“It keeps coming back to surrender.” So said my first sponsor in recovery, now some twenty years ago, as he was trying to anchor the turbulence of my early recovery in something fundamental, some spiritual principle I could grasp in order to understand how I was to respond to all the chaos coming down around me. Actually, “chaos I had brought down around me,” would be a more honest phrase, for the chaos—remnants of a sad divorce and family breakup, a criminal conviction for sexual misconduct, political scandal and professional discipline—were all my doing. Mine and mine alone. Even in early recovery, sick as I still was, I understood plainly that it was all my fault.
I was crushed about it, and baffled about how to try to take responsibility for it all and somehow fix it. And so my sponsor was trying to give me some idea about how I should respond, of what my spiritual—and thus tangible—next steps should be. And what he kept saying was, “it all comes back to surrender.”
I understood, at least conceptually, what he meant. As a Christian, faithless and apostate though I was, I understood that all spiritual healing and growth was anchored in the idea that we must surrender to God. And that Christian training was reinforced when I saw in my first meetings the 12 Steps up on the wall, the first of which read, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable,” and the Third Step, which says that “we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Yes, even this new 12 Step thing I was doing understood and taught the necessity of “surrender.”
But there was, I soon came to understand with the help of my sponsor, a problem. A big problem. I didn’t trust God. And you cannot surrender to something that you do not trust. High-wire artists don’t walk across canyons unless they trust that the line will hold. And my life up until that point, even my life as a Christian, had left me with a nagging doubt about whether God was fully trustworthy. Perhaps it came from early experiences: my own parents’ divorce and severe alcoholism in my boyhood home were, I suppose, the beginnings of my suspicion that, ultimately at the core of things, God was not fully trustworthy. Later in life, God had repeatedly failed me in small and large ways, at least it seemed to me. And even my recent crash and burn during my drinking years would not have happened if God had really been looking out for me, or so I told myself.
So, “surrender”? To that God? You must be joking. That God is not trustworthy. And so, in response, what my sponsor—and in fact the entire 12 Step Program—taught me was the remarkably simple idea that it was not God, but rather my idea of God, that was the problem. Remember the Third Step says we surrendered “to the care of God as we understood Him.” And so it was that my sponsor gave me the simple but profound challenge of deepening, indeed radically altering, my understanding of God. And so I agreed to try, and I asked God for help. Sure enough, soon I began to see God in the tangible love of the men around me in the rooms of recovery, I began to experience God’s joy in the laughter they shared, and I began to see all the ways in which the recovering addicts and alcoholics I was hanging around with were reflecting those very qualities of God I had come to doubt: grace, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, unconditional love, humor. And once I allowed my soul some room to expand my understanding of God, it became much easier to surrender.
Of course, the 12 Step Programs do not hold a monopoly on this idea that our understanding of God can lead us badly astray, that we are invited by God himself to change and deepen our understanding of God. Biblical figures from Abraham to Moses to the prophets had always said to whomever would listen: “you’ve got God all wrong; here, listen and watch and learn who God really is.” Jesus himself, most centrally, had as his core incarnational teaching the idea that God’s people had it all wrong about the nature of the Father and what it means to follow him.
More recently, a theologian I know who teaches undergraduates related how often college students seek him out to tell him that they “don’t believe in God.” “I see,” he will respond gently. “Well, tell me about the God that you don’t believe in.” And when the student responds—almost always describing a narrow, judgmental and angry God—my friend responds, “well, I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t want to believe in that God either.”
Decades ago JB Phillips, the great and popular evangelical theologian, authored a powerful little work entitled; Your God is Too Small. His point was the same as that of the biblical heroes and of my friend the theologian, the same message as Jesus and the authors of the 12 Step Programs delivered: if you cannot surrender to God, then it is not God that is the problem; rather, it is your understanding of God that is. So come, follow and join us and see what God is really like. You will like what you see, and you will like being able to trust.
Because, in the end, my sponsor was right: it all comes down to surrender.