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What I learned from Alcoholics Anonymous

30 July 2018
Alcoholics Anonymous

As a church we’re doing something slightly different with our City Groups for the months of July & August – encouraging social outings, serving projects and generally a bit of experimenting in thinking how we can support/help good projects in the city or beyond.

A few Mondays ago our City Group, on the invitation of two of our members who are part of an Alcoholics Anonymous group, went to visit the monthly open AA meeting in Trim, County Meath. It was a gorgeous evening and the 6 of us that went had a brilliant road-trip and enjoyed the beautiful scenery and the sunset over the famous ‘Braveheart’ castle.

We had been invited along so that we might listen, learn and understand what AA does, support the two members we have in our group, and build relationships with their friends.

Drink Problem

But I have to say the whole evening was humbling and inspiring and I felt hugely privileged to have been able to listen to their stories and welcomed into this amazing community.

The evening had some formal elements like reading the history of AA, the 12 steps of AA, praying the serenity prayer and a few other things like that. But most of the evening was spent listening to three people share their stories – one man in his 50-60s from Cork, one lady of similar age from Kildare and another lady in her 50s who wasn’t an alcoholic but is part of Al-Anon, a support community for friends and families of problem drinkers.

Here are some reflections from the evening…

(1) Brokenness and beauty

As we listened to the three stories there were moments where your heart was collapsing inside you because of the destruction and devastation that drink had had, not just on the person themselves, but on the families and the wider community, and most of all the children. My eyes welled up with tears 3 or 4 times when I heard about how children of alcoholics had been affected by their behaviour. For example one lady talked about how how her father hid from her as she was coming back from school so that he could go down the pub, and she took that personally and as a nine year old assumed that he didn’t want to spend time with her. And it was clear that many people are alcoholics because they grew up with alcoholics. And we sadly learned about a number of people dying, often young, because of alcohol abuse. There was real brokenness within the room and the lives of those who shared.

And yet there was a beauty, a wonderful light in the darkness, a joy that had been rekindled in/after the devastation, largely from what I could tell because of the work of the AA. There were many moments of humour, lots of self-deprecation and tonnes and tonnes of grace. It was powerful. And the faces of those that shared were etched with the tragedy that alcohol had brought (in different ways) and yet there was a calm, a peace and a joy in their face too. Again, I felt close to tears as I experienced this beauty.

For me this brokenness and beauty is something I see in Jesus’ death and in the community Jesus established (see point 7).

(2) A powerful community

The whole ethos of AA is that it is one alcoholic reaching out to another alcoholic, inviting them to AA, sharing their story, encouraging them to avoid the drink, giving them hope that it is possible. And this community has their own slogans, rules, principles and way of organising itself. Everyone had come to realise that they were not able to sort out their problem on their own, they need a community of like-minded people. They had had to renounce the idea that ‘I can do this on my own’ and instead embrace the idea that ‘I need others to help me or else I have no chance’, and as a result a powerful community had been born. The two members of our church who are part of AA speak of how the community has helped them tremendously.

When I spoke to the speakers or the attendees at the end of the meeting there was a genuine warmth; people grabbed my hands and wanted to know who I was. And the conversation flowed. They are a community that is not closed nor cliquey. Once you have gone through the 11 steps of AA, the 12th one is:

“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs”

So the community is ever-growing and ever-reaching out.

(3) We’re all addicts

Famously, step 1 of AA says:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

It is profoundly humbling to hear people tell the truth of this first step. But the lady from Al-Anon, who wasn’t an alcoholic, spoke powerfully talking about her own addictions and sickness. She said wasn’t addicted to alcohol, but she was addicted to the alcoholics. Why? Because they created drama in her life and she was able to be the saviour. She was needed. She was involved. She could come to the rescue…and she needed that for herself. She talked about how she was a people-pleaser and addicted to impressing others. She said her sickness was ‘worse’ than that of the alcoholics because she was so self-righteous and judgemental in her sobriety. In other words, she was no better…but her addiction and sickness just manifested in different, often less obvious ways.

Alcoholics AnonymousAgain it was humbling for her to ‘admit’ (like step 1 tells you to!) the things that have control over her life, not to hide or deny them. She said that she had been brought up in Ireland with the motto ‘don’t ask, don’t share, don’t feel’ and as such she had become like an ice-block, all her emotions were numb and she needed real help. She was angry and bitter, she was hurting and restless. And ultimately she was lonely. Al-Anon had helped her to find her way towards greater freedom and feeling.

Just two weeks ago in church we were looking at the story of when Levi holds a party for Jesus. Levi was a famous tax-collector and therefore seen as a traitor and greedy man by the Jewish people as he was collaborating with the Romans (the enemy) and lining his own pockets. So he wasn’t a nice guy and the religious leaders of the time thought of him as an ‘outcast’ and a ‘sinner’ – and yet Jesus accepts the invitation to a meal. And when the religious leaders ask why Jesus says…

Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. (Luke 5:31)

In other words, the pre-requisite of getting well, of becoming healthy (physically, emotionally and spiritually) is to admit that you’re sick. And whilst these Alcoholics were all willing to admit their sickness and their need for ‘a doctor’, I became aware acutely aware of my sickness and need for healing too. In the car journey home we talked about how we are all addicted to many different things and too need to be set free.

