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The Role of a Higher Power in 12 Step Drug Treatment

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Twelve-step programs—including Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)—make numerous references to God and a “Higher Power” in their literature. The role of a higher power in AA is intended to inspire and empower people to become sober, looking to an entity higher than themselves that can guide them toward long-term recovery. Some AA members struggle with understanding the role of a higher power in their treatment, especially those who lack a religious background or who are not completely sure how to incorporate this concept into their recovery.

In this article: 

What Is the “Higher Power” in AA?

Many steps in the AA 12-step program refer to entities such as “God,” a “Higher Power,” and a “power greater than ourselves.” However, AA members can interpret this “Higher Power” in the way most relevant to their needs. Their higher power may be a deity, a supreme being, or existential freedom.

The higher power should be regarded as a power greater than yourself—one loving, caring, and accepting. You don’t necessarily have to understand your higher power, but you should be able to put faith in your higher power to benefit from the 12 Steps of AA and lasting recovery.

Why Is It Important to Have a Higher Power?

Believing in a higher power can motivate and empower you to stay sober—including during the toughest of times—and make you feel as though you are never alone.

It can help you establish a sense of purpose, which can help you feel as though you have something meaningful to contribute to the world and those around you. Your relationship with a higher power and can fill the space that was once occupied with your substance use. Having faith in a higher power can help you let go of negative feelings related to your addiction and allow you to change, obtaining a sense that you are forgiven.

Believing in a higher power can combat feelings of loneliness, isolation, and hopelessness that may arise due to addiction. A higher power can have an even greater effect on your recovery when you attend AA 12-step meetings where all your peers are also looking to a higher power to overcome the same difficult feelings and emotions.

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What Are Alternatives to God as a Higher Power?

Each person can interpret the “Higher Power” in a way that is most meaningful to them. Some people are unable to explain or label their higher power, which is completely acceptable as long as the higher power continues to play an important role in their recovery.

Alternatives to the concept of God as a higher power may include:

  • Goddess
  • Jesus Christ
  • Buddha
  • Mother Earth
  • Mother Nature or Nature
  • Allah
  • Yahweh
  • The Universe
  • The Father
  • The Holy Trinity
  • Jehovah
  • Nirvana
  • Brahman
  • Energy
  • Good
  • Science
  • Love
  • Music
  • Art
  • Humanity
  • Group consciousness
  • Fellow AA members

In some cases, it may take a while for a new AA member to determine their higher power. If you find yourself in this space, consider talking to other group members, your AA sponsor, or a spiritual leader in your belief system for guidance on how to choose your own higher power.

How Is a Higher Power Used in the 12 Steps of AA?

Many of the 12 Steps of AA refer to God or a Higher Power. After you identify your own higher power, its role in each of the steps may make more sense to you. Here’s the role of a higher power in each of the steps in which it (or God) is mentioned.

Step 2

“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”1

Step 2 is about opening up to the idea that having faith in a higher power can help you restore mental clarity and find inner peace. It’s about giving you hope and about helping you understand that you are not alone. Step 2 suggests that a greater power can guide you during your journey to long-term sobriety. Keep in mind that Step 2 does not require you to believe in anything, but that it encourages you to believe in a higher power with which you resonate.

Step 3

“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

After opening your mind to believing in a higher power in the previous step, Step 3 of AA is about committing to turning yourself over to the higher power you have chosen. Your AA group may encourage you to use the Serenity Prayer to ask your higher power to guide you through recovery and to help you at times of emotional distress. Step 3 can help you feel lighter and freer as you give your consciousness over to a greater and loving entity.

Step 5

“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

Step 5 is about acknowledging and sharing what you perceive as your “wrongs” and shortcomings to a higher power to which you feel accountable, to yourself, and to others so you can be forgiven for them and so you can also forgive others who may have hurt you. This step allows you to lay everything on the table so you can feel freer and relieve any anxiety, depression, stress, or other negative emotions that are weighing you down.

With Step 5, you can be completely honest and open about your memories and experiences as they relate to alcohol addiction with your higher power, as well as with members of your AA group and your sponsor—none of whom will pass judgment. If it makes you feel more comfortable to only share with your higher power, stick to doing that until you are ready to confide in another person.

Step 6

“Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

Step 6 is about working with your higher power to work on any flaws, wrongs, and shortcomings you may have identified in Step 4. It is about celebrating the success you’ve achieved up to this point in AA and continuing with your journey while keeping an open mind and admitting it may take you some time to remove the “defects of character” that may have damaged your relationship or led to substance misuse in the past.

Step 7

“Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

Step 7 of AA is about overcoming your flaws and shortcomings while practicing humility.2 You give up self-reliance to become reliant on your higher power, accepting that you must practice humility to achieve a happier and more fulfilling lifestyle. Practicing humility can often help you see your shortcomings more clearly so you can successfully overcome them.

Step 11

“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

Step 11 encourages you to develop a daily prayer, meditation, or other spiritual practice that allows you to communicate with your higher power and achieve emotional stability and balance. When practicing Step 11, envision your higher power and focus on what it may want you to achieve. Alternatively, if your higher power is a concept rather than an entity, focus on how it makes you feel and what it may empower you to achieve. Choose a spiritual or mindful practice that feels most comfortable to you and open your mind to make room for positive emotions such as compassion, empathy, and love.

How Do You Find Your Own Higher Power?

Many people who join AA do not believe in God or have an existing relationship with a higher power that they seek guidance from. It is okay if you do not strongly connect with the concept of a higher power when you join AA. Some people do not choose a higher power at all in the beginning and allow the process to play out naturally as they make their way through the 12 Steps of AA.

When thinking about how to find or choose your own higher power, think about what makes you feel hopeful and peaceful and what gives you a feeling of purpose and meaning in life. You do not have to come up with a name or label for your higher power and you do not have to fully understand it, as long as it makes you feel happy, positive, and loving.

Consider asking your peers or AA sponsor for suggestions on finding a higher power, as some of them may once have been where you are today.

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  1. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
  2. Post, S.G., Pagano, M.E., Lee, M.T., & Johnson, B.R. (2016). Humility and 12-Step Recovery: A Prolegomenon for the Empirical Investigation of a Cardinal Virtue in Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcohol Treatment Quarterly, 34(3), 262–273.
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