Misconceptions About The Twelve Step Programs
IntroductionWhile finishing my bachelor's degree in Addiction & Recovery Psychology, I heard many opinions voiced about the 12 step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc. This sort of surprised me: I had first-hand experience with the twelve step programs as part of my degree, and I didn't find anything to support these contrary opinions voiced in opposition.
This makes me sad, in some ways, because some of those who are voicing these opinions hold doctoral degrees and are part of the church global. Ad hominem and spreading unsubstantiated information is unbecoming both of academics and Christians.
The 12 step programs include, but are not limited to, Alcoholics Anonymous (the original), Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, and most recently Celebrate Recovery, a Bible-based re-infusion.
I write this article out of concern for the church global, and for addicts.
Misconception #1 They Teach Powerlessness
While this one seems true at first, it's
after we understand the 12 step system that we see why this is
both true and not true.
The first step reads "We admitted we were powerless over [insert addictive substance or behavior here]—that our lives had become unmanageable." I would suggest that, for the addict who is not in recovery, just walking through the door to their first 12 step meeting, this is just a statement of fact. Those who aren't powerless over a substance or behavior don't need to admit this. Those who are in denial and want to remain addicted don't say this. Those who want help say this.
But like many of the paradoxes of life, it is not until you admit you can't help yourself that you get the help you need to overcome an addiction. This is not far from some of the teachings of Christianity. For example, Matt. 20:26b (HCSB) "whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant." Also, 2 Cor. 12:10b (HCSB) "For when I am weak, then I am strong." This is God's economy also: those who were humble were given grace and power to heal and win the victory.
This leads to step 2, "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." Steps 1 and 2 together follow the Christian narrative, even if the programs allow the definition of God to be defined by each addict. (But in my experience and opinion, this is simply to avoid arguments and pushing religion on people.)
Misconception #2 They Teach Addiction is a Disease, Therefore Excusing It
This misconception is harder to get people
to understand. The answer is in two parts.
First, Dr. Doweiko writes in The Concepts of Chemical Dependency that the disease model, while it was helpful in the past, started falling out of favor in the 1990s, in light of the newer biopsychosocial model.
After doing my own research on the matter, the disease model is still very valid.
But I have read nothing in 12 step literature that allows addicts to excuse their behavior. Quite the opposite: later steps like four and five are in fact going to have the addict list every wrong thing they have ever done. It gets brutal.
The 12 step programs never use this disease model to excuse the addict's behavior. In fact, the opposite is true: they teach that the addict has this disease and therefore ought to take action to treat it.
There are those that have claimed that calling addiction a disease gives addicts an excuse. Nothing in my training, experience, or the twelve step literature gives addicts an excuse to remain addicted. In fact, twelve step books are filled with stories of other addicts (in the back sections) telling how much damage they have caused to others and themselves, and how they broke free.
Those who compare this to saying we should have people repent of Parkinson's disease say these things because they have already decided that the twelve steps are their enemy. Nothing in twelve step literature or my experience with twelve steps demonizes or makes anyone else the enemy. So they already operate from a flawed perspective in which they close their minds to learning anything else about the twelve steps because they have already decided the twelve steps are the enemy.
In my own research, heart disease, sexually transmitted diseases, and some types of diabetes are caused by how we live our lives. Addictions are also caused by our voluntary choices. There's a strong parallel here. Time doesn't permit me to list the ways in which some people are harsh on addicts but lenient on people whose bad life choices have caused them to bring a disease upon themselves.
Per Dr. Michael Lyles, all addiction is caused by a choice at the beginning, except maybe in cases where someone was drugged against their will. It's after either the 2nd or 50th choice (depending on the drug or behavior) that it becomes an addiction, which sets up a fight inside our brain and subverts the will of the addict. We do not give anyone excuses by saying this: the addict still knows they need help. The 12 steps give them a non-judgmental, safe atmosphere to get help in.
