10/13/17

Feuding Ideologies, Part 2

© Michal Bednarek | 123rf.com

In the first paragraph of “Dying To Be Free,” you are introduced to Patrick, a smiling 25 year-old who had just completed a 30-day drug treatment center. Among his possessions was “a talisman he’d been given by the treatment facility: a hardcover fourth edition of the Alcoholics Anonymous bible known as ‘The Big Book.” It pages were full of highlights and Post-It notes. He was said to be a “natural” 12-step convert. Four days later, his father found him dead of an overdose.

As you read about Patrick’s struggles with addiction, you get a picture of how he and his parents tried to help him establish sobriety. There is a reference to his residential treatment stay as a “30-day wonder,” where he received a crash course on the tenets of the 12-steps. “Staff at the center expected addicts to reach a sort of divine moment but gave them few days and few tools to get there.” In Part 1 of this article, I addressed concerns that an underlying ideology of addiction as a strictly biomedical disease contributed to a biased, distorted picture of addiction treatment in the U.S. by the author of “Dying To Be Free.” Here we will look at how he also misrepresents the recovery philosophy and history of A.A.

There is a preponderance of religious or magical rhetoric when describing 12 Step, abstinent-based change in “Dying To Be Free.” Already we’ve noted the main text of Alcoholics Anonymous, also called Alcoholics Anonymous, was referred to as a talisman and a “bible.” Patrick was a “natural 12-step convert.” Another reference described the AA Big Book as being the size of a hymnal, with an appeal to faith made in “the rat-a-tat cadence of a door-to-door salesman.” Addicts at a certain treatment center were supposed to “reach a sort of divine moment” in treatment or recovery. Entering the drug treatment system, which is dominated by the principles of abstinence embedded in the 12-Steps, was said to require a “leap of faith.”

In a description of the Grateful Life Treatment Center in northern Kentucky, it was noted that the wall above the desk of the center’s intake supervisor had a “Jesus bumper sticker.” Why add that detail unless you are trying to capture the scene in a particularly religious way? When describing treatment facilities modeling themselves on the 12 Steps, not only were recovering addicts said to be cheap labor, they were said to provide the “evangelism” to shape the curricula of the facilities. A resident of Grateful Life was noted to be “as close to a true believer as the program produces.”

At one point, the author of “Dying To Be Free,” Jason Cherkis, said AA came out “evangelical Christian movements.” More accurately, there is a clear historical connection between a nondenominational Christian movement popular during the 1920s and 1930s called the Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous. The two cofounders of A.A., Bill W. and Dr. Bob met as a result of their personal association with the Oxford Group. A.A. approved books, such as Pass It On, Doctor Bob and the Good Oldtimers and AA Comes of Age freely acknowledge the connection and give further details about it. However, a crucial distinction made by A.A. within its 12 Steps is glossed over by Cherkis and others, namely the spiritual, not religious understanding of God and recovery embodied in the Twelve Steps.

Drawn from the thought of the American psychologist, William James, this distinction between religious and spiritual experience seems to underlie the widespread sense of generic spirituality in American culture today. The Varieties of Religious Experience  (VRE) by James had a fundamental influence on Bill W., the formulation of the Twelve Steps and the spirituality based upon them. In VRE James made a distinction between institutional and personal religion. Worship, sacrifice, ritual, theology, ceremony, and ecclesiastical organization were the essentials of what he referred to as institutional religion.

Personal religion/spirituality for his [James’] purposes was defined as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of [the] individual . . . in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” In the broadest sense possible, this spirituality consisted of the belief that there was an unseen order to existence, and supreme good lay in harmoniously adjusting to that order.

Whether their disregard of the spiritual, not religious distinction is intentional or not, Cherkis and others give an incomplete and biased picture of Twelve Step recovery when they fail to note it. The very heart of Twelve Step spirituality is the permissibility of the individual to formulate a personal understanding of their “god.” So what unites members of Twelve Step groups like A.A. is the diversity of religious and spiritual belief permitted—even to accepting a lack of belief. I’ve written several other articles on the similarities and differences between the spirituality of the Twelve Steps and religious spirituality on this website. There are three particular articles that discuss the influences on the spiritual, not religious distinction of Twelve Step recovery: “What Does Religious Mean?”, “Spiritual Not Religious Experience” and “The God of the Preachers.”

