Christian self-help programs

I was recently asked to peruse a new book that contains a Christian reworking of the twelve steps of AA. It is written at a very popular level and promises to be the next big seller. I am in a recovery program and my friend asked if I’d like to review the book and whether I could recommend it to others. I spent some time perusing it, but some things about it brought back some of my painful attempts at self-help outside of recovery. After giving it a good try I respectfully declined and returned the book.

There seems to be a lot of confusion these days about the difference between the 12 steps and 12 traditions of AA and those recovery groups based on AA’s path, and the many self-help books and programs that are just spin-offs. There is a big difference. Let me share a little of my own experience.

I tried to fix myself using a lot of books. I can remember as a teenager finding a twelve step Bible and even trying to do the fourth step (the “searching and fearless moral inventory”) at that time on my own. I thought that steps one, two, and three were obvious. I had a problem. I believed in Jesus Christ. I believed he could fix it. What’s next? (Wasn’t that easy?) Well, it didn’t work, for the simple reason that I was alone.

Twelve step recovery is hard work. It does not involve only stopping those destructive habits that we did not like. We had stopped hundreds of times. We couldn’t stay stopped. Recovery is a new spiritual way of life that involves a new connection to God through the group–those people who identify on the basis of their addiction.

Working the steps means working with a sponsor and taking in as many meetings as possible. This is very different than a self-help program. This kind of radical commitment, turning our will and lives over to the care of God—through the group—involves an ego deflation not in keeping with the idea of self-help.

I will not go so far as to say that self-help will not work for people. God can use anything. But as an addict I will say it is dangerous ground to tempt myself with the thought of an “easier softer way.” Self-help did not, and will not work for me.

More than this I suspect that there are many other Christians out there like me, who want to believe they are not really addicts but are just in need of some self-improvement. Well, to these I say, try a real recovery meeting if you’re not sure. Go to listen to the readings and the stories. A seed will be planted there and God will show you if you’re truly an addict. You won’t be able to act out again with the new realizations taking effect.

Addiction is not the same thing as saying “I have a problem,” or even, “I’m a sinner.” The first members of AA had a saying, “Find God or die!” Read some of the stories in the back of the AA Big Book. They are not pleasant, but they’ll give you a picture of real addiction. For instance, a man drinks until his doctor says “another drink will kill you.” He continues to drink until he is bleeding rectally. That is a picture of addiction.

If the book I was given was any indication of what’s happening in churches, if self-help groups are the future for Evangelical churches, I would hope that discerning pastors would educate themselves on the difference between real addiction and the self-help approach.

Sam Shoemaker addressed the twentieth anniversary convention of A.A. in St. Louis, Missouri in 1935 with a speech titled “What the Church has to learn from Alcoholics Anonymous.” Sam was one of the original spiritual visionaries for what became AA. By going back and reading the original source material, we can dispel the confusion between self-help and recovery, and really engage the Church in the work of Recovery.

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Filed under 12 Steps, Pastoral Ministry, Recovery

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