Beyond Forgiveness: The Boundless Mercy of God in the 12 Steps

If you are anything like me, I always start off Lent with a plan for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In Catholic circles, it becomes almost a required part of the small talk we make. “So, what are you doing for Lent?” It seems to demand an answer that demonstrates that you take Lent seriously and have given thought to your practices. Every year I come up with a list of things to do and often follow through with them but not always. However, one thing that always happens during Lent is that I begin to experience God in new and unexpected ways. I suppose that is why it is a season of renewal.

One of the things I committed to doing was reading Fr. Greg Boyle’s latest book The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness. I was struck by the spiritual vision put forward in this book. Fr. Greg describes mercy in a way that is all-consuming: “I think we often settle for just forgiveness when we are being offered mercy.” This insight totally blew my mind because the Twelve Steps have offered me something deeper than forgiveness—they have offered me healing and mercy.

Too often we get caught up in our own sin and past. We Catholics can put such an emphasis on sin and the need for forgiveness that we lose sight of how expansive God’s mercy actually is. But Divine Mercy goes beyond sin, forgiveness, and penance. It brings about healing and wholeness.

The mercy I’ve come to know through recovery makes sin and shame seem small. A big, merciful God will do that: put sin and shame in its proper place. As Jim Wahlberg writes in The Big Hustle: A Boston Street Kid’s Story of Addiction and Redemption, “only God can take these negative things and turn them into assets.” That is the true meaning behind the Ninth Step Promises: “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” In Step 12, we realize that our past is the greatest asset. It does not need to be locked away because it’s a witness to the healing power of the mercy of God.

The steps have us first examine the root of our sins (trauma, fear, resentment, insecurity, and character defects) before naming them. When we begin with our own pain and brokenness—the heart of our sin—only then can we experience true mercy and come into full possession of our dignity as beloved children of God. We realize that God was always there, loving us, wanting us to be happy, and not keeping score.

One of the more powerful experiences I’ve had in recovery had to do with healing from a traumatic event I experienced when younger. Although I was a victim and certainly did nothing to warrant the traumatic incident, I tried to smother it in an intoxicated stupor. I was afraid to approach it and, as a result, I had recurring nightmares about it without relief. 

I eventually discovered that my part in allowing this thing to torment me was my unforgiveness. As Alcoholics Anonymous states, “We realized that people who wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick…When a person offended [us], we said to ourselves ‘This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done.’” 

As I came across this insight, looked back over my fourth step, and recalled how I was in need of mercy for my past trauma and sin, I realized that this person was in need of mercy as well. I was able to write the experience down on a piece of paper, pray for the willingness to offer forgiveness, and then forgive the person in perhaps the most merciful act of my life. I then burned the paper and offered it to God. My own mercy and healing were tied up to showing mercy to someone else. As Christ tells us, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). 

The beauty of 12-step meetings is that we are united by our own need for mercy. If we are truly seeking the Kingdom of God, next time we feel angry over the divisions we have with our neighbors then instead of reacting based on resentment we can pause, realize that they might be spiritually sick, and offer up the fourth step resentment prayer: “This is a sick man [or woman]. How can I be helpful to him[her]? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done.” 

Only when we start to see each other as Pope Francis states in Fratelli Tutti as “brothers and sisters all” rather than “us and them” can we truly begin to heal as a community. Only then can we begin to have a share in living the mystical vision of the Ninth Step Promises. Only then can we experience true healing and mercy from our Lord. 

As we approach Divine Mercy Sunday, may our resolution be to embrace the world in this radical kinship. As Pope Francis reminds us, “Those who believe they are upholding the faith by pointing their finger at others may have a certain religiosity, but they have not embraced the spirit of the Gospel. For they disregard mercy, which is the heart of God.” 

The Twelve Steps not only saved my life but were the saving power of Christ’s merciful love for me. They taught me that even people guilty of the most grievous acts are not in need of our condemnation or, even, only forgiveness. Rather, they are in need of the merciful and complete healing of Jesus Christ. And only when we are instruments of that healing and mercy to others can we be certain that we are advancing Christ’s peace in the world. And only then will the Ninth Step Promise come to pass as we live out His will for our lives.

 

Jonathan has been in recovery from drugs and alcohol since 2010. The Catholic faith has always been part of his recovery. He found freedom from his addiction in modeling Christ through service to others through 12-step groups, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries, youth ministry, and really any other outlet he could find. He is a strong believer in the power of Christian fellowship in recovery.