“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Step 5 of The Twelve Steps.
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” – and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32: 3-5).
But, dear Israel, you’ll also realize that I am God when I respond to you out of who I am, not by what I feel about the evil lives you’ve lived, the corrupt history you’ve compiled (Ezekiel 20:44).
This series of blogs is written to help connect the power of the Twelve Steps of AA and Al-Anon (and all other 12-step groups) with the Christian journey of spiritual formation – “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others” (M. Robert Mulholland’s definition in Invitation to a Journey). The guide for these reflections is Franciscan priest Richard Rohr through his book Breathing Under Water.
Step 5 follows hard on the heels of the previous step of making a fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves. Not only do we have to shine a spotlight on the darkest corners of our lives, but now we have to share the results of what we have learned with God and another person, and, perhaps most difficult of all, with ourselves.
Fr. Richard begins this discussion by reminding us that the common belief among almost all cultures is that “in one way or another sin and evil are to be punished and retribution is to be demanded of the sinner in this world – and usually the next world too.” He calls this system of reward and punishment the “economy of merit.”
This system makes perfect sense to us. In fact, even those of us on a journey to become like Jesus have a difficult time giving up this quid pro quo notion. And even if we do, it often pops up again unbidden. Not long ago, I experienced a Spirit-empowered and totally spontaneous sense of forgiveness for someone who had betrayed me. But the next day I was questioning whether I had been too easy on the person; he should have to suffer for what he had done! The Holy Spirit did not let me stay in this vengeful place for too long, but because this thinking is deeply engrained in our culture, it is difficult to wash away from our minds and hearts.
We apply the economy of merit to ourselves as well. Richard Rohr quickly reminds us that the “revelation from the cross and the Twelve Steps, however, believes that sin and failure are, in fact, the setting and opportunity for the transformation and enlightenment of the offender – and then the future will take care of itself. It is a mystery that makes sense to the soul and is entirely an ‘economy of grace.'” Thus the effectiveness of the 5th step.
When we do scratch away at our denial, face our hidden selves, and tell others who we really are, we have to live in the “economy of grace,” accepting God’s reality that this confession is the way to healing – healing which cannot come until we acknowledge the exact nature of the sickness. We do this by taking God at his Word. In many places of Scripture, Fr. Richard points out, we read that God loves us “in spite of ourselves in the very places where we cannot or will not or dare not love ourselves.”
The stunning thing about this whole process is that, as Fr. Richard says, “God does not love us if we change, God loves us so that we can change. Only love effects true inner transformation. . . . Grace is not grace unless it is totally free.”