Another example of how “Dying To Be Free” misrepresents the recovery philosophy of A.A. is the following. While introducing a discussion of Charles Dederich and the origins of Synanon, Cherkis said Dederich and others took a “hardline” message” from some of Bill W.’s written philosophy. Cherkis wrote: “Those who can’t stick with the program are ‘constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves,’ reads the Big Book. ‘They seem to have been born that way.’” The two selective quotes were from the first paragraph of chapter five, “How It Works,” in Alcoholics Anonymous. Notice how the context of the complete paragraph changes your understanding of what Bill W. said in his “philosophy”:

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.

As Cherkis began to discuss the history of the expansion of drug treatment facilities in the 1960s, he quoted Nancy Campbell, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, as saying: “The history of 12-step came out of white, middle-class, Protestant people who want to be respectable.” She added that it offered community and belonging that was predicated on being normal, respectable and having a stake in mainstream society.  Campbell may be a historian, but she seems to have a distorted view of the early history of 12 Step recovery in A.A.

From the sociological perspective of labeling theory A.A. and other organizations based on their 12 Steps, like N.A. (Narcotics Anonymous), can at least partially be seen as social movements that seek to combat negative images associated with socially deviant drinking or drugging behavior, “in effect denying that their actions make them deviants.” This applies the idea of tertiary deviance, first described by John Kituse in: “Coming Out All Over: Deviants and the Politics of Social Problems.” Kituse noted that some people stigmatized as deviant (here as alcoholics) “rebel against their labels and attempt to reaffirm their self-worth and lost social status.” The above quote and reference to Kituse is found in a standard social science textbook by Clinard and Meier, Sociology of Deviant Behavior.  So part of Campbell’s assessment of 12 Step groups as social movements seeking to offer community and belonging, with a “stake in mainstream society” is accurate. However, the quote attributed to her glosses over the early history of A.A., which was the beginning of the 12 Step movement.

A.A. celebrates the anniversary of its founding on June 10, 1935. That was in the midst of the Depression. Bill W. and his wife Lois were living then in a house owned by her father on Clinton Street in New York City. In September of 1936, Lois’s father died and the house was taken over by the mortgage company, which allowed them to stay on for a small rental. In the midst of the Depression, they didn’t want the house to be empty. While struggling with “their acute poverty,” Bill was almost persuaded to accept a position as a paid alcoholism therapist at Towns Hospital, where he himself had been treated several times. He eventually declined the offer.

Almost two and a half years after the founding of A.A., Bill W. was jobless and Dr. Bob was in danger of losing his house. In 1938, through the charity of John D. Rockefeller Jr., $5,000 was approved for a fund that would pay off Dr. Bob’s mortgage and allow a weekly draw of $30 for each of them. Rockefeller told one of his associates afterwards: “But please don’t ever ask me for any more.” In 1939, as the Depression eased, the mortgage company was able to sell the Clinton Street house and Bill and Lois became homeless. They lived “as vagabonds,” as various places for two years. Bill W. and Lois eventually led a respectable, middle class lifestyle, but that wasn’t what it was like for them in the beginning of A.A.

This history is found in Pass It On, published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. In the early days of A.A., Bill W. repeatedly turned down offers to professionalize his work with A.A. This doesn’t entirely sound like a movement trying to gain white, middle class respectability. The Traditions of A.A., formally adopted in July of 1950, articulated this philosophy of non-professionalism and a focus on helping other alcoholics in the fifth, sixth and eighth Traditions.

Tradition Five Reads: “Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” Tradition Six reads: “An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.” Tradition Eight reads: “Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.”

