"Slow Work of God"

Spiritual practices may help in the fight against addiction.

Posted Dec 07, 2018

Source: Pixabay/Pexels

“I’m a hustler. It’s not just what I do; it’s who I am.”

The speaker, Franklin was a young man in his thirties. We were sitting in a circle with six other homeless men, all of whom had been accepted into the treatment program at the shelter where I volunteer. This was our first meeting, and my goal was to introduce them to the Twelve Steps and other spiritual practices of recovery.

Many of the men had childhoods marred by physical and/or sexual abuse, and most had begun drinking in their early teens. By their twenties, all of them were addicted to alcohol and at least one other drug—cocaine, prescription pills, heroin, methamphetamine or marijuana. The majority had done time, and every single man had been through a previous treatment program—or two or three.

Like Franklin, they were all hustlers. They had survived for years (and in some cases decades) living on the street and getting drugs and food and shelter by almost any means necessary. Now, with their brains rewired to seek immediate reward, they were seeking a quick fix even from the center’s long-term treatment program. And in all probability, they were attending my session, not because they wanted to get sober, but because it came with a warm bed and hot meals.

Given the combination of a malfunctioning brain and a derailed life, the chances that any one of these men would get sober seemed about zero. But in fact, as I knew from my previous experience in the program, a significant percentage would find the help they needed to begin a drug-free life.

Part of this success was attributable to the program’s wrap-around services (job training, counseling, art therapy, and more), its mandatory drug testing, and a strong emphasis on attending AA or NA and working the 12 Steps.

In the end, however, I knew that the chances that these men would achieve lasting sobriety depended on something far more universal—their human capacity for spiritual development.

“We must find a spiritual basis for living, or else we die,” said Bill W., the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. He spoke these words in 1937, and they have represented the bottom line of Twelve Step programs ever since.

This spirituality, although hard-to-define, includes not just daily spiritual practices, such as working the Twelve Steps and saying the Serenity Prayer, but also ongoing spiritual experiences. It also includes developing spiritual qualities, habits of the heart like faith, hope, love and humility.

This largely invisible world of spiritual awakening, AA founders claimed, produced visible results—the character transformation and changes in behavior needed to sustain long-term recovery.


My depression deepened unbearably, and finally it seemed to me as though I was at the very bottom of the pit. For the moment, the last vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed. All at once I found myself crying out, “If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!” Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly, the ecstasy subsided. I lay on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness. All about me and through me was a wonderful feeling of Presence . . . .

My spiritual awakening was electrically sudden and absolutely convincing, At once I became a part—if only a tiny part—of a cosmos that was ruled by justice and love in the person of God. No matter what had been the consequences of my own willfulness and ignorance, or those of my fellow travelers on earth, this was still the truth. Such was the new and positive assurance. And this has never left me.

Bill W., Co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous

The frank espousal of a deepening spirituality as the foundation and center for lasting recovery put the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous at odds with many of their contemporaries. Now, however, a surprising study from Harvard Medical School has given credence to their claim. Using a large sample of adults in recovery and controlling for all other variables, Dr. John F. Kelly and his colleagues found that, indeed, participation in AA leads to better recovery outcomes in part by enhancing spiritual practices.

Interestingly, attending AA was associated with an increase in spiritual practices especially for people who scored low on measures for spiritual and religious practices when they entered treatment.

“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," the founders of AA wrote. Wisely, they did not spell out the exact nature of this experience, nor did they define the concept of Higher Power more narrowly than “loving, caring and greater than ourselves.”

The spirituality of Twelve Step programs was, and remains, a wide umbrella, providing shelter to people of all faiths, as well as atheists or agnostics. It invites recovering individuals to move beyond “the God of other people’s understanding,” often, in my experience, a judgmental, angry and vengeful being, to a relationship with a Higher Power that can heal and sustain for the long haul.

Spirituality “serves to change people, and change is at the core of recovery,” wrote Christopher Ringwald in his important book, The Soul of Recovery.

The exact mechanism that underlies this life-saving change is not yet known. There may be a correlation between the slow work of rewiring the brain and the daily, repetitive nature of spiritual practices. This repetition may help heal the damaged reward system and create an alternative network to the neurological pathways that perpetuate addiction.

Note: Research suggests that this “addiction network” is not dismantled during recovery and persists for the duration of an addicted individual’s life, creating a permanent risk for relapse.

For certain, spiritual practices and experiences create new memories and motivational drives, healing the addict’s wounded desires and developing a “wall of resistance” to compulsive drinking or other drug use.

Above all, however, just as in any good therapeutic process, it is the relationship that heals. The connection with a loving and caring Higher Power enables addicted individuals (and anyone else who practices Twelve Step spirituality) to move beyond the debilitating effects of shame and low self-worth. They learn to surrender long-term resentments and to forgive themselves as well as other people.

Through “the slow work of God,” recovering individuals rediscover their true selves—not destroyed, but only lost beneath layers and layers of addiction-related crap. As they become empowered by a sense of transcendent meaning, they discover a new vision and purpose for their lives. Once again, they are able to give of themselves and their considerable gifts to their friends, families and communities.

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