John’s Recovery: Step Three

Step Three

AA Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God as we understood Him.

My Step 3: Made a commitment to seek, seriously consider, and when appropriate, act upon suggestions from others who were committed to living a sober lifestyle.

By John B

Newly emergent honesty and the beginnings of humility were strengthening my commitment to not drink. In both cases the necessary self-appraisal was enhanced by suggestions and helpful self-disclosures from my two sponsors. The real life example of sobriety that they portrayed was the evidence I needed to shove aside doubt and uncertainty concerning the possibility of my own success. Neither of the first two steps required me to add anything new to my value system. I didn’t need to re-invent honesty; I just needed to let it re-emerge. After decades of playing and coaching basketball I had a clear understanding of humility – superior opponents and the game itself frequently taught me that lesson. Honesty and humility were now trending upward and the desire to drink had never been weaker.

Retrospectively, after 35 years of sober living without any divine intervention, I am amazed that the wording of Step 3 didn’t motivate me to turn and run like hell away from AA back there in 1980. Here it was in 1984, and again looking back, a clear answer emerged. The wording of the steps and AA literature in general had little to do with my constant returns to the rooms of AA after each binge. The power that drew me back was the understanding friendship and camaraderie that AA involvement provided. At that point in time the only thing I knew about alcoholism I had learned in a 15 day, 12 step oriented treatment episode in 1980, and from my intermittent AA attendance. The only sober alcoholics I knew got sober in AA. Turn and run? Run to where?

Slaying The Dragon

Let me digress. The reader should keep in mind I am speaking of the year 1984 (forget about George Orwell). It would be false to say treatment for alcoholism was not available in the 1980’s. Just the opposite was true. Franchise like treatment programs boomed throughout the country. You can get a detailed picture of some of these businesses in William White’s book, Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America. My point is that nearly every one of them was joined at the hip with AA. The 15 day program that I attended in N.E. Indiana brought in two AA speakers each week, AA volunteers drove us to local AA meetings in the evenings, there were in-house meetings two nights a week, and the main qualification possessed by the program manager was that he was AA sober. In those days, with rare exception, the road to recovery was routed through AA. In 1984, I and those like me were faced with the challenge of how to make AA work for us (friendship, support, camaraderie) not by conforming to the literal dictates of the steps, but in spite of those dictates. Here at step three was more direct confrontation with the God of AA.

Some progress had been made at this stage of my recovery. I could feel it and others could see it. Nevertheless, an alcoholic of my type still has to deal with egotism, arrogance, selfishness, and the tendency to let self-will dominate. Entrenched propensities this powerful won’t dissipate on their own, and left unaddressed would destroy any chance for sustained sobriety. How was I to acclimate myself to the AA community, find my own comfortable niche, and let the God of AA wander about on his own? The path I took, a path that served me well and led to long term sobriety, was to use the words of Bill Wilson himself to validate my godless approach to 12 step recovery along with seeking information from literature outside the inventory of AA publications.

I am keenly aware that the word God with a capital “G” is ubiquitous throughout AA literature and a majority of the sober alcoholics I know believe the word refers to a supra-human entity that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Obviously AA literature can be used to support this line of thinking. What far too many “elders” in AA fail to realize or in many cases choose to ignore, is that the same body of literature grants significant latitude to skeptics like me to define God “as I understand it”, which is my interpretation of the AA phrase, “as we understood Him.”

One of my two sponsors recommended that I study the chapter, We Agnostics, in the Big Book. I found the chapter to be just plain goofy – the equivalent of what I had heard as a youth coming from the mouth of a traveling tent revivalist. Wilson assures the reader that through diligent searching, “The consciousness of your belief is sure to come to you.”(Big Book, p. 55) Sure enough, it did come to me. No need for God.

Personally, I came to understand and connect with a spiritually grounded higher power based on quality personal relationships. This humanistic power served me effectively then and is now stronger than ever. Regarding Humanism, I would recommend to anyone in recovery to read the Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles, compiled by Paul Kurtz. This constitutes a great outline for becoming fully human.

The recovery landscape in 2019 has definitely changed for the better. Let’s pretend my recovery began in August of 2019, rather than August of 1980 with that 15 day treatment episode. What could evolve differently from August of 2019 onward compared to the options that occurred to me beginning in the summer of 1980? It is a logical assumption that I would continue to develop more sophisticated internet skills and would learn about web sites like AA Agnostica, AA Beyond Belief, and others. These powerful mediums will assure me that I am not alone in my minority viewpoint world. Today (August 8, 2019) AA Agnostica shows an enrollment of 2,030 and I’m sure AA Beyond Belief equals or exceeds that number.

No such thing existed in the 1980s.

The only book of daily meditations I was acquainted with in early recovery was The Twenty-Four Hours a Day book – about the equivalent of reading the Bible. In 1986, Hazelden published Touchstones, a book of meditations for men. It was a slight improvement over the 24 hour book, but still way too godly – the reading for August 4, the day of my last drink tells me “…to be open to the healing powers of God.” Around 1990, AA saw dollar signs and entered the meditation business and published Daily Reflections – more God.

