Staying Sober Without God – Practical Step Three

Staying Sober Without God

AA Version: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

Practical Version: Committed to a lifestyle of recovery, focusing only on what we could control.

The original version of this step is easily the most challenging for nonbelievers. We are expected to make a decision to turn our will (wants, desires, etc.) and life (behaviors) over to the care of a being that can’t been seen, heard, or touched. It is a sticking point for many atheists and agnostics, and for good reason. Step two is doable for atheists and agnostics because they can just interpret a “power greater than ourselves” to mean lots of things that don’t necessarily involve God. The third step, on the other hand, uses the word “God” explicitly, leaving little room for alternate interpretations. The practical version of this step keeps your life in your hands. Instead of turning anything over, you are empowering yourself to commit to a lifestyle of consistent self-improvement. Again, this doesn’t mean you’re doing this all without support from others, it just means you are the one driving the process and the rewards will primarily be a result of your efforts.

In this step, two major things are happening. First, you are not just deciding, but committing. A commitment is a big deal. It’s more than nonchalantly telling yourself that you’re going to give this recovery thing a go, it is making a pact with yourself and your support network to make this a non-negotiable priority in your life. This requires some thought and should not be glossed over. You are committing to fundamentally changing the way you live one gradual but meaningful step at a time. In order to do this, you need to feel done with your unhealthy patterns. You need to be able to picture your life without your toxic friends and toxic drama. If there is any significant part of you that is still holding on to your old way of living, you may need to approach this step with some diligence and remind yourself of why you wanted to recover in the first place. As with all things, this will ebb and flow. I don’t expect you to never have a single thought of returning to your old ways, but it’s important to make as strong a commitment as you are capable of.

The second significant action in this step is to shift our focus to the things we can control. I’ve worked with people in recovery for over a decade. Throughout my work, I have learned that the single most important shift that happens in a recovering person’s mentality is the shift from blaming to taking responsibility. It is all too common to see desperate addicts come into 12-step meetings still focusing on the external situations that “made them” use drugs, whether it be their romantic partners, their bosses, their geographical location, or any other person or situation besides themselves. We are in recovery for one thing and one thing only: to change the way we behave and relate to the rest of the world. It’s icing on the cake if things outside of our control fall into place, but expecting anything outside of our control to go a specific way is a recipe for frustration and resentment. Blaming others is characteristic of a victim mentality, which is disempowering. We’re going for the opposite.

I am not denying the fact that many of us have been victims of the actions of others. There is a significant distinction between taking personal responsibility and taking blame. We are doing the former. Perhaps you were abused as a child (or adult). I would never suggest that a victim of abuse take the blame for what happened to them, but I would strongly suggest that he or she take responsibility for their life moving forward. Yes, you were wronged. Yes, it was horrible, but what now? Do we continue to waste our precious time and mental energy focusing on what should have happened, or do we process what happened, move through it, and heal? The more we focus on the things we can’t control, the more we experience suffering. It’s like wishing for the weather to change. The weather doesn’t care what we want. It will do whatever the laws of physics dictate. We either choose to accept it or make ourselves miserable by dwelling over it. After we’ve shifted our focus to our own lives and the things we can control, we will be in a better position to identify our shortcomings and start taking actions to change them.

Working Step Three

For this step, I think it’s best to have a sponsor, therapist, mentor, or trustworthy friend to go through it with. Making a commitment is more meaningful if you make it in the presence of other people. Accountability is a powerful tool in recovery. If somebody knows you’re making this commitment, they can hold you to it and keep you honest. If you make the commitment alone in your bedroom with no witnesses, it will be easier to break.

Write a mission statement, an oath, or a contract in which you make a pledge to persistently lean toward a lifestyle of recovery. In this pledge, state your reasons for making this change, state when you will begin it, and state what your first actions will be. I’d suggest that your first action be to work through the rest of these steps, since that will create a foundation for you to then branch out and explore new avenues of self-improvement. Areas of self-improvement that aren’t covered in the steps will be discussed after this chapter.

Find your partner for this step and read them the written commitment. After you’ve made the commitment, go someplace quiet and reflect for 15-20 minutes (or as long as you need to) on what just happened. Remember, this isn’t like promising to do the laundry more often. You just committed to a new life. Soak it in and take some pride in it. After you take your time to reflect, go do something positive for yourself, even if it’s just something mindless and fun.

