The “Ninth Step” of Alcoholics Anonymous—“We made direct amends to such people [those we had harmed] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others”– is one of the few steps with which people outside the 12 Step Programs may be familiar. This is because many of us know someone in recovery who has “made amends,” who tried to take responsibility for mistakes he or she has made. The popular understanding of the “amends” process is that it is, essentially, an apology accompanied by remorse. Now I have written often elsewhere about apologies and forgiveness, and I believe fundamentally in the miraculous power of a sincere and unconditional apology. And, surely, a Ninth Step amends can and does often include an authentic apology. But that’s just where it starts, and, indeed, “making amends,” as those who have worked the Steps will attest, is much more than that. And here we see what the 12 Step Programs can teach Christians about the change in heart and in action, the “amends”— what the churches often call metanoia, commonly known as “repentance.”
The word “amend,” of course, means “to change.” As in, to “amend” a contract or a constitution; or, as in “amendment of life,” to use the old language of the Anglican prayer book. And in the recovery programs, the Ninth Step has a lot to do with change or amendment of life—at least as much as it has to do with apology or with feeling bad about what one has done. In fact, the old timers in working through the 12 Steps with a newcomer, will often tell the newbie to forget the tear-soaked apology, at least for now. There are two reasons for this. First, the Ninth Step says that we only get to make a direct amends to another if doing so would not re-injure the person, or someone else. We don’t get to clean our conscience at someone else’s expense. Second, however, there are times when an apology is an easier, softer way than a genuine amendment of life. Often, what is required is more fundamental and lasting change— usually involving concrete action. When it comes time to repair the wreckage that we addicts have caused, talk can be cheap. Actions are what matter. So, if you have shirked your employment responsibilities during your life of addiction, get back to work, and work hard. If it is financial damage you have done, hold off on the wordy apologies and start paying back the money, even a little at a time. If it is a broken relationship, start the long, slow process of showing– not telling—the one you have hurt that you have changed, and that you want to have a better relationship.
As an example of the latter, I once had a friend in recovery who wanted to try to repair his badly damaged relationship with his 12 year-old daughter. She now lived a long way away and had not seen him in several years, largely because of his long alcohol history. But now he was sober several years, had begun to live a new life with honesty and purpose, and he wanted to try to re-establish his relationship with her. He was unsure of how to begin, convinced as he was that she was so deeply angry with him that any overture from him would be met with silence or anger.
He thought he should probably start with making an apology, but after we talked and thought about it for a few weeks, I suggested that he not do that, but instead simply begin by writing to the girl. He would write and tell her a bit about his life, ask her about hers, and tell her that he often thought of her. Not once, or twice, not sporadically, but once a week, like clockwork. Nothing more. Simple, direct, honest. No request or expectation for anything in return. No grand promises or grandiose apologies. He was to show her, not tell her, that he wanted to be part of her life. “Maybe,” I said, “it will take five years before you hear from her, or maybe she will write you back in a month and tell you to leave her alone. But right now, your job is to be the best dad you can, whatever that means. The apology can come later.” He was hesitant, in part because he did not want to make it worse, and he was sure that the mother would never even deliver the letters to the little girl. Still, I assured him, it would take an especially hard woman to deliberately destroy letters to a child from her father. Besides, at least to try to re-establish a relationship with her seemed to us to be the right thing to do.
And so he wrote to her, weekly, consistently, simply. Awkwardly at first and then with a growing ease and affection. A month went by and he heard nothing; then two months; then four. Finally, after several months, he got a letter back. Just one. But he kept on writing, every week: simple, newsy, friendly. He wrote another dozen letters. Then he got the second response. The pattern continued for another six months: he would write eight or ten letters, and then get a short note back. Then, one day, about a year after he started this process, he got a phone call. That turned into more regular phone calls, and within another six months he was on a plane across the country, at her invitation, for some time together. As things developed and she began to trust him, her anger at his past began to come out, and then to become an obvious subject of conversation. That’s when he made the apology—after he had shown her that he was changing as a father; after, not before. All of this, by the way, was about a decade ago, and just recently, she asked him to come across the country to her college “Father-Daughter” dance.
So my friend had done his “amends” correctly: he didn’t get to just throw out an apology because he felt badly and it would help soothe his conscience, when clearly it would have done more harm than good; he didn’t get to set the terms of the relationship; he didn’t get to have any expectations; he had control over nothing. It was he who had damaged the relationship by his actions over a long period of time, and so it was he who had to demonstrate change over a long period of time. Then, and only then, if his daughter saw and accepted his changes, his “amends,” could he complete the Ninth Step by making his apology. But the change—the amends—came before the apology, the actions came before the words.
So what do we as Christians learn from this idea of “amends” as more than apology, “amends” as a more genuine form of repentance? Well, surely we can see that genuine change involves both a change of heart and a change of action, that both are necessary to a renewed life, and that simply mouthing the words of an apology will never get the job done.
The biblical word metanoia is usually translated as “repentance,” but more simply and literally it means a “turnaround,” as in, to stop, turn around and go in a different direction. Note that it involves all of the following elements: a changed heart (I am going in the wrong direction), a changed mind (I think I shall walk in a different direction) and a changed action (in fact walking in a different direction).
But the central biblical concept of repentance has been so badly taught by so many churches that those of us in the pews can be forgiven for being all confused about it. In the biblical churches and the evangelical heritage, the teaching has often been that repentance is to be found in a certain feeling of remorse. And while a broken and contrite heart, to quote the Psalmist, is often one part of repentance, it is not the end of it. That is just the spiritual “moment,” that will be lived out in concrete ways. In other churches—the mainline denominational churches, for example—the genuineness of our faith is often measured by our social mores or political values, by our carbon footprint, our support for educational programs or other forms of political correctness. And while our lives and values as Christians should surely reflect our faith in concrete ways, yet the faith cannot be limited to a certain political or social worldview. In the liturgical churches, repentance has often been linked to confession, penance and absolution; and while we know that there is great power in the sacramental rites of confession, we know that just mumbling the words of confession—with no remorse and no penitential action– can be an empty and hypocritical thing.
What the Gospel of Bill shows us as Christians is that to live a life changed by God means both a new heart–new convictions and new feelings–as well as new actions. So my friend was not reconciled to his daughter just because he was heartbroken that he had through his drinking destroyed his family; instead, he was eventually reconciled because he took that heartbreak and turned it into concrete action. He amended his relationship with his daughter. Jesus didn’t suggest to the rich young ruler that he amend his life by beginning to feel differently about his money, or to believe that his salvation was not in his wealth; rather, Jesus told him to take action—“leave those things and do these things.” The early Christians were not known by their words only—even words of good news—but by the radical combination of convictions, words and actions: they took care of one another, they embraced the lepers, they shared their possessions with one another, they died for their Lord.
In all these situations, the amends–the change, the metanoia, the repentance–is a deep and profound sequence of a changed mind, a changed heart, and a changed life. After all, that—the change of life–is what most often matters to those around us, that is what they want to see, consistently and predictably, in a way that they can come to depend upon, before we try to apologize. Once again, our friends in recovery, who so badly wrecked their own lives and those of their loved ones, can show us what a genuine metanoia, a change of direction, an amendment of life, really looks like.