What is a higher power?
The God of my childhood
In childhood, I had negative experiences with my primary caregivers. My foster Mother was a very religious woman. As I was growing up, all I experienced in that family was rejection and shaming. God’s love was nowhere to be seen. When I was ten years old, my Mother sent me to a Catholic boarding school founded and run by priests. We, pupils, were exposed to multiple religious rituals daily. I rejected both God and religion by the time I was twelve years old. When I arrived at my first AA meeting, I was shocked to learn that God or higher power was a central requirement to recover from alcoholism.
As a newcomer, I was full of resentment and prejudice toward God. Secretly, I would think, “What does God or a higher power have to do with not drinking?” I feared that AA’s idea of a higher power was the God of my childhood. In my ignorance of all things spiritual, I concluded that ‘God’ and ‘higher power’ meant the same thing. I felt utterly unable to embrace either of these ideas. People at meetings talked about the relationship they had with their higher power. I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Despite having a burning desire to stay sober, I knew that I was in trouble with the program from day one.
Rejecting the twelve steps
Undoubtedly, I was significantly mentally impaired after twenty years of drinking. I had too many problems to fit into normal society. There was nowhere else to go. Quite literally, the fellowship was my “last chance saloon.” I loved AA from my first meeting. Here was the family that I never had as a child. I went to a meeting every day, sometimes twice a day. To feel accepted, I lied about having a higher power.
There was no way that I could swallow the implications of steps two and three.
Step two declared that it would take a “power greater than myself” to stop me from drinking and “restore me to sanity.”
Step three was an invitation to make a “decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God – as we understood him.”
I did not understand God, nor did I have the faith that he existed! Too much had happened in childhood to believe in a loving deity. I decided to reject the steps and went into therapy instead.
A decade of relapse
To my great dismay, therapy didn’t keep me sober. Relationships, which I thought would rescue me from inner emptiness, also failed. The same was true in every other area of the sober life I was trying to create. Sooner or later, the pursuit of sex, power, and money also stopped working. To bolster a fragile self-image, I became an ‘exercise junkie,’ believing that getting lean and mean would give me the edge that I lacked. I would always revert to my default position – the first drink!
When nothing external fixed me in London, I would run away overseas. Perhaps reinventing myself in a foreign land would heal a fractured sense of self. Wherever I went, I took myself and my untreated alcoholism with me. Besides alcohol addiction, there were other dependencies that I used to fix myself. The pursuit of instant gratification was always brief and fleeting. Eventually, I would end up just as miserable as I had always been.
After a decade of trying to get sober on my power, the ego finally collapsed. I admitted “complete defeat.” (Steps one – 12 &12) and asked for help from a sponsor. Not through any personal virtue but through unremitting suffering, I not only admitted but accepted that I was utterly “powerless” over alcohol.
Step one was also suggesting that drunk or sober, my life was “unmanageable.” That, too, was true. My very best thinking was a total liability. All I was able to create was chaos and failure. When everything else failed, I placed myself under the new management of David B, my first serious step guide. David’s reputation was that of a ‘Top Gun’ sponsor in the London fellowship. I owed it to myself to take his direction.
It was the first time in my life that I surrendered to any authority. It was something that I resented and mistrusted since childhood. It feels honest to say that David was my first higher power. I began to follow his suggestions and became teachable. This humbling moment of surrender was the beginning of a new life.
Step two revisited
There was no alternative but to take another look at the twelve steps. David helped me see that despite the best of my “old ideas” (BB p 58), I could not create anything worthwhile. Despite believing that I was smart, my very best thinking would end in relapse. Now, I had another formidable higher power, the Gift Of Desperation. (An acronym for God) With David’s experience, I was finally able to stay sober. The simple suggestions of a sponsor began working, and I started to feel better and happier.
Despite all the guidance I was receiving, I was still unable to believe in God or any invisible higher power. Based on my track record of powerlessness, it became clear that I would need some higher power. This expression always left me feeling bewildered. The expression ‘higher power’ always struck me as unspecific and nebulous. What did it mean? How could I hand my will and life over (step three) to something I couldn’t see!?
The wording of steps two and three seemed so final. They pointed to a dependence on God or some higher power, both ideas that were impossible for an agnostic. Page after page, the AA literature seemed to confirm that believing in God or a higher power was a non-negotiable requirement. I felt like a condemned man whenever I saw these two steps.
One dictionary definition that I found confirmed my worst fear. It stated that a higher power WAS God.
Higher Power: – “God or a god – A deity: A supernatural force capable of affecting outcomes in the material world” (Wiktionary)
Despite being a practicing Catholic, David knew all about the dilemma of no faith. Most of his sponsees didn’t believe in God. He was, however, a very experienced sponsor. He used the wisdom he learned in AA to help cynical newcomers through the steps.
What he said was a game-changer in my recovery. David offered a powerful alternative. Pointing me to page 27 of the 12 steps and 12 traditions, he asked me to read him the following passage:
“You can, if you wish, make AA itself your higher power.”
(12×12 p 27)
That day, David’s open-minded wisdom saved my life.
With this agnostic-friendly interpretation of step two, I could move on to step three with the assurance that I was on the right track. For the time being, David told me to use AA or Group Of Drunks – (another acronym for GOD) as a higher power. That was good enough for me. All I had to do was admit defeat and become teachable to David’s guidance. Being my own higher Power would always end in relapse.