For an excellent review of the book, click here: Staying Sober Without God.

Staying Sober Without God

Available on Amazon.

Jeffrey Munn was born in Southern California where he still resides with his wife and daughter. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has been working in the field of mental health since 2010.

Jeffrey works as a therapist in private practice and specializes in addiction, OCD, and anxiety disorders. In addition to his master’s degree in clinical psychology, Jeffrey earned a degree specialty in co-occurring disorders.

Click here to access the book on Amazon: Staying Sober Without God.

To visit Jeffrey’s website, click here: Practically Sane.

14 Responses

  1. Marty N. says:

    The steps are suggested. Let’s not get addicted to the cure!

  2. Dave J says:

    A couple of things. Child abuse was used as an example to explain the difference between blaming others and taking responsibility. A cursory review of the field reveals the simple fact that many survivors of abuse are unable, on their own, to overcome the depredations of complex PTSD. How to escape a global view? For many, outside professional help will be needed. The following illustrates your incapacity of understanding this simple truth. You write:

    “I would strongly suggest that he or she take responsibility for their life moving forward. Yes, you were wronged. Yes, it was horrible, but what now? Do we continue to waste our precious time and mental energy focusing on what should have happened, or do we process what happened, move through it, and heal?”

    What happens when you DON’T know just how damaged you became? What happens when you think the morass of depression and anxiety and flare-ups of rage are merely “defects of character,” somehow amenable to a simple desire to “move on?” The point here is NOT that we should remain fixated on the past; rather, what will it take for us to work through and begin to let go of some of the most injurious events of our past. Again, for many of us, this will require professional help.

    The second point concerns the near omnipresent urge by some people to ignore the simple use of language and try to “helpfully translate” words that actually have a specific meaning into some sort of twisted neo-definition.

    As has been mentioned, God is a word that has a definition. We can redefine the concept of god to a doorknob, but it doesn’t change the fact that the word GOD has a specific meaning. All the “evolution” in the world doesn’t change the simple fact that this is the wording of the 3rd step: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” To take it a step further, the writing on these steps all use words that convey a PERSONAL relationship. It’s quite clearly a theistic model.

    This insistence by some in AA to try to dismiss words like god and prayer and personal relationships with a supernatural being that will magically remove defects of character, miraculously take the craving for demon rum away from us, and it’s insistence on using Christian prayers make it quite clear that AA is religious in nature.

    Three federal circuit courts and two state supreme courts have affirmed that AA is religious in nature. It warned states NOT to mandate attendance at AA meetings as it violates separation of church and state. It’s why Barry Hazle was able to sue the state of California and treatment center WestCare California for $1.95 million dollars. They had forced him to attend meetings with an organization that is “religious in nature,” Alcoholics Anonymous.

    • Dee says:

      Hello 🙂 Before this chapter in this book, Munn does in fact state that many of us will need to work with professional mental health practitioners in order to get the most from 12 step meetings. Since I suffer from personality disorders I know that he is right about that. Furthermore, Munn suggests that we run from those in the fellowship who disparage psychotherapy and those who seek it besides the program.

      Give Munn’s practical and scientific view a shot – this is a great book for anyone grappling with recovery in 12 step programs. Very interesting about federal & state courts judging that AA is, in fact, a religious org. I just hope Barry Hazle used his 1.95 million towards learning to live sober happily, because that kind of money can only hurt an active addict who abandons his/her recovery process! Peace 🙂

    • Glenn R. says:


  3. Dee says:

    My name is Dee, I’m a returning 12 stepper, after 6 years of being out & active. Today is 8 days sober from alcohol.

    Since I started self-medication with alcohol when I was a prepubescent child, I started self-medication before I had developed any faith in any good or in myself or in life itself. Today, I’m a mentally ill 44 year old who is being supported by a loving family. I’m lucky: I would be homeless without them. I dream of my independence and providing for myself and others one day. One small, honest step at a time.

    I’d like to express here: as a free-thinking feminist,the disempowerment of traditional, theist AA language was always very difficult for me to digest. I studied philosophy & comparative literature as an undergrad. I earned my master’s degree in library science. I wholeheartedly agree with Jeffrey Munn: it wasn’t my “best thinking” that got me back into the rooms – it was my very worst thinking that got me here. Thinking I can control or moderate my usage of alcohol. Thinking I didn’t have such a serious problem and thinking I didn’t need others’ help. My recent drunks have led me to the realization that I am causing myself great harm by continuing to self-medicate or to “chase oblivion” using alcohol.