Misconception #3 There's A Demon Behind Every Sin
This is one of those "pin the tail on the
devil/demons" fallacies. Some would claim there's no such
thing as addiction because all addictions are the result of
demonic activity. I do not exclude the possibility of
demonic influence in addiction or sin. However, I think
this is sort of like a blame shifting campaign. In my own
experience (and the experience of many addicts), I get myself in
way more than enough sin and trouble in life without needing the
Devil or Demons to help me ruin my life. As someone I
heard in a twelve step once said (quoting from AA), "my own best
thinking got me here." Sure, there may be a demon behind
every sin. But I think that's an unproductive mentality to
have. It takes the focus off our conscious choices and
blames something supernatural for something we could control if
For example, I saw a lady on television asking for deliverance from the demon of smoking. So the Deliverance Prayer practitioner prayed that God would cast out of her the demon of smoking. My response to this, even if it sounds uncaring, is if you keep buying cigarettes, a demon isn't the problem: you are. If they were magically appearing in your house and you didn't buy them, that might be demonic. (The person in this show was a Christian, apparently, so the odds of it being demonic possession are zero.)
(Keep in mind that Dr. Michael Lyles has said that nicotine is the most addictive substance on earth.)
Misconception #4 They Say You'll Always Be An Addict
This one is also a paradox. I have
already written a more lengthy article
There are those who say that we should never tell a Christian addict that they are an addict. I believe this is a misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 6 and similar passages. To briefly summarize, the Bible calls all people sinners. The point of thinking of one's self as an addict for the rest of one's life is because, due to how they have modified their brains, it will always be very easy for them to fall into this old pattern of behavior.
The Christian life is a paradox. We are still sinners, but now we are also saints, adopted sons and daughters of God. Saying that considering one's self an addict is counter-productive, in my experience and my opinion, is simply not true. In fact, I have repeatedly watched addicts who are in recovery relapse because they think they've conquered the addiction, and they let their guard down. Staying out of addiction requires life-long vigilance.
Misconception #5 They Say Higher Power Instead of God
Some people claim that because they leave the issue of God open to interpretation (one's personal religious beliefs, or lack thereof), they are leading Christians into idolatry. In my experience, this is simply not true, for Christians will know who their "Higher Power" is.
However, I decided to conduct an interesting line of inquiry. I reverse engineered all the Higher Power references from Sex Addicts Anonymous. Here is how this "Higher Power" is described:
This Higher Power wants to restore us to sanity (step 2 and p. 40, 42), wants to remove our defects of character (step 6, 7), has a will for our lives (step 11), is our only hope (p. 40), can free us from our bondage (p. 41), cares about us (p. 42, 45), transcends human willpower and thinking (p. 42), is a spiritual reality (p. 42), is loving and caring (p. 42), can work in our lives (p. 44), helps us (p. 44), wants to guide our daily decisions (p. 45), can transform us (p. 45), doesn't want us to act out (p. 46), helps us stay abstinent (p. 46), gives us the gift of abstinence (p. 47, 48), can heal us (p. 48), is loving (p. 56), gives us courage and honesty (p. 56), loves us no matter what we have done (p. 56), gives us strength (p. 57), won't give us more than we can handle (p. 59), can remove our defects (p. 60), moves us towards healthier sexuality (p. 61), works in our lives (p. 62), changes our lives (p. 63), determines the time line for our change (p. 64), is personal (p. 65), and it is to this Higher Power that we must surrender (p. 69).
It is my opinion, in light of this information, that there is no other deity who fits this description but the Judeo-Christian God. This isn't a shock, as I've interviewed non-Christians within Sex Addicts Anonymous and they can clearly tell this specific 12 step program was written by Christians. But because the language is non-judgmental, they don't have a problem attending.
I would also point out that it was Jesus who told us, "whoever is not against you is for you" (Luke 9:50). The 12 step programs have been casting out the "demons" of alcoholism, drug addiction, over-eating, gambling, and sex addiction for decades in the name of God. In my opinion, they are on our side, not against us.
Lie #6 They Say You Cannot Stop Being Whatever You're Addicted ToThis is simply not true on face value. Why would all the 12 step programs point to the steps as the way to break free from addiction if it wasn't possible? I've never read anything in any 12 step literature that suggests it's impossible to break free. Again, read most the statements above.
Misconception #7 It Allows Anything To Be Your Higher PowerTo a point, yes, but again, if you reverse engineer who this Higher Power is, you discover it's the God of the Bible.
But the focus of the 12 steps isn't proselyting: it's freeing people from addiction.
Misconception #8 They Are Not Based On ScienceThat may be, but psychology has been watching and researching the 12 steps, and has found that they are effective. Scientific inquiry into their success has generated lots of useful discussion within psychology, and (per Dr. Doweiko, I believe) almost every addiction center in our country recommends attendance because it helps.
