Working the Steps
(Romans 8: 1-17)
Back when I was the drug court prosecutor for Jefferson County, we’d admit people into the program who had been arrested for a drug-related crime or if it was determined they had a drug or alcohol problem that highly influenced their decision making which resulted in their legal entanglements. One of the requirements of the program was that they would submit to treatment by Safe Harbor Recovery Center which was a 12-Step addiction recovery program. Well, I had never gone through a 12-Step program before and didn’t know what it entailed so I got a copy of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Blue book and read it. Teresa saw it on the table next to my easy chair one evening and was somewhat concerned. In any event, I felt it would be to my advantage to know a little about what we were requiring these recovering addicts to do so that they might live a better life, free from the grips of addiction.
For those that don’t know anything about the AA 12-Step program, it’s essentially a faith-based program that requires the successful completion of all 12 steps designed to give you the tools to cope with your disease and live a relatively normal, substance-free life. As anyone who has been through such a program will tell you, successful completion of the steps doesn’t mean you’re done. To be successful, you must work the program for the rest of your life.
When I read the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I realized that with a little tweaking we could rewrite them to the Twelve Steps of Maintaining a Life in Christ. The first step is: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable. Let’s tweak it to read: We admitted we were powerless over sin, that our lives had become unmanageable. Step two is: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Re-tweaked it might read: We came to believe that a life in Jesus Christ could restore us to a life of peace.
When I read our scripture reading for today, I thought, hey, Paul is talking about working a program! In Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, The Message, the Apostle Paul says, With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death. In essence, Paul is talking about a program we can work when we feel the pull and temptation of sin tugging at us. With Christ, we don’t have to live under this black cloud of shame and guilt. Christ offers us a plan that clears the air and frees us from a life under the thumb of sin and death. All that is required is for us to enter the program. This is step three which needs no tweaking. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him. As we say in Drug Court, “Let go and let God.”
Paul talks about the law being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. What the law asked, we couldn’t deliver no matter how hard we tried. I used to hear this a lot when I was doing defense work. If they really wanted to stop drinking or getting high, they would. All they have to do is stop. Trust me, it’s not that easy. I guess the same could be said about a Christian. If they really wanted to stop sinning, they would. All they have to do is stop. Trust me, it’s not that easy. There is always the possibility of a relapse. Some can do it, cold-turkey, but those individuals are rare and, regardless, that sin and temptation is still there patiently waiting for the right (or wrong) time to strike. Paul goes on to say, those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them, living and breathing God. This is where the next four steps come in. Step four, made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. You’ve sat down and taken a hard look at your life and the direction in which it is heading which leads to Step five, admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Now, we’re not required to admit to another person the exact nature of our wrongs, but what you have here is a confession of your sins which leads to Step six. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. You realize what’s wrong with you and you’re ready to ask for forgiveness. In Step seven, you humbly ask God to remove your shortcomings. You’ve turned your life over to God and you want him to make you a better person. As Paul said, if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. You are now God-centered.
Paul continues by telling us that for us who welcome God, in whom God dwells, even though we still experience all the limitations of sin, we experience life on God’s terms. When God lives and breathes in us, we are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in us we will be as alive as Christ. Here, I think, is where the next three steps come into focus. In Step eight, we’ve made a list of all persons we’ve harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. We’ve realized we treated others in a way we wouldn’t want to be treated. We’ve adjusted our thinking and now realize the consequences for our actions and we want to reach out to them because we are a new creation in Christ. Step nine requires us to make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. You are living a new life and you want to make it better and repair the damage of your past actions but there may be times when the other person isn’t ready to forgive you. In Step ten, we continue to take personal inventory and when we’re wrong we promptly admit it. We are a work in progress, and we know there will be times when we fall short and fail. We get ahead of it and do what Jesus would do.
Paul says, so don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go! This is essentially Step eleven, where we’ve sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. We’ve established that personal relationship with God and we understand what it is God wants from us and we pray for the ability to carry it out.
Paul closes out by stating, this resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a child-like “What’s next, Papa?” In AA, Step twelve 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. For us Christians, Step twelve is, having this spiritual awakening as a result of our growing relationship with God, and carrying this message of a new life to other sinners and to continue refining our Christian walk in all our affairs.
So, when the Spirit of God is living and active within you, you experience peace and order. You remain calm in the face of adversity. You become aware of what is going on around you and you truly see the plight of others. However, it is not uncommon for us Christians to want to give up at times. Feeling like a failure is familiar territory for all of us.
So, what do we do when we are confronted with feelings of condemnation and guilt? We work the steps! We pray and go to God with our feelings and seek his forgiveness and reassurance that all is in the past and forgiven so we can move forward in serving him and doing his will as was intended even before we were born.
Please pray with me.
Father, we want to come to you, but sometimes we are too ashamed of who we are and what we have done. We’re afraid that we have done something unforgivable and that you will reject us. But Father, your Word teaches that you sacrificed your Son as the atonement for our sin. There is no sin too deep for your hand of forgiveness to reach. Thank you, Father, for the assurance that we are forgiven and acceptable in your sight. Amen.