Alternative addiction treatment ideologies regularly attack A.A. as “religious,” ignoring or rejecting the spiritual-religious distinction A.A. made within the Twelve Steps from the very beginning. The abstinent-based recovery philosophy embedded in the Twelve Steps seems to be the primary target of these critiques. I see the same tendency in “Dying To Be Free.” The first part of this article addressed the biased portrayal of abstinent-based addiction treatment by Jason Cherkis in “Dying To Be Free.” The third and final part will address how it skimmed over the problems with MAT, specifically Suboxone.

07/25/17

Keep on Knocking

© Eugene Sergeev | 123rf.com

The first sentence for the Step Eleven essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions succinctly says: “Prayer and meditation are our principle means of conscious contact with God.” Bill W. went on to say there were some who recoiled from meditation and prayer “as obstinately as the scientist who refused to perform a certain experiment lest it prove his pet theory wrong.” Yet for those who made regular use of prayer come to see it as necessary for their survival as air, food or sunshine: “We all need the light of God’s reality, the nourishment of His strength, and the atmosphere of His grace.”

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

In verse 7, there are a series of commands: ask, seek and knock. All three are in the present tense, which suggests we are to persist when we come to God in prayer. We should petition God “with an expectant attitude,” according to Craig Blomberg. In verse eight, we have a repetition of what to expect when we pray: all who ask receive; everyone who seeks something will find it; when someone knocks on a closed door, it will be opened. But it would be a mistake to use this as a kind of incantation with which we can petition and receive from God whatever we desire.

Bill W. astutely noted that when we ask for specific solutions to specific problems, and for the ability to help other people as we think they need to be helped, “We are asking God to do it our way.” We should consider each request carefully to see its real merit. His advice when making specific requests was to add a qualification: “ . . . if it be Thy will.”

We discover that we do receive guidance for our lives to just about the extent that we stop making demands upon God to give it to us on order and on our terms.

Not too long before this passage in Matthew was Jesus’ counsel to not pray like the hypocrites or use empty phrases (Matthew 6:5-15). Instead, we should pray humbly to our Father in Heaven, asking for His will to be done; for our daily bread (needs); for our debts to be forgiven; and to keep us from temptation. This passage, of course, was on the Lord’s Prayer. So when we self consciously acknowledge God as our Father in heaven, and seek for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we can trust that He will provide for our needs. So we can confidently, ask, seek and knock. And when we ask according to His will we will receive; we will find what we seek; we will open what was closed to us when we knock.

The rhetorical questions in Matthew 6:9-10 imply a negative answer: of course a human father would not be so obtuse when responding to the requests of his son. He would not give a stone when asked for bread or a serpent when asked for a fish. Bread and fish would have been common foods for the people listening to Jesus give the Sermon on the Mount, again pointing back to relying upon God for our daily needs.

There is also a possible allusion to a sense of trickery—bread can be shaped to look like a stone; snakes can be mistaken for a certain eel-like fish catfish in the Sea of Galilee.  If a human father can be trusted to give good things to his son, can’t we place even greater trust in God the Father? Jesus is reasoning from the lesser to the greater here. If such trickery or obtuseness would be unthinkable in a human father, “how much more” can our heavenly Father be trusted?

So the lesson of the passage is that we can trust God to answer our prayers. When we ask according to His will, we will receive. When we seek our daily needs, we will find them. And when a door appears closed to what we ask or seek, if we knock it will be opened for us. Here the call is for hope and perseverance. We are to continue asking, seeking and knocking until the seemingly closed door to us is opened, because we can trust God to meet our needs.

This call for persistence in prayer also applies to those who have tried to give up drugs and alcohol but failed repeatedly. There is a sense of dread that overcomes the person who has made repeated attempts to stay abstinent and failed. They begin to think there is no hope for them; that they are “constitutionally incapable of recovery.” This is a mistaken belief about recovery and relapse. In his booklet Mistaken Beliefs About Relapse, Terence Gorski said: “A mistaken belief is something that you believe is true and act as if it were true when, in fact, it is false.”

Continue trying to establish and maintain abstinence. Ask for guidance; seek help; keep on knocking (persist in asking and seeking) until you obtain it.  Because you won’t be tricked or be given something that won’t meet you needs (a stone or snake).

