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July 1988

A Sometimes Painful Concoction

Mixing belief and unbelief in a search for a faith that works

It was during my Fifth Step that, for the first time, I admitted to myself and to another human being that I hated God, that I had cursed him and that, deep within me, I did not trust him. So much of the pain in my life seemed to have come from him or from his representatives, those who taught in his name.

The God who had been taught to me, the God of my childhood, was moralistic and moralizing. The giver of law, he was at once all-knowing and all-powerful judge, jury, and executioner. Vengeful and often angry, he was also just: and this meant to me that I would always be punished for any wrong I did, just as I would be rewarded for what I did that was right. The only problem was that nothing I did ever seemed to be as right as it should have been--it was always imperfect, always needed to be done better. I did wrong, too, and many people reminded me of that. After a while I didn't have to be reminded anymore since I had internalized what I had learned and had become my own worst critic, cross-examining my motives, judging myself, and chastising myself with guilt.

God was merciful, too, but I had trouble in understanding what that meant, especially since God's justice seemed so important. One of my teachers told me that God being merciful meant that, while I would be punished for my sins, I could hope that God would not punish me as badly as I deserved. I was assured that I deserved hell for any of my sins, and so I figured out that any punishment less than damnation was to be counted as mercy.

Was God loving? I honestly can't remember ever having thought of him in that way. But if I had, that wasn't the central way I thought of him, and so the idea did not soften the harsh picture of God that I carried with me beyond childhood.

I was well educated and rose in my profession. I was married and had four children. I enjoyed my life. But I was not particularly grateful to God since I had the attitude that the good things which filled my life were just plain luck, or the results of my own efforts, or both. I did not perceive God's presence in them. At the time, my dealings with God were routine and ritual rather than personal. I was not a man of prayer. My family and I went to church and said grace before meals, largely because I wanted to set a good example for the children. I felt they should be exposed to religion, to receive some of its benefits even as I tried to keep some of its worst drawbacks, such as guilt and fear, away from them.

Life was running smoothly and successfully when, one day, one of my children was killed in a senseless traffic accident. I had no real faith to lead me through the grief that I felt and, in fact, soon began to think of my son's death as punishment from an angry God for all the sins I had committed throughout my life. Was not this tragedy verification of what I had been taught about a just and vengeful God? The night of my son's death I cursed God, declared war on him, begged him to stay away from me and mine, and scorned whatever "mercy" it was that would kill, or even let die, an innocent child.

It was soon after that I found the "higher power" I wanted to help me through my pain. I consumed alcohol, and drugs, in alarming amounts and combinations over the next five years. I still prayed in this period and went to church "for the children." But that phrase took on a grimmer meaning than it had in the days when my life ran smoothly and successfully. Deeply paranoid, I began to believe that God would punish me by taking the lives of my other children and my wife. So I prayed: but now prayer was really plea-bargaining. "Take me, but leave my family alone," I begged. Fear, self-pity, and resentment had become my traveling companions; out of touch with any spiritual power, out of touch with those around me, out of touch with myself, I was a dying man.

Depressed and suicidal I called the local unit of the state's alcoholism agency and asked to see a counselor. I did not want to stop drinking. What I wanted was to learn how to moderate my drinking (even I, by this time, recognized that it was quite excessive) and how to bring it, and me, back to the time when alcohol had been fun and when I had experienced joy in living.

"Can you go just one day next week without a drink?" my counselor at the unit asked. I promised I would try. The morning of that attempt I was very frightened. If I couldn't do it I knew deep within me that I would probably surrender to suicidal despair. But I now had to try since all my alternatives in life were reduced to two: stop drinking or die.

I prayed that morning, really prayed, perhaps for the first time in my life. But I did not pray to "God." I could not call on "God" since he was on my enemies list, even as I thought I was on his. So I prayed to a Power I hoped, but didn't know, existed: "If there is anything out there who cares for me and whether I live or die, I need help." That was the best I could do, but it was enough. I made it that day without a drink. "Well done," my counselor said when I reported back to him. "Can you go three days in a row without a drink?" "I can't possibly do that," I replied. "Try it," he urged. And again, I knew I had to try it, and to do it or to die over my failure. So I prayed again, my agnostic's prayer, to Whatever it was Out There.

"Hello again," I prayed. "I really need help now. I can't possibly do it for three whole days." To my surprise, I did it for three whole days. And for a fourth day, and a fifth and a sixth. The days tumbled into weeks, months, years. That prayer for help, rooted as it is in my own sense of powerlessness over alcohol, has started my every day since that morning in May 1978.

