Grace in Addiction: Stanley Runs Into Barbed Wire

Continuing with our series of previews of our recent publication Grace in Addiction: The Good […]

Mockingbird / 3.20.13

Continuing with our series of previews of our recent publication Grace in Addiction: The Good News of Alcoholics Anonymous for Everybody, here’s a section from the chapter having to do with Step 7, i.e. “Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.”

onefastmove_posterAn important part of parenting comes when the parent makes a mistake. Perhaps tempers flare in a regrettable way. Or maybe a crucial decision turns out to have been a misstep. Maybe the parents move their child into a new school that proves to be a poor match, and the child has to switch back later. God’s grace is often most palpable where good things happen in the wake of our mistakes. To revisit our earlier example, perhaps the child had such a terrible experience in the new school that, after an awful year there, he switches back and has a newfound appreciation for the old school, so much so that he begins to study more and loves his experience more than ever. These are the experiences of God’s providence that make life in the midst of uncertainty bearable rather than paralyzing. If we make a mistake, God can right it or even undo it, sometimes bringing ultimate good out of our worst decisions. God redeems our lives because it is in His nature to do so. We do not have to live in fear that our life hangs in the balance of whether or not we make a “wrong move.”

The spiritual life that is lived on the other side of a mistake is more important than the life lived before it. The mistake provides the opportunity to fall into God’s care, where we see just how big and powerful His goodness is. Often it is there that we find freedom. Such freedom is a spiritual gift, and the 7th Step opens the door to it. Indeed, much of the spiritual life described in the Twelve Steps involves living in the face of mistakes, as opposed to living rightly in order to avoid them. Wherever our steps fall, whether they are “on the path” or “off the beam”, God is overarchingly present and working for good.

We may make a mistake or series of mistakes that leads to total collapse. God may allow a defect to persist toward exactly this end. Like the “Coffee with Jesus” cartoon below suggests, God may reply to our desire for easy, tangible results in the following manner: “I totally hear you. It’s just that Carl’s got some more falling to do before I can be of much help…It all works out in the end…the comeback is sweeter that way.” Where the shortcomings are not removed, the opportunity for a profoundly redemptive narrative only deepens. Imagine how different the Parable of the Prodigal Son would be if the prodigal son had gotten his life in order, found a steady job, and acquired a good reputation before returning to his father. The story would still have a happy ending, and yet it would not say as much about the depth of God’s forgiveness – nor resonate as powerfully with our lived experience. The possibility of profound forgiveness becomes more concrete when the trespass is great. To quote Jesus’ actual words, “Whoever has been forgiven little, loves little” (Lk 7:47).


Where a defect is not removed and unpalatable consequences ensue, we can faithfully affirm our hope of deliverance. One example of this counterintuitive turn of events comes in the famous story of Jacob in the Old Testament. Jacob spends a night wrestling with God. During one point in their struggle, God “touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was dislocated as he wrestled with the man” (Gen 32:25). Perhaps the dislocated hip, like the thorn in Paul’s flesh, is something that provides the fuel for a much more significant fire later.

In a more overtly positive light, the assurance of God’s work delivers us from a world of second-guessing and trouble-shooting, which are exactly the things we abandoned to God in the 3rd Step. Consider the following story of how one AA member came to appreciate this new perspective:

Stanley was a wise and well-regarded member of AA. He sponsored many people and was sought by many for his wise counsel. But Stanley was also a human being, still dealing his own defects of character. One afternoon, Stanley went for a jog, which was something he often did to clear his mind. On this one afternoon, things took a terrible turn when he tripped over a low- lying barbed wire fence that was wrapped around the base of a large tree. He hadn’t seen it until it was too late.

Suddenly he was on the ground, and his right ankle was torn up in a few spots, not to mention the scrapes, bruises, and embarrassment. Stanley was also a bit of a vain fellow, and that “vanity” was indeed one of the shortcomings that he had been praying for God to remove from his life. As Stanley describes it, not only was he bleeding and in need of a few band-aids, but he was also livid. As he made his way home, he thought about how he could sue the person who had put the fence there. “The audacity!…” His mood had turned incredibly sour, far from the “serene and spiritual” demeanor for which he was known.

GiAblog3To top things off, he had already made plans to meet with two sponsees on either side of an AA meeting later that evening. Begrudgingly, Stanley still made it to the coffee shop where he met up with Sponsee #1. In spite of his foul mood, he went through the motions, asking the newly sober guy about himself. The two of them soon opened up the Big Book and began reading at the place where they had left off in their step work. But Stanley was not feeling at all present, mentally. Instead, he was back at the tree, fuming about the barbed-wire, the city officials who had allowed such a thing to go unchecked, and the guy who had invented barbed wire in the first place.

As they wrapped up their hour-long session, to Stanley’s total surprise, Sponsee #1 told him that he had never gotten so much out of one of their sessions. He felt that finally the Twelve Steps were starting to have an impact on his outlook, and he was so thankful he had found such a great sponsor. Stanley wasn’t sure what to make of it, but he just assumed that the young buck was still a little wet-brained or something.

Then they attended an AA meeting together. Stanley was still annoyed, and the meeting made little impact on his mood. At the end of the meeting he met up with Sponsee #2. Stanley took the same approach, trying to be helpful but completely distracted. At the end of their time, Sponsee #2 said almost the same words to Stanley: “I’ve never gotten so much out of one of our meetings. The things you’re saying make so much sense. You really know how to convey hope to me.”

Needless to say, Stanley didn’t know what to make of the whole experience at first. Upon reflection, however, he came to relay the following insight: “God’s ability to be helpful through me is bigger than my bad mood’s ability to torpedo His plans. God can use a sober alcoholic in a bad mood to help a person just as well as he can use a focused, inspired sober alcoholic for the same enterprise.” Stanley’s life was not his own. So much so in fact, that he seemed unable to step outside of God’s will for him. This was a hugely helpful and humbling realization. It gave credit to the one who deserved it, not to the “earthen vessel” who happened to be carrying the goods (2 Cor 4:7).


The resolve of the 7th Step has more to do with living in God’s grace in spite of the continual presence of defects of character than it does with living in their absence. Still full of bad moods, and yet owned by something bigger, a person’s second narrative tells the real truth. This narrative operates over and above the sin of the individual, a spiritual covering of sorts. Gerhard Forde described this sentiment in a little piece he wrote toward the end of his life. He spoke from his own experience of the way in which 7th Step-type spirituality had altered his understanding of God’s work in human life:

“Am I making progress? If I am really honest, it seems to me that the question is odd, even a little ridiculous. As I get older and death draws nearer, it doesn’t seem to get any easier. I get a little more impatient, a little more anxious about having perhaps missed what this life has to offer, a little slower, harder to move, a little more sedentary and set in my ways. It seems more and more unjust to me that now that I have spent a good part of my life ‘getting to the top,’ and I seem just about to have made it, I am already slowing down, already on the way out. A skiing injury from when I was sixteen years old acts up if I overexert myself. I am too heavy, the doctors tell me, but it is so hard to lose weight! Am I making progress? Well, maybe it seems as though I sin less, but that may only be because I’m getting tired! It’s just too hard to keep indulging the lusts of youth. Is that sanctification? I wouldn’t think so! One should not, I expect, mistake encroaching senility for sanctification.”

Forde began that essay by summarizing this point in the following way: “sanctification is the art of getting used to justification.” This is just a theological way of saying that growth in spiritual maturity involves an increasing sense of our sinfulness, coupled with a corresponding appreciation of God’s graciousness to us. Any form of spirituality that neglects this humble understanding of how God transforms an individual has missed something very important.


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