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

10/23/15

Fatal Consequences with Anger

© Twang | stockfresh.com

© Twang | stockfresh.com

Beginning in Matthew 5:21, Jesus encourages his audience to strive to obey the spirit of a commandment and not just a strict literal interpretation of it. That is the significance of the repeated formula here, “You have heard it said … But I say to you.” Here Jesus unpacks the deeper implications of one of the ten commandments, you shall not murder. The same should be understood with the remaining commandments or sayings in Matthew 5:21-48. Leon Morris, in his commentary on Matthew said:

Jesus is protesting against a strictly literal interpretation of the commands, an interpretation that indicates an apparent willingness to obey what God has said, but which imposes a strict limit on obedience and leaves scope for a good deal of ungodly behavior. He is laying down authoritatively how these commands of God should be understood.

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22).

The sixth commandment in Exodus 20:13 simply said: “You shall not murder.” But here there is the addition of: “and whoever murders will be liable to judgment,” which spells out the consequence to someone who committed murder. His audience would be thinking, “Well, of course there should be judgment against a murderer!” Then Jesus extends the agreement that there should be judgment against a murderer to apply to lesser forms of hostile behavior towards others. He says anyone who is angry with another person, who insults someone—who even calls them a fool—will be liable to “hell-fire and damnation.”

The valley of Hinnom, was a ravine just south of Jerusalem, had been the place where worshipers would burn their children as a sacrifice to Molech (2 Kings 23:10). In Jeremiah, there was a prophecy of judgment against this place (Jeremiah 7:31-32); and it came to be linked with the final place of torment. Leon Morris commented that in Jewish tradition, it was believed the Last Judgment would take place in the valley of Hinnom. The implication for us in Matthew is that anger and insults toward another will be judged alongside murder at the Last Judgment.

It would be wrong to say the passage equates anger and insults with murder. Rather, Jesus teaches here that these behaviors are also sinful and deserving of judgment. Just as murder self-evidently warrants judgment against the murderer, don’t minimize or rationalize your angry and insulting behavior. To illustrate his point, Jesus then gave two examples where unresolved anger or resentment has consequences.

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:23-26)

In effect Jesus is saying, get your priorities straight! “The act of sacrifice is not as important as the spirit in which it is done.” Unresolved resentment nullifies any religious sacrifice you bring to God. Just as it is wise to settle a dispute out of court and not risk the possibility of a judgment against you, the time to reconcile with someone you have wronged is before the dispute escalates to the point of formal judgment. Anger, insults and resentments are just as deserving of judgment before God as murder. The standard is to be willing to “live peaceably with all,” if it is within your power to do so (Romans 12:18).

Self-control and resolution of anger and resentment in recovery is a fundamental necessity. In the chapter “How It Works” in the A.A. Big Book, Bill W. wrote: “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender. . . . If we want to live, we have to be free of anger.” Bill wrote that resentment destroys more alcoholics than anything else. “From it stem all forms of spiritual disease.” One of the ways of addressing anger and resentment is to list them in completing the “searching and fearless moral inventory” of a Fourth Step. “We asked ourselves why we were angry.”

It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worthwhile. But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die.

In the “Step Ten” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill wrote: “It is a spiritual axiom, that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.” His audience was other members of Alcoholics Anonymous, but the truth of what he said applies to all people. In counseling, I regularly show others how in anger or resentment, we literally or metaphorically point an accusing finger at another person. So do that right—point your finger at someone or something; then look at your hand. While there is one finger pointing out, there are three pointing back at you. Ask yourself why you are angry.

Few people have been more victimized by resentments than have we alcoholics. It mattered little whether our resentments were justified or not. A burst of temper could spoil a day, and a well-nursed grudge could make us miserably ineffective. Nor were we ever skillful in separating justified from unjustified anger. As we saw it, our wrath was always justified. Anger, that occasional luxury of more balanced people, could keep us on an emotional jag indefinitely. These emotional “dry benders” often led straight to the bottle. Other kinds of disturbances—jealousy, envy, self-pity, or hurt pride—did the same thing.