(4) A desire to be accepted and fit in

It was striking that at the heart of all the stories, what had triggered the alcoholism, was a desire to be accepted and fit in. People had thought they were ‘uncool’ or ‘couldn’t dance’ or ‘couldn’t get a girl’ but when they drank all their inhibitions disappeared and they got ‘a buzz’ because they lost their shyness and nervousness around people. Each person’s struggle had started because they wanted to be loved and known by others. In other words they had a desire for acceptance, but they didn’t feel they could be themselves without the drink. It was the drink that enabled them to be vulnerable and confident, which enabled them to step out in social contexts.

And isn’t that true for all of us?!

A few weeks ago I was speaking to a friend about how fundamental to all humans is the desire to ‘be known and loved’ – in other words we want to be accepted for who we are…for someone to know us…and to still love us. It goes back to the garden of Eden where it was said that Adam and Eve were ‘naked and unashamed’ (Genesis 2:24). That is what we all long for. That level of vulnerability, intimacy and acceptance. It is what we are built for. We cannot function without it and yet so many of us find it hard to be honest and open, to be vulnerable and real, because of the shame and fear we feel.

It takes courage to really open up and let someone in…but unless we do, we’ll become like a ‘block of ice’ as the lady had said.

(5) Acceptance of help from outside & responsibility for your own life

There is a wonderful balance in the 12 steps of the AA, a balance we see many times in the New Testament where if we are to grow as a person we must both accept that we cannot do it on our own – we need other people and God’s help – but also, we have to take responsibility for our own lives. If we only have one part of this we’ll either burnout (I have to do it) or never get going (God/others will do it). We need the balance. For an example see Philippians 2:12-13.

The 12 steps of AA are well worth reading…because they epitomise this balance so well, red indicates outside help, blue indicates taking responsibility yourself

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

(6) A continual journey/battle

Every time someone spoke they said their name and that they were an alcoholic, and we then welcomed them together before they shared. They then would start their story by saying, for example, “I have been an Alcoholic and have not had a drink in 24 years and I hope will get through another day today” or something similar. In other words they (a) never gave up their identity as an alcoholic and (b) literally took each day as it comes with a desire to be sober TODAY. And one of the areas that we were encouraged to keep fighting was the area of relationships – see steps 8-9 – we must seek to make amends and ask for forgiveness from others we have wronged. This is a powerful principle, one that Jesus himself commanded us to obey too.

Each of them were well aware of their weakness, and never took for granted that they were sober or that they have ‘graduated’ and were therefore “beyond this stuff”. They saw each day as a new day to win the battle over drink and a battle to seek to make amends in all relationships. They had their wits about them, they were alert. Again this felt very healthy. Just this week at our monthly prayer & worship night the woman who was leading reminded us of Hebrews 12:1-3 where the Christian life is likened to a race and that we must persevere in the race, and not be distracted or entangled. It was inspiring to see this community persevere together in their race.

(7) A Picture Of The Church

At the end of the evening the friend who invited me introduced me to the person who had hosted the meeting, explaining that I was his Pastor, and the host said “well this is basically a church isn’t it?” and in many ways it was. The evening had consisted of hearing each others’ stories, praying together, reading from the AA handbook and spending time building supportive and accountable relationships. It seemed to act like a family. It was a picture of what the church should be!

A number of years ago I had a similarly moving experience when visiting my good friend Christian Hacking, who had just finished being an Intern at CCC and upon arriving back in the UK he broke his back in a climbing accident which left him in a wheelchair. At the time I visited him there was no real hope for him to be able to walk again. Praise God that he is now making great progress!

We had spoken fairly regularly over skype in the first 6 months after his injury but I remember when I first visited him in Stoke Mandeville Hospital just outside London. I was in London on business for Hubspot so had spent 2.5 days rushing around from one meeting to another. Everyone in London has something to prove – look how pretty or rich or successful or trendy or popular I am. It’s a relentless city. Money, sex and power are everywhere. People are trying to establish their identity.

Then I went to the Stoke Mandeville which is home to over 100 paraplegics and quadriplegics. There was no hint of anyone trying to prove themselves or build an image. There were no image issues. Everyone was broken and humbled. Everyone was equal. Everyone was together…carrying each others’ burdens. And it was beautiful. From the relentless and externally impressive professionals of London, to the humble and internally beautiful community of handicapped people. Again there was plenty of humour, laughing, self-deprecation and grace for each other. So much grace!

Just as when I visited AA, the brokenness and beauty was humbling and inspiring and it was actually a picture of the church. A community of people that have been humbled and yet strangely and beautifully exalted through the death of Christ. And that through Christ we are now one, now equal, now helping each other carry others’ burdens and trying to spread the message of grace to others who are willing to hear. May God help us as he has helped the AA to make us a community of beautiful brokenness.



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