If the previous definition stated that a higher power was God, I found another entirely different one. Even the dictionaries couldn’t agree on an accurate meaning. This one is very much in line with David’s explanation of step two. David was spot on with his counsel. It was perfect for an agnostic alcoholic.
“In current twelve-step program usage, a higher power can be anything at all that the member believes is adequate. Reported examples include their twelve-step group: nature, consciousness, existential freedom, God, science, and Buddha. It is frequently stipulated that as long as a higher power is “greater” than the individual, the only condition is that it should also be loving and caring.”
Not so nebulous, after all
In my mind, the expression ‘higher power’ was an impossible idea to grasp. Until I met David, I could not use any conception of a higher power to help me with powerlessness. I was someone with no faith in anything, least of all in myself. There was no way that I could entrust my life to any power that I couldn’t see, experience, or feel. “Doubting Thomas,” from the bible, had nothing on me!
It wasn’t until I began working with David that I learned that step two doesn’t use the phrase ‘higher power.’ The actual wording of step two in the A.A. literature is: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Phrased this way, with David’s help, it began to make sense. It demystified the definition of a higher power.
When Mike Tyson was in his prime, was he not a power greater than me? Of course he was!
In the same way, are not two million* sober alcoholics in A.A. a greater power?
Two million: – “In 2020, A.A. estimated its worldwide membership to be over two million, with 75% of those in the U.S. and Canada” (Wikipedia)
A practical definition of a higher power
After David, I got a new Sponsor. He was from Poland and was also a wise and experienced step guide. ‘Witek’ made me aware that recovery from alcoholism was all about letting go of our “old ideas” (BB p 58). Replacing old ideas with new ones that worked was necessary to start getting well.
Based on his understanding, I realized that I could only make progress when I began to admit that the new ideas offered in AA were better than the best of my old ideas. They came from the daily suggested actions provided by sponsors who accepted my agnosticism.
With this in mind, I came up with a definition of a higher power that made sense. It still underpins my recovery. I hope you like it.
A higher power is any source of new as opposed to “old ideas” (BB p 58) based on the suggested actions of a sponsor. These new ideas help us begin living in the solution, not the problem.* – These new ideas represent solutions that we have not tried before.
*Problem – (This word appears 87 times in the Big Book and 12&12) –
“We have been talking about problems because we are problem people who have found a way up and out.”
Step three with David B
After step two, David moved me on to Step three. “How can I take this step if I don’t believe in God?” I cried!
Once again, David came to the rescue.
“At this stage of your recovery,” he said, “step three is just a ‘decision‘ to go on with the rest of the steps.”
“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand him.”
This, too, was an idea that I could swallow!
Step twelve with David
Then, he offered an interpretation of step twelve that opened up the rest of the program. For an agnostic alcoholic in recovery, the stop lights suddenly turned from red to green.
What he said was most encouraging: –
“The promise of step twelve is a spiritual awakening, not necessarily a God awakening.” Conversely, believing in God doesn’t always guarantee a spiritual awakening.”
“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.”
I thought of all the Buddhists who do not have God at the center of their belief system. So many of them are deeply spiritual people. A tangible and beautiful spirituality is apparent in their humility. They are inspiring to be around! My journey toward a contented and meaningful sobriety finally took off!
Modern non-theistic spirituality
Since coming to AA, I developed an interest in modern non-theistic spirituality. Some people like to call it New Age spirituality. It proposes that a spiritual awakening occurs when a person begins to see the futility of a life driven by ego power. They begin to surrender their self-will and work towards letting go of their egos. The journey toward a more meaningful way of life begins. Their lives are suddenly motivated by a higher purpose. They strive for harmony and cooperation with their fellow man.
For alcoholics, the “Selfishness and self-centeredness” (BB p 62) of untreated alcoholism is created by the maladapted alcoholic ego. Trying to grow spiritually through love and service is offered in AA as the solution to alcoholism through ego reduction. The twelve steps have brought about a radical change in my attitude to life. I still don’t believe in the traditional idea of a monotheistic God. That said, the principles of love and service have gifted me with what I am happy to call a non-God-centered spiritual awakening.
AA – A program that welcomes all
What are your thoughts? As an agnostic, could love and service freely extended to others bring about a spiritual awakening?
Here’s an interesting article written by Bill Wilson. It illustrates what a spiritual awakening can look like for someone who doesn’t believe in God. He called it The dilemma of no faith.
Tradition three of the AA program states that: “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Everyone is welcome—alcoholics who believe in God as well as those who don’t.
The truth is that AA is all-inclusive. This is one of AA’s most powerful spiritual components. “Love and tolerance of others is our code.” (BB p 84) We embrace everyone regardless of their creed, religion, or lack of religion. Doctor Bob made a powerful statement in his farewell talk three months before he passed away.
When simmered down to the last, the very essence of the AA program is “Love and Service.” (“Dr. Bob’s Farewell Talk” is available online) When I apply them, these two core principles of Alcoholics Anonymous keep me happily sober. In Bill’s own words, when these noble qualities are given freely, they are the higher powers that offer alcoholics “the primary healing circuit.”
With the support of Danny D