Murder, anger and resentment exist on a continuum of behaviors worthy of judgment before God. The commandment to not murder includes a warning to not hold on to anger or resentment. Twelve Step recovery sees anger and resentment as a form of spiritual disease that cuts off the individual from the sunlight of the Spirit. Unresolved, this spiritual disease leads to drinking and death.

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

01/16/15

Whatever You Treasure Has Your Heart

“Greed is a fat demon with a small mouth and whatever you feed it is never enough.” (Janwillem van de Wetering)

The following passage contrasts the pursuit of material wealth to that of heavenly riches. Modern wealth or treasure often means possessing “money” or valuables containing precious metals. So many English translations since William Tyndale use “rust” to translate a Greek word which can also mean: “eating” or “consuming.”  Following this sense, the word translated “money” in verse 25 is better understood as more broadly as material wealth.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.  (Matthew 6:19-25)

Wealth to the audience who heard the Sermon on the Mount would have more likely been excess provisions of food and resources like cloth. So vermin or insects that would get into your stored grain and materials could destroy or ruin your treasure. Thieves could also steal it from you. But earthly treasures can also be things that bring an individual power, prestige or wealth. So there is a broad range of things that we can covet or “store” up that would qualify as earthly treasure.

And here lies the first bombshell of the passage: whatever you treasure has your heart.

The next two verses, 6:22-23, can be difficult to understand. The metaphor of the eye being the lamp to our body doesn’t speak clearly to a modern audience. Craig Blomberg, suggests that it is a restatement of the previous paragraph. So the meaning is that the way people handle their finances affects every part of their lives:

Just as the “heart” (v. 21) forms the center of one’s affections and commitments, the “eyes” enable the whole person to see. Good and bad eyes probably parallel a good and bad heart and thus refer, respectively, to storing up treasures in heaven versus storing them up on earth.

I think that Jesus is extending his statement about treasure, rather than just restating it. In his time, as today, it would likely have been understood that extreme examples of greed were ungodly. But there is nothing morally wrong with trying to improve your financial status, is there? So saying: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”, could have been readily affirmed—but not fully understood. His hearers, then and now, could have missed a crucial point.

So Jesus extends and clarifies his statement about treasure by using another metaphor, how the eye is the lamp of the body; the eye lets in light. Here, as Leon Morris observed, there is a spiritual parallel with Jesus speaking of the eye as the source of light to the body. So, if you have “good,” healthy eyes, your body has light. If your eye is not healthy, you will be in darkness. So far Jesus has described the one half of the metaphor that everyone knows—blind people are in darkness. The second half of the metaphor now equates “light” entering a person as spiritual or moral “darkness,” and then declared “how great is the darkness” if the “light” that enters you is “darkness!”

It asks the question, “What do you have your eye on?” If your eye is on some kind of treasure, that is where your heart is. If your eye is on the things of God, then your body is full of the light of God. If your eye is on other things, you have let “darkness” in—and how great is that darkness! So, no one can serve two masters; you cannot serve God and earthly treasure in any form.

Twelve Step recovery is steeped in the knowledge that pursuing earthly treasures leads to destruction. In the “Step Seven” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. noted how alcoholics for thousands of years have been demanding more than their share of security, prestige—the things of material achievement or earthly treasure. Success meant dreaming of more; frustration or failure meant drinking for oblivion. “Never was there enough of what we thought we wanted.” Never was there “thought of making honesty, tolerance, and true love of man and God the daily basis of living.”

As long as individuals attempted to live by their own strength and intelligence, a working faith was impossible. “This was true even when we believed that God existed.” Here, the Twelve Stepper and the follower of Christ stand in agreement: “We could actually have earnest religious beliefs which remained barren because we were still trying to play God ourselves.” As long as we place self-reliance first, a genuine reliance on God was impossible. “That basic idea of all humility, a desire to seek and do God’s will, was missing.” Whatever you treasure has your heart.

