. And how many times do people with bipolar disorder, psychosis, or schizophrenia stop taking their medication in the mistaken belief that they can control the result?

I’ve seen and experienced a similar belief with trauma. “I shouldn’t need help. The traumatic event is over, I can get through this on my own.” But trauma affects the way our brain functions, and self-will alone is not sufficient to heal us.

Years before AA was founded, Dr. Carl Jung postulated that the only cure for alcoholism was a powerful spiritual experience. Something had to take the place of alcohol in the person’s life and consciousness, and it had to be something beyond human power.

I’m not saying medicine and psychology have nothing to offer. They do. But often they are not enough. We suffer not only from biological and psychological afflictions, but from spiritual affliction as well. The most common of these, in my experience, is exactly what Adam and Eve did: we seek to be our own gods. We hold an unrealistic view of our own power.

The Bible tells us that Christ came to heal the broken (Mark 2:17). God stands ready to help us. But it’s rare that God forces help upon us. Most often, we have to ask.

Our response to powerlessness, then, is not to become hopeless victims. It is to ask for help, and to show up so that we can receive help. This is true for doctors and psychologists. They won’t come to us. It is also true of God. It doesn’t work to ask for help and keep doing the same old things. We have to become willing to change. We have to put forth some effort. We can’t do it without God, and God won’t do it without our participation. That’s where the rest of the Twelve Steps, or some alternative framework for discipleship, comes in.

Maybe you don’t believe in God. I didn’t when I first asked for help. It felt silly to pray to this God I had no awareness of, but I was desperate enough to do it. And I received help. I found recovery. I began to heal.

At first, this seemed like coincidental interactions with the right people at the right time. Now I look back and see God’s fingerprints all over it. But it took years before I came to believe.

As a person who didn’t know how to believe, I became grateful for the wording of that phrase from the Alcoholics Anonymous. It doesn’t say, “God could and would if found.” It says, “God could and would if sought.” Honest seeking is all that’s required. And, fortunately, most people seem to find God much more quickly than I did.

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