Those of us entering recovery in 2019 were given the opportunity to escape stuff like this. My copy of Joe C’s Beyond Belief musings was getting a bit tattered and marked up. When I told my sponsor I was less than enthralled with the wording of Step 3, he told me not to worry about it and referred me to The Little Book, by some guy named Roger C, where all the steps were re-worded by some sophisticated, yet practical thinkers. Amazing! Hell, maybe I’ll do my own rewrite.

Better yet, one of those web sites mentioned a new book by some counselor entitled, Staying Sober Without God, a book loaded with suggestions about how to change thinking and behaviors in order to combat addiction. Apparently, he is a counselor who does more than take the money and then tells the client to go to AA. I was learning more and more about sober living from non-AA sources, and the more I learned the more I looked upon Mr. Wilson’s Big Book as a collection of anachronisms.

Yes, the landscape has changed and I’ll take advantage of the new views. BUT – I have the feeling it would not be healthy for me to disengage from AA. I need the camaraderie.


We are now posting John’s Steps every two weeks, on a Wednesday. Here are his previous Steps:

John’s Recovery


John is an eighty-three year old sober alcoholic with 35 years of continuous sobriety. Married to Helen for 53 years; three kids in their 50’s. Spent 17 years teaching and coaching at the high school level in Indiana and Illinois. Owned and operated a bar and restaurant for 13 years which led to the acceleration of his alcoholism, which led to treatment, and eventually led to a career as an addiction counselor. Retired in 2001 from the Marion, In. V.A. Served as office manager for a major AA intergroup office in N.E. In. for six and a half years. Was an excellent high school and small college basketball player. Still goes to the gym three days a week and shoots 200 three point shots and does some light weight lifting. Passionate about family, recovery, basketball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Reads 20 to 25 books a year, and three or four quality periodicals on a regular basis; mostly about politics, economics, science, history: about anything going on in the world that strikes his curiosity.


“There are many versions of the 12-Step program of recovery. In fact, there are about as many versions as there are alcoholics in AA who use the program to get sober and to maintain their sobriety.”

The Little Book


12 Responses

  1. Ray Baker says:

    John B. please don’t stop writing!

  2. Mike B. says:

    John, I’m enjoying your reflections on the steps, thank you for sharing them.

    I have disengaged from meetings, for about a year now, I use this site as my weekly meeting. After six years in the rooms and one out, I have no thought of or desire to take a drink and I do not miss meetings one tiny bit. I feel the way about AA I did about leaving school or moving on from an old job, the time was right for me to leave. I learned how to live a good life, I spent twice as long giving back after I lost my desire for alcohol than it took me to get there, so I can live with myself there.

    Having reached a point where I no longer identified as alcoholic I found myself needing to face the apparently insoluble dichotomy of living a life of scrupulous honesty or faking it to make it when it came to the God stuff. I don’t regret choosing the first.

    I was terrified of stepping into the relapse void so often described in meetings and the Big Book and sought reassurance online from those who have done so with no ill effects. There is very little, and what there is is drowned out by the noise of those who have been damaged by other AA members or who are angry with AA for not being something other than it is. I feel the world of recovery should hear this viewpoint as well, from those who have recovered but find themselves unable to sustain the meeting habit. I haven’t walked away entirely, still keep in touch with some I expect to be lifelong friends, and AA certainly did give me the life beyond my wildest dreams to the point where with so much living going on something had to give just to free up the time.

    As an atheist, I always side stepped three by telling making a decision that I would do these things when I found the evidence I needed to change my mind, it’s only the decision the step asks for, not an admission of belief despite the misreading of the wording almost universal in the rooms. Like you I nearly ran screaming from my first meeting but was too broken and had nowhere to go.

    I’ve recently been rereading the Big Book with eyes no longer clouded by meetings. I thought most of it was garbage when I did go to meetings, those aspects haven’t changed. There are, however, some sections where he steps away from the salesman for the Lord schtick which I find truly profound and very moving still.

    I’m not a great one for rewriting the steps, more of an iconoclast who would look for a new way to express the route to sobriety by taking from AA what really works, as opposed to what Bill after about two years of sobriety predicted would work, and expressing it in about three or four aphorisms. I believe it could be done although I wouldn’t fancy trying to sell it to the trusted servants. This is purely a personal view, I’m not sure that scrolls on the wall hung there to invoke the ten commandments, even reworded ones are what is needed.

    Thanks again, John, I’m finding your series thought provoking and look forward to the next installment.

    • John B. says:

      Mike – I’m glad you find the post thought provoking, your comments did the same for me. As far as meeting attendance is concerned, I go about once a week now, and don’t attend in order to stay sober, that need disappeared long ago. It’s more like a social event for me. AA Agnostica does for me what it appears to be doing for you, it’s nice to be able to tap into such a wide variety of thoughts. Thanks for contributing. John B.

  3. Mike says:

    I don’t believe in Step 3. Period. If some people in recovery think I have a lesser form of sobriety because of it, so be it.