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

08/29/14

Don’t Blow Your Own Horn

The spiritual substance of anonymity is sacrifice. . . . Moved by the spirit of anonymity, we try to give up our natural desires for personal distinction. . . . We are sure that humility, expressed by anonymity, is the greatest safeguard that [we] can ever have.”

Matthew 6:1 cautions against the practice of a public display of righteousness or piety, because if you do, that is all the reward you get. Verses 2 to 18 then looks at three basics aspects of Jewish piety: almsgiving or charity (2-4), prayer (5-15) and fasting (16-18). These three are representative of all other “acts of righteousness.” The message is clear. If you make a public display of your piety, you aren’t actually being pious.

There wasn’t social security or welfare in Biblical times. Deuteronomy 15:11 said there would always be poor people. “Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” So voluntary charity and contributions to the poor were one of the three most important demonstrations of Jewish piety. But when you gave to charity, Jesus said, don’t make a big deal about it—don’t blow your own horn. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” (Matt 6:1)

Individuals who didn’t give anonymously were fake—they were play-acting. They were hypocrites.  Their words and actions were done for effect and not truly because they had a concern for others. What they were really trying to do was gain a reputation for righteousness. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.” (Matt 6:2)

The Mishnah (the written record of the Judaism’s Oral Torah) spoke of a “Chamber of Secrets” in the temple where the devout Jew could leave gifts in privacy. The poor of a good family would come later to receive help without knowing who their benefactor was.  Leon Morris in his commentary on Matthew noted that the Torah said: “A man who gives charity in secret is greater than Moses our Teacher.” So someone making a big deal about giving to charity was violating the spirit of the commandment in Deuteronomy at the same time they were fulfilling the letter of the commandment. “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matt 6:3)

The standard set by Jesus here in the Sermon on the Mount out-midrased even the Chamber of Secrets in the temple: Give so anonymously that even your left hand does not know what your right hand is doing! There was no wiggle-room. When you made a public display of your giving, you were not being charitable.

D. A. Carson referred to this as “pseudo-piety.” Christians, he said, must not delude themselves that all giving is pleasing to God, or that giving itself is an act of righteousness. “The human heart is too crafty to allow so simple a suggestion to stand.” Anonymous piety or spirituality neutralizes the instinctual action of the human heart to say: “Look at me!” And anonymous spirituality is the heart of Twelve Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, A.A.

One of the spiritual parallels between A.A. and the church is the teaching on anonymity found within Matthew 6:1-4 and A.A.’s Twelfth Tradition: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” Both Twelve Step recovery and biblical Christianity see anonymity as essential for true spirituality. The above opening quote was from Bill Wilson’s essay on Tradition Twelve in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. The only change was where I substituted the word “we” for “Alcoholics Anonymous” in the original essay.

In July of 1955 Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal minister, spoke at the convention commemorating the 20th anniversary of A.A.’s founding. He believed A.A. was one of the great signs of spiritual awakening in our time. Shoemaker also thought A.A. had indirectly drawn its inspiration and motivation from the insights and beliefs of the church. When Bill Wilson had introduced Sam to the convention, Wilson acknowledged that Shoemaker himself was the connection between A.A. and the church: “It is through Sam Shoemaker that most of A.A.’s spiritual principles have come.” In his closing remarks, Shoemaker said:

Perhaps the time has come for the church to be reawakened and revitalized by the insights and practices found in A.A. I don’t know any fields of human endeavor in which the Twelve Steps are not applicable and helpful. I believe A.A. may yet have a much wider effect upon the world of our day than it has already had and may contribute greatly to the spiritual awakening which is on the way.”

One of the best ways someone can be reawakened and revitalized is by applying the A.A. principle of anonymity to their spiritual life. The discussion here looked at how it was applied by Jesus in his teaching on alms giving. But anonymity is relevant to all other expressions of piety—even prayer and fasting. Don’t let your left hand know what your right one is doing! Practice your piety before God, not other people. Don’t blow your own horn.

Where could you apply the principle of anonymity to your spiritual life?

This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”