    After many attempts, I finally found a psychologist I feel unconditional acceptance and care from. I trust him and he said I must stop drinking and go back to meetings. And, my brother respects my atheism but also knows that I will need more help than he can give me. So he searched the net and found AA Agnostica’s website for me and ordered me the Little Book. I didn’t even know alternative interpretations of the 12steps even existed! Like I say, I’m lucky to have supportive family.

    Jeffrey Munn: Thank you for writing Staying Sober Without God! Thank you, so much. You are giving me the strength I need to continue to show up and be accountable at traditional AA meetings. Your writing is a great resource for me in my recovery. I strongly agree with you: the 12 steps were written in 1939, but today we understand so much more about “addiction” than we did then. I’m a humanist, too, so I do feel the power that is much greater than me in Fellowship with other people who have had similar experiences and difficulties living sober. When they say the Lord’s prayer, I do not vocalize but I hold their hands strong:) when they say the serenity prayer, I replace “God grant me..” with “I wish for..”

    I found the courage to ask a woman with over 20 yrs clean time who recently relapsed to be my temporary sponsor. She agreed. I can call her everyday. The only reason I asked her is because she showed genuine concern for me and she isn’t dogmatic about the theism in the program. I met her after a women’s meeting that ended in the Lord’s prayer. After she approached me, I felt I could tell her what I cannot say to the group: what’s with the Lord’s prayer? That clearly contradicts AA tradition 3, where we say we don’t endorse any particular religion? Where it says that we’re not a religious group, but a spiritual one? I also told her, I’m coming in order to be held accountable to the group anyway. In her eyes, I saw a brightness when I said these things to her. She told me: Forget the Lord’s prayer! She told me to call her later today. I did and I shall again today after this post. I have a lot of work to do to get to living a healthy lifestyle, but using alcohol had become an immediate threat to my health, my life & liberty. Jeffrey Munn: you are teaching us that learning to live a healthy lifestyle is on par with enjoying our lives & liberty. We can do it, but not alone. I’m so glad that this time, I now know there are more resources available for me to draw upon in my recovery process! 🙂

    • Roger says:

      I wish you the very best, Dee and thank you for sharing.

      • Dee says:

        Thanks for being Here, Roger C! For this website and forum. The Little Book you wrote is having a big, positive impact on my recovery. I live in a small, conservative town where religiosity is very popular. So, sadly, I will have to be careful with whom and where I might share it with. With time, I hope to start a non-prayer-based group here, since I’m sure there are other closeted non-believers in these rooms who are suffering as much as I did before I found AA Agnostica. Many, many Thanks!:)

  4. Bob F. says:

    Suggested secular re-write of Step 3: “Made a commitment to turn our will
    and our lives over to working the Program one day at a time”.

  5. Jeff P. says:

    Quit thinking about how it works; think about why it works. Therein lies the answer.

  6. Whit R says:

    Is AA Agnostica trying to function inside of AA or outside? I want to function inside. I am agnostic and there is a place for me in the rooms even if sometimes I have to carve it out a bit. You state: “The third step, on the other hand, uses the word “God” explicitly, leaving little room for alternate interpretations.” You entirely miss the point of “God as we understood him” in the 3rd Step and 11th Step, inserted by an atheist when the steps were being written for the Big Book. It is there for us. I don’t pray to God and I do not use the word God in my prayers or beliefs. But I do work the steps with a sponsor and others in AA, I read the Big Book and the 12&12. Otherwise in my opinion the program is gutted and ineffective. Atheists and agnostics do not need to get hung up on Step 3, read the literature, understand the evolution of our program. We must bring this knowledge to meetings so that others may learn from us.

    • Bob K says:

      The third step DOES use the word “God” explicitly. As someone raised in the North America of the 1950s and 1960s, my understanding of “God” is much as “He” is described in the AA literature. I reject that. I hold a different view of reality. In my working of AA’s 12 steps, I substituted for “God.” At no time did I, nor do I, think that my substitutions fit within the broadest definition of God.

    • Jeffrey Munn says:

      Point taken, Whit. However, this book is for people who don’t know how to or don’t have the willingness to “carve out” the program in a way that works for them. I find it much more simple to use practical wording to describe the step than to use religious language and expect others to be able to translate it.

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