Step Five – “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
This doesn’t feel like Christmas!
Having confronted the darkness inside us with John yesterday, we confront a ruler’s murderous rage and the killing of innocent children today.
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, sure stirs up fierce reactions in us and in the society around us.
But as we considered in Step Four yesterday, we have done a lot of stirring up ourselves — causing grief and pain within ourselves and harm to those around us. Our moral inventory is a long list of the wrongs we have done to ourselves and to others.
Today, Step Five invites us to take the next critical step in admitting our faults. We must talk to someone about them.
So intense, though, is our fear and reluctance to do this, that many A.A.’s at first try to bypass Step Five. We search for an easier way—which usually consists of the general and fairly painless admission that when drinking we were sometimes bad actors. Then, for good measure, we add dramatic descriptions of that part of our drinking behavior which our friends probably know about anyhow. But of the things which really bother and burn us, we say nothing. Certain distressing or humiliating memories, we tell ourselves, ought not be shared with anyone. These will remain our secret. Not a soul must ever know. We hope they’ll go to the grave with us. (55)
Along with good insight about the importance of spiritual counsel, Step Five also highlights two difficulties we will face in the process of making our confession real — for that is what we are talking about — and then of understanding what we must do next.
The first difficulty
Many people think they understand confession in a religious sense, but we too often caricature the worst examples of each other’s positions.
In the Roman Catholic Church, largely because it comprises half of the world’s Christians, the problem with confession to a priest — basically what Step Five is describing — is the sheer volume. If everyone really ought to confess before they go to Mass on Sunday, then priests have to hear too many confessions to make them very personal at all.
Until we actually sit down and talk aloud about what we have so long hidden, our willingness to clean house is still largely theoretical. When we are honest with another person, it confirms that we have been honest with ourselves and with God. (60)
Confession, or seeking the advice of a spiritual director, can have the benefit of making real the spiritual forgiveness we are promised in Jesus Christ. More than just going to the confessional booth, though, this may need to be a longer conversation with a priest or director.
Sometimes we simply need to say our sins out loud; and sometimes we simply need to hear from another person that we are forgiven before we can really believe it.
The second difficulty
For Protestants, the understanding that one has direct access to God through Christ, without the need for a human mediator — while true — may mean that Christians do not avail themselves of spiritual counsel and the assurance of forgiveness given by another human being
The second difficulty is this: what comes to us alone may be garbled by our own rationalization and wishful thinking. The benefit of talking to another person is that we can get his direct comment and counsel on our situation, and there can be no doubt in our minds what that advice is. (60)
While many Protestants participate in regular Bible studies or in accountability groups, simply talking about your struggles and getting advice from people close to you may not have the sacramental “heft” that enables you to believe Jesus’ assurance that you have been forgiven.
What must we do?
The Gospel reading at Morning Prayer is an example of “prophetic hyperbole” — Jesus is using exaggeration in order to make a point.
But Jesus’ point is clear: we must be bold and decisive in admitting our wrongs and working to eliminate them from our lives.
If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matt. 18:8-9)
Step Five couldn’t support this notion more fully:
Provided you hold back nothing, your sense of relief will mount from minute to minute. The dammed-up emotions of years break out of their confinement, and miraculously vanish as soon as they are exposed. As the pain subsides, a healing tranquillity takes its place. And when humility and serenity are so combined, something else of great moment is apt to occur. Many an A.A., once agnostic or atheistic, tells us that it was during this stage of Step Five that he first actually felt the presence of God. And even those who had faith already often become conscious of God as they never were before. (62)
So the process of speaking to another person about our wrongs gives us the opportunity to turn and make a new start on our lives.
But on this feast day of the Holy Innocents we must also be mindful that making Step Five also commits us to undoing the harm that our actions have brought to others — the process of making amends that is the subject of Steps Eight and Nine.
May your new start — begun with the honest admission of your wrongdoing — give you the strength to continue making the changes that are ahead of you.
As for me, I will live with integrity;
redeem me, O Lord, and have pity on me.
My foot stands on level ground;
in the full assembly will I bless the Lord. (Ps. 26:11-12)