But who is that Power, that "Out There," who gives me my alcohol-free days of reprieve? As I worked the Second and Third Steps, it proved difficult for me to reconcile my lived experience of a Power that cares enough to keep me sober every day with the God of my childhood. It took me years to sort out the confused ideas, the tangled attitudes, the feelings that pointed in so many bewildering directions. It has taken years to move from that agnostic prayer, that glimmering of possible faith, to a stronger faith which is nevertheless still fragile, mixing belief and unbelief in a sometimes painful concoction which, somehow, proves to be sufficient for a spiritual life.

The movement to faith had many different phases. One of its earliest occurred at a meeting during a discussion of the Second Step. I shared my feelings, confusions, and problems with the whole idea of God. One of the members said to me: Your way of thinking of God, as cold and punishing, is wrong. You have been badly taught. Why not try to think of God as being as good to you as your best friend is? I took his suggestion seriously. Friendship has an important place in my recovery since I have been blessed with friends whose love, understanding, and acceptance have healed and sustained me. Perhaps my teachers had been wrong all the time! I could put the childhood God to one side and start to think of God as simply a very good friend. What did I have to lose? Only fear. Only pain.

So I began to pray again. But now, no more "thee" and "thine." I don't use those words when I talk to friends! Now it was "you" and "yours." No more prayers that began "Great and Mighty God" but instead, "How are you doing this morning? It's a good day and I am doing well." No more "Have pity on me though I deserve damnation" but now "I didn't do as well yesterday as I had hoped. I need your strength to be the kind of person I want to be." And, as time went on, I had all kinds of other conversations with Out There (God?)--thanking him for a beautiful day, or my super wife; or discussing some concern with him; and sometimes telling him how angry I was with him. Slowly, I began to get comfortable with the Power Out There. Prayer was bringing me to faith, not faith to prayer.

And then another phase. In a book I was reading there was reference to something written by a monk. The monk had said, in part: "I shall never believe in the God. . .who catches man by surprise in a sin of weakness. . .who can give a verdict only with a rule-book in his hands. . .who sends people to hell. . .who says 'You will pay for that!'. . .who does not go out to meet the person who has abandoned him. . ."

This described the God of my childhood. But if the monk was right, this God was not worthy of belief, was not worthy of trust, was not the God to whom I should give my will and life. I had been badly taught--so badly, indeed, that the God from whom I had run in terror all my life, the God whom I had cursed the night my son was killed, was not the real God at all. But then: how could I discover what the real God is like?

Another book came into my life. Its author, C. S. Lewis, described his own spiritual anguish after the death of his wife. He referred to a line from the New Testament--a familiar line that I had heard often before. But for some reason, as I read the familiar words this time, they had a fresh meaning, now touching me. The line was simply this: "God is love, and anyone who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him." With growing wonder I started to understand in a new way the Power Out There, the God in whom I could believe.

God is love. From the first AA meeting I attended, I recognized that the strength of love's power was real and present in the room. People, some of them strangers to one another, genuinely cared for one another, loving each other without expecting anything in return. Later I was to hear "We will love you till you learn to love yourself," a saying that summarizes what we alcoholics do for one another. We share experience, strength, and hope. Our experience gives wisdom, our strength gives courage, and our hope gives perseverance. But in them all is the power of love itself which heals the wounds of the spirit.

God is love. At our best, love moves through us, reaching out its healing presence to others. This was for me the Power greater than myself which restored me to sanity. I could think of no simpler description of that Power than the word "Love." I had craved it all my life, and in yearning for it I was not alone. The young and the old, the child and the adult, men and women, rich and poor, black and white, Eastern and Western: however we choose to divide humanity, we are all one in knowing the power of love and our need for it.

God is love. We alcoholics are special people for, with a special clarity, we know our need for love. Love is not a luxury. It is a basic need without which we die--in the spirit--and for many of us, spiritual death is followed by physical death. I knew that my recovery had been effected because love had healed and was healing me. In my own life, it had been the simple, powerful reality of love which sustained me even when I did not know it.

God is love. Each of us is free to think of the Power greater than ourselves as we wish. For some it is Father, or Mother, or Friend. For others it is Higher Power, or Great Spirit, or Divine Mind, or God. For still others it is Power Out There, or Power In Here, or even "Hey, You!" For others it is the Fellowship. Whatever the name, whatever the understanding, it is love itself that is evoked. Love loved us until we learned to love ourselves. Love loves us even after we have learned to love ourselves. Love never stops loving. And we who are blessed with recovery, and who are blessed by this magnificent program of love which we call Alcoholics Anonymous--we live in love, and so live in God and God in us.

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