Recovering a True Understanding of God through the Steps

I remember my first run through a recovery program. I did not start with SA (Sexaholics Anonymous) but with a program called Celebrate Recovery (CR), which is a Bible-based 12-step program. Most attendees were non-denominational Christians, those seeking recovery from alcoholism, narcotics, sexual addictions, codependency, and more. The idea behind CR is that no matter the addiction, Jesus Christ is the answer.

It was nice to be around other Christ-minded people. However, there was one thing that set me apart from most people at CR: I’m Catholic. It seemed that the moment people found out I was Catholic there was a shift in the dynamic of our conversation. Sadly, there were many people there who were once Catholic but had left the Church.

Some would even say things to me like, “You must be here to recover from Catholicism.” To this day I still don’t understand the constant need to speak so harshly against the Church. There were those who had been hurt by members of the clergy and so it was understandable why they left. But for the most part, when I asked why someone left the Church the most common answer was this: “You don’t need all of those rituals and rites since they just get in the way of a real relationship with Jesus.”

When I heard remarks like this I would become annoyed. I would then conclude that they were just ignorant and didn’t understand what it actually meant to have a “real” relationship with Christ. I mean, after all, it doesn’t get more real than the Eucharist.

I stuck around CR for about a year until my sponsor there made some hurtful remarks about how my depression was a result of my selfishness (I struggle with Bipolar II disorder and ADHD). A week after that, he dropped me as his sponsee and I shortly left CR altogether.

A few weeks after leaving CR I started attending SA meetings. I was familiar with the step program offered in SA and it was similar to CR. However, there was no talk about God—just that of a “higher power.” As a Catholic, the idea of a higher power other than the God revealed to us by Christ seemed ridiculous.

As we read in Step Three, we are to “make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” At the time, I thought I knew who God was. Little did I know that I would soon come to realize just how distorted my understanding of God was at the time.

We often hear talk about father and mother wounds, which can have a profound effect on how we approach and understand God. My mother was and is very emotionally distant. Even today, when I tell her I’m stressed at work, her response will be something like, “Well, life is stressful.” My biological father was both physically and emotionally absent and my step-father was emotionally abusive and critical of everything I did. So, when it came to my understanding of God, whether conscious or not, I projected my parents’ characteristics onto Him. 

This is why seeing God as a “Father” was extremely difficult for me when I considered the adjectives most commonly used to describe God: loving, caring, and compassionate didn’t resonate with me. Instead, words like critical, perfectionistic, and distant did. Further, having this unhealthy perception of who God is radically affected my behavior and tendency to act out. Shame was the main reason I acted out and is what often causes others to turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, or any other self-destructive habit. Since I felt I couldn’t live up to God’s expectations, the thought that I was not good enough was constantly at the forefront of my mind.

When I began working on my second step, there were several columns I was asked to fill out on a piece of paper. The first column was the authority figure (the who), the second was what they did or how they treated me (the what), the third was how this had affected my view of God, and the final column was “The truth I choose to believe today.” There was something about the wording in the last column that struck me as if whatever was written down in the previous columns no longer held any weight.

As I was working on this, I recalled Jesus’ words: “Who do you say that I am?” Staring at the sheet of paper, I realized that what I had believed about God was not my understanding but rather one imposed on me through my traumatic experiences with parental figures who ought to have treated me with dignity and respect but failed to do so. After giving it some thought, I wrote down my new understanding of God. 

I choose to believe God:

  • Does not criticize me but loves me even when I fall short
  • Loves me, imperfections and all
  • Never leaves my side
  • Is always willing to meet me where I am
  • Does not value me because of my accomplishments but because I exist as an unrepeatable instance of His love

After I finished this, I realized that the “God of my own understanding” was the same God who became a man and walked this earth. He is the same God described in Sacred Scripture and professed by the Church. 

I also realized that those people who I used to stick my nose up at because of their vague language about God actually had an understanding of God more in line with my own new understanding than I was willing to admit. After my revelation, I felt humility, gratitude, and some guilt for being judgmental toward others. For the first time, the gap between my head and my heart was beginning to shrink. 

But after this revelation, my next thought was, “Now what?”

Thankfully, the Twelve Steps gives us an answer: “surrender your life and will to the God of your own understanding.” I had always struggled with this step since I wanted to live life my way (and as a human being, I still do!). However, after coming to a better understanding of God and letting go of the fear and pain caused by others, my relationship with God no longer looks like an angry child throwing a temper tantrum against a strict parent but a loving conversation between a father and son.

The steps helped me know and understand God in a way that made it easier for me to approach Him. I learned that God the Father is willing to meet us where we are and help us through our pain and addiction. He looks through the mess we have made of ourselves and, instead of seeing us as the culmination of our accomplishments or failures, sees us as His beloved children. He sees us as who we are—not what we have done. As God reminds us, “You are precious…and honored, I love you” (Isaiah 43:4).

Ambrose is a convert to Catholicism and has struggled with sexaholism and mental illness. He has undergraduate degrees in Catholic theology and philosophy and enjoys learning and reading about the lives of the saints.