  4. Mike O says:

    I’m not giving my life over to a God I don’t believe exists. The whole notion doesn’t make sense. If mainstream AA people want to believe that I somehow have a lesser sobriety because I simply don’t believe AA to be a “spiritual” program that’s their own business.

  5. John B. says:

    Bob – like you I had to modify the product. Mine ended up being one one of secular humanism, I have found strength in quality personal relationships. I don’t know if that differs much with your materialist viewpoint. I would guess not. Your book on the history of AA has been of great value to me and I just took it off the shelf to look up the humorous comment about Jung, Dr. Bob’s rush to get married and AA’s 36 year rush to publish Daily Reflections. Goosfraba: the word eskimos use to calm their children, and a word they use when having sex. We don’t have any kids left here at home and I’ll have to seek some consultation on the other application of the word.

  6. Mike O says:

    While I think he’s definitely a bit TOO negative about AA, the famous (alcoholic) comedian Doug Stanhope once said that AA just wants you to believe in “a little bit of God”. The mental and rhetorical gymnastics of “spiritual, not religious” are imbued throughout the AA text. It’s all about wrangling the recovering person into “developing a spiritual relationship”. People in meetings who say they believe God is “Good Orderly Direction” or “Group of Drunks” are usually gently but condescendingly told to “keep coming back” and that their “relationship/understanding” of their Higher Power will likely “evolve and grow” as they “work the Steps”. I don’t want, and didn’t ask for, a “Higher Power”, HOWEVER I choose to define it. It DOESN’T mean I believe that “I’m the center of the universe” or that my “ego” runs everything. It’s simply about recognizing and understanding reality. If I choose ON MY OWN to pursue meditation, spiritual or even religious practice and THEN incorporate it into my recovery, that’s one thing. However, making my recovery CONTINGENT upon my “spiritual condition” is false, misleading and manipulative. I came here to get and remain sober and find a community of others trying to do the same thing. The gradual but insidious bait and switch of AA is not something I signed up for.

  7. Harry C. says:

    Thanks John. What I get from your post, and like many others shares on social media and at meetings, is the ‘fellowship’ that A.A. provides me with. I’m not interested in ‘steps’ or ‘higher powers’ or in engaging with mental gymnastics to accommodate a ‘spiritual’ framework within. Equally, others willing to ‘share’ their understanding undoubtedly allows others to compare and possibly change their viewpoint in some way. Whatever works right enough and thanks again for sharing what works for you. Another past drunk, another trudger, another atheist, another decades sober; I identify John. 🤝

    • John B. says:

      Harry – Thanks for taking the time to respond. I like your thinking concerning changing viewpoints. One of the hardest lessons for me to learn was that no matter how intensely I believe something, it doesn’t automatically mean the other guy is totally wrong. Open-mindedness does not come easy for me – but I read something amusing the other day. I don’t have to be so openminded that my brain falls out on the table. John B.

  8. Joel D says:

    Thanks John. I’ve proven for myself that disengagement from AA is a dangerous thing. My struggle now that I have helped start a couple of secular meetings in my area is to not forget (or to let others forget) where that freedom came from. The Traditions of AA. I try to focus more on the idea of disambiguation of the original intent and stated purpose of AA “to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety” as well as the fact that all of AA is a suggested program of recovery. This, rather than the disengagement from AA or engaging in Big Book bashing or character assassination of Bill W., keeps me ready to explain my chosen path to any who may ask in a way that doesn’t challenge their beliefs. I don’t shy away from my atheism and welcome all rational discussion on the subject. Maybe I am wrong but I see no benefit to gilding the lilly that is AA through the use of flowery alternative ramblings of other would-be prophets. If it works, don’t fix it. Just be true to yourself and well informed enough to stand up for your principles.

    Joel D.

    • John B. says:

      Joel – thanks for taking the time to participate. I agree that there is no place for Big Book bashing or for character assassination of Wilson. I do think there is room for appropriate resistance to the deification of the man or the book. Two examples: some of the suggestions made in the chapter Into Action concerning the amends process are just plain goofy, but that does not lead to me reject every suggestion in the steps. Secondly, Wilson did not lead a personal life that many folks view as worthy of emulation, but that does not discount the huge value AA has been to society at large and to me personally. Thanks!

  9. Bob K says:

    There has never been a better time for the secularist in AA. Nonetheless, if I take to flight at the first thing that offends me, I am back to battling alcohol on my own, or seeking out other options that have limited, or no presence in a great many areas.

    As an atheist in AA, I was 20 years sober before I encountered my first “agnostic” meeting. Before that, I adapted what AA offered to a materialist viewpoint, and then adopted the modified product. The less time I spent in trying to convince my newfound friends that I was right and they were wrong, the better off I was. As with Nike, I just did it, albeit not right away.

    My recent idea is that Step 3 stuff is, in a way, easier for the non-believer. God’s will is theoretical, and as such, really easy to understand. Drinking used to block the voice of conscience, and now I hear it, loud and clear in a great many cases. Conscience is socially generated, and modified over time by new information – nothing supernatural about it. The result is much the same. I’m not in need of a search for brand new ethics, but I need be more in touch with the ones that have been there all along.

    Goosfraba.

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