Step 1

The Spirituality of Powerlessness


I believe that Jesus and the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are saying the same thing but with different vocabulary:

We suffer to get well.

We surrender to win.

We die to live.

We give it away to keep it.

This counterintuitive wisdom will forever be resisted, denied, and avoided until it is forced upon us—by some reality over which we are powerless—and if we are honest, we are all powerless in the presence of full Reality.

This brings us to Step One of the Twelve Steps:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. [1]

Or as Paul expressed it:

I cannot understand my own behavior. I fail to carry out the very things I want to do and find myself doing the very things I hate . . . for although the will to do what is good is in me, the performance is not. (Romans 7:15, 18)

My good friend Father Thomas Keating (1923–2018) taught that this is the human condition. He wrote:

This first step highlights the fact that all human beings are deeply wounded. From earliest childhood, we start out on the path to self-consciousness without any idea of what happiness actually is, apart from the gratification of our instinctual needs for (1) survival and security, (2) affection and esteem and approval, and (3) power and control. . . . But human nature being what it is, and the world being a hazardous place, we can’t count on the fulfillment of our instinctual needs, and some children are terribly deprived in one or all of these three areas. Everyone, of course, is deprived in some degree because no parents are perfect, and even if they are, they can’t control the environment, teachers, and important others that enter the child’s life. . . .

To be powerless means to be absolutely helpless. . . . This, oddly enough, is the best disposition for the beginning of a spiritual journey. Why is that? Because the deeper one’s awareness of one’s powerlessness and the more desperate, the more willing one is to reach out for help. This help is offered in the next two steps. You turn yourself over to a Higher Power who you believe can heal you and work with you in the long journey of dismantling the emotional programs for happiness. . . .

The real spiritual journey depends on our acknowledging the unmanageability of our lives. The love of God or the Higher Power is what heals us. Nobody becomes a full human being without love. It brings to life people who are most damaged. The steps are really an engagement in an ever-deepening relationship with God. [2]

[1] “J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 55.

[2] Thomas Keating with Tom S., Divine Therapy and Addiction: Centering Prayer and the Twelve Steps (Lantern Books: 2009), 5-6, 9-10, 11-12.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Franciscan Media: 2011), xxiv.


isaiah 38:12-14

Romans 7:15,18

Matthew 9:36