Misconception #9 They're Taking Business Away From The ChurchIn my experience, this is simply not true. In fact, for those who don't have a Higher Power, the literature recommends they try going to churches and such to explore the spiritual part of their lives.
In my experience, churches who host 12 step meetings tend to grow and become thriving communities. In my experience, almost all 12 step programs are hosted in a church.
In my experience I haven't read anything in any 12 step literature that tells addicts to stay away from church, or that the group wants to become a replacement for church.
However, given my experience with those in 12 step groups, many claim they were kicked out of churches due to their addictions. Many claim they were not helped, and not welcomed in church.
In my experience, many addicts are in churches that have no clue how to help addicts, or are ill equipped to help them. This was recently discovered by Josh McDowell regarding porn addiction. When addicts want help, they often don't know where to find it. Most people know about AA, but few know all the other offshoots and spin-offs.
In my opinion and experience, many addicts leave toxic and exclusive churches to find help, and find the 12 step programs. So my opinion is that those saying the 12 steps "take business" from the church might want to sit down and consider whether it's because the 12 steps are "stealing" or because their church isn't helping.
Also, in my opinion, jealousy is unbecoming the body of Christ. We should be happy that the addicts are getting help even if it's not at our church. And given the very few (per Josh McDowell) churches who are equipped to help porn addicts, this type of jealousy (in my opinion) will only make matters worse. In my opinion, the church has lost touch with her mission and is being jealous when instead she should be weeping at the staggering number of lives and families being destroyed by addictions of various kinds.
Misconception #10 They Preach a False Gospel
The basics of this accusation is that
somehow the 12 steps are giving addicts something only Jesus can
give (sobriety), therefore they're a false gospel.
In my opinion, this has several problems. First, it misinterprets what the gospel is. The gospel is the good news that God, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, offers us forgiveness and reconciliation. The 12 steps do not give anyone salvation or forgiveness. The 12 steps merely offer people a new way of life that is sober rather than addicted.
Second, it errs in understanding sin, human nature, and addiction. The 12 steps have been keeping people sober for long periods of time, so saying that sobriety is impossible outside of Jesus Christ is a half truth at best. Second, you can take away all a lost person's addictions and they will still be lost. Third, even Christians can become addicted: if the definition of salvation was immediate and permanent cessation of sin and addiction, who then can be saved?
Human beings can change their behaviors from harmful addictions to less harmful sins. It is possible to be a very moral person while lost (see Acts 10-11). To say otherwise is heretical. In my opinion, there is some value in preventing harm to the addict or others, so there is at least some secondary effects that fit within God's will.
The gospel specifically deals with forgiveness of sins. We can go through life and repent to everyone we've sinned against, but still be lost. The gospel deals with the spiritual state of the individual: saved or lost. Indeed, in my opinion, to say that the 12 steps preach a false gospel is to imply that we can be saved by works: we can't. Making amends is something anyone, saved or lost, should do when they harm others.
Now one might reply to this, "the only power against sin is the Holy Spirit." This is theologically true, but the 12 steps don't promise power over all sins. They promise a cure to only addictions (and only the specific addiction the group focuses on). Also, in my opinion, this statement gets too close to saying that we can become perfectly sinless after salvation. In theory, it's possible, but in practice, it is not possible. Romans 3 still says all (not "everyone except Christians") are sinners. The saints of old never dared call themselves sinless. Even the apostle Paul said he had not yet attained sinless perfection (Phil. 3:12).
Part of the problem with this is a confusion between our standards and God's standards. We can be good moral people by society's standards. But we can never be sinless by God's standards. This is precisely why we need salvation. And the 12 steps never even come close to teaching that they are some sort of salvation.
In my opinion, the benefit of the 12 steps towards salvation is seen as helping them to think clearly about their current situation, and to think more clearly as their addiction fades away. It removes the obstacle of having to fix one's life before coming to Jesus Christ. And in that it can prevent harm to self and others via addiction, in my opinion the 12 steps are doing God's work, even if only indirectly.
ConclusionI would strongly recommend that the best way to understand something is to remain objective. Many of the statements against 12 step programs are, in my opinion, the rhetoric of those who have chosen, before completely understanding them, that they are the enemy.