In Bill’s story, found in the book of Alcoholics Anonymous, we find the statement “For if an alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, he could not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead”. In the Forward of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions book we find “ A.A.’s twelve steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole“. In the AA preamble “How it works” it states “we are willing to grow along spiritual lines”.
It has been proven over and over again that the A.A. program is an effective 12-step process that facilitates a positive change in our character, provided we do some work. The life changing properties of the steps strongly recommends that we constantly work at enlarging our god consciousness, attempt to minimize the effects that our character defects and own self-centered desires has on others, and to practice spiritual principles of behavior in all of our affairs. These factors are the mainstay of our spiritual life and are necessary to reach and maintain long-term sobriety and its benefits of peace and serenity.
But how does one perfect and enlarge our spiritual life and what is meant by “spiritual lines” and what exactly are spiritual principles? Is spirituality more than just prayer and meditation practices and how is our spiritual life related to our character, the face that others see, as demonstrated by our behavior? These are questions we need to answer because in order to build healthy character we must have the proper foundation. The simple understanding is that working the 12 steps will bring a spiritual awakening and that spiritual growth is a result of practicing spiritual principles. The task is to do so in all our affairs. These are basic elements of the program that over time produce a change in our character, as our common collective experience bears out.
This article begins a series of informative articles that will help in understanding good character, as God sees it, and what is our part compared to God’s part in order for godlike character to be produced. The central theme of these articles is on building godly character, which when based on spiritual principles of behavior is the desired process of enlarging our spiritual life.
The concept of character can imply a variety of attributes including the existence or lack of virtues that yield good behavior or habits. Moral character is a measure of an individual’s stable moral qualities. For spiritual growth to occur in our character it requires 1) a good biblical understanding of the values and attributes of human behavior that defines good moral character, 2) an awareness of our own measure of or lack of good character attributes, 3) an attitude of desiring them enough to work for them, 4) personal effort being made, and 5) dependence upon God to help us remove the selfishness and self-centeredness that hinders our emotional and spiritual growth. Never doubt that spiritual growth requires knowledge, desire, and effort for good moral character to become a reality.
The bible enlightens us in this need to grow our spiritual life. It describes that growth with character attributes such as love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These things are found in spiritually grown people. It also explains that to gain these things we must make every effort to add to our faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. We are also told that if we possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep us from being ineffective and unproductive.
The 12 Steps themselves give us a strong clue that we have a part to play in the process of enlarging our spiritual life through “work and self-sacrifice”. What are the ingredients needed that enable us to perform such a noble effort? The answer to that, of course, is having character that has good substance to it. It is good character that gives us the energy to do the right thing. It is the substance of our character that determines how we respond to the situations and circumstances of life. Good character is a pattern of thoughts, acts, and feelings that we display over time that are in tune with a standard of good moral behavior and reflect personal accountability for our behavior.
We are not born with good character and it’s likely that the proper substance that we need in our character in early sobriety to grow spiritually – is famished. It must be developed in us and this development is not overnight. In fact, it is likely that by the time we arrive at the doors of A.A. we are morally bankrupt and deep defects have formed in our character from many years of alcoholic behavior. It is a given that we are not there to enroll in character school. We are there because of harsh circumstances that have finally given us enough pain to move us towards accepting the reality of our alcoholism. We have been living in a massive state of denial. But denial doesn’t end just because we begin going to AA meetings and start to work the 12-step program.
The biggest obstacle we have to our spiritual development is the lack of insight to see clearly that we are flawed. To understand why it is so difficult we need to briefly examine belief systems. The book Eternal Sobriety delves into belief systems in much more detail than we can go into in this article. There are over one hundred references to beliefs and belief systems that point out the importance of understanding your own set of beliefs and why pursuing truth is important. It is suggested that you read it as it can be very valuable in your recovery journey. Some basics of belief systems are:
A belief system is a collection of individual beliefs in our memory about specific things. These beliefs provide the basis for how we interact within our various living environments. We can separate our beliefs into political, religious, moral, and many other categories. Beliefs become active when our thinking process focuses on a specific thing or event: be they real-time, from the past, or imaginary. Beliefs arise through both learning and experience. The substance of our beliefs is changing constantly as we have new experiences. Belief systems, comprised of multiple beliefs, are formed to define our own personal sense of reality. Every human being has a belief system that they utilize, and it is through this mechanism that we individually, perceive the world around us. Many beliefs are formed early in life and are often hand downs from parents. Belief systems qualify acceptable behavior within civilizations to help maintain stability. The clash between civilizations is due to different belief systems. Closer to home we encounter clashes with others due to behavior that is not considered proper within our common society. Beliefs play a role in that as well.
Beliefs can be held with varying degrees of certainty or conviction. We can be passionately committed to a point of view, which appears to be the case when our own behavior is questioned. In the realm of human behavior, the typical response is to deny reality as a way to avoid an emotionally uncomfortable truth. That’s certainly the case with our initial denial of being alcoholic. When faced with that fact, it was too uncomfortable to accept and we rejected it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence. This is partly due to pride and partly because we can’t accept the truth of it. Justification steps in to provide cover for our excesses and our inability to be accountable for our actions. It seems that to begin to examine ourselves we have to get to the point where we experience pain from our behavior. Pain seems to break down pride. The evidence of circumstances eventually wears away our resistance to the truth and we accept reality.
Fundamentally, our behavior is derived out of our belief systems. I do this or that because I believe this or that. So we could make a statement that if our behavior is bad the solution is to change our beliefs. Beliefs are hard to change and we seem to have built-in self-rising denial walls when confronted with evidence that shows our beliefs might be in error. Truth exposes error. To build good character we must have the proper standard for spiritual behavior and recognize our own leanness of spiritual principles within us. Principles are the means of expression for our beliefs and reflect outward as character, which can often be negative.
Negative behavior is a direct result of bad principles (lack of good principles) in our belief system and yields an inaccurate perception of what will satisfy our needs. It is easy to see how bad principles in our belief system can have a negative impact on meeting our needs, and conversely how truthful principles will meet those needs. What we need then is a process that can help us remove bad principles, and that will develop good principles in our belief system. This is exactly the process that occurs in Alcoholics Anonymous. We talk about, and share, beliefs and principles that help us live life without alcohol. It is through the process of applying the steps of the program that we take on these beliefs and principles for ourselves. (Eternal Sobriety – Chapter Two – AA – A Process That Works)
In the book As Bill Sees It, on page 95, Bill Wilson, a cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous said “”We are only operating a spiritual kindergarten in which people are enabled to get over drinking and find the grace to go on living to better effect. Each man’s theology has to be his own quest, his own affair.” And on page 87 of the Big Book the text says “be quick to see where religious people are right”. In looking at the foundations needed for spiritual growth it becomes obvious that we need to be quick to see our need for the biblical approach to spiritual growth. That’s the path I am on and I encourage you to walk alongside me.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
(2 Timothy 3:16-17 – NIV)