The first step of the Twelve Steps asks us to affirm that we are powerless and that our lives have become unmanageable. Undertaking a spiritual journey with Jesus requires that we acknowledge exactly the same things. In order to be a Jesus-follower, we have to give up control of our own lives and turn them over to him.
Fr. Richard Rohr puts this process of surrender in the context of the twelve steps:
“Until you bottom out, and come to the limits of your own fuel supply, there is no reason for you to switch to a higher octane of fuel. . . . You will not learn to actively draw upon a Larger Source [higher power; God] until your usual resources are depleted and revealed as wanting. In fact, you will not even know there is a Larger Source until your own sources fail you.
Until and unless there is a person, situation, event, idea, conflict, or relationship that you cannot ‘manage,’ you will never find the True Manager. So God makes sure that several things will come your way that you cannot manage on your own.”(From Breathing Under Water, p. 3.)
The culture around us makes interest in or recognition of “bottoming out” extremely difficult. We are pushed to be successful, productive, aware of trends and fads, willing to sacrifice anything to be on top. Failure or loss of control is not an option. Apprentices recognize all of this advice as “false narratives.” God neither requires nor honors any of this. In fact, God is in the business of redeeming failures – as is any Twelve Step program.
Take Paul, for example. He writes: “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise . . . I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway”(Romans 7: 15 -20; The MSG). As Fr. Richard Rohr says, “These words could have come from any addict who, with the best of intentions is still failing to overcome his addictions.”
Perhaps the same fear that keeps us from admitting powerlessness is the fear that keeps us from admitting or accepting failure. I recently watched a video about several famous people who rose from the ashes of failure to become great in their fields: Michael Jordan, Eminem, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Dr. Seuss, Thomas Edison – the list goes on. Their failures prompted their success.
“Failure,” Fr. Richard says, is “surely a place of paradox.” It breaks down our carefully created image of identity or security or purpose. But it also gives us choices we may not have seen before. Do we writhe in the ashes of failure and pride for a lifetime? Or do we admit our powerlessness and rebuild on the true foundation of God’s grace and love?
Admitting our powerlessness means letting go. And letting go is not on anyone’s agenda for happiness. But as Fr. Richard puts it, “all mature spirituality, in one sense or another, is about letting go and unlearning. . . . As German mystic-philosopher Meister Eckhart said, “the spiritual life has much more to do with subtraction than it does with addition” (Breathing Under Water, p.6).
So . . . my prayer for all of us is different from most prayers: I pray for failure recycled into wisdom, powerlessness reborn as empowerment, and subtraction res-urrected as entry into the Kingdom of God.