Philip Yancey "Addicted"
to the Recovery Movement?
Part Two of a Three-Part Series


Philip Yancey "Addicted" to the Recovery Movement?

In his article titled "Lessons from Rock Bottom" (Christianity Today, Vol. 44, No. 8), Philip Yancey contends that Christians have much to learn from the natural theologies of alcoholics and the recovery movement. He sees them as friendly allies rather than other religions.

Yancey says, "Anthropology, original sin, regeneration, sanctification—the recovery movement contains within it seeds of all these doctrines." This statement is irrelevant and confusing. It is irrelevant as far as Christianity is concerned, because, if you replace the words "the recovery movement" with any one of the many major world religions, it would read equally well. If one believes that Jesus is the only "name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12), one must conclude that Yancey’s statement is not just confusing. It is deceptive. It can be used to justify any world religion as well as the world religion of Alcoholics Anonymous. He may protest that he would not do that, but the truth is that AA opens the door to all religions (occultic, animistic, and otherwise).

Were Wilson and Smith Christians?

Yancey refers to "a couple of Christian alcoholics" starting a "spiritual program." He is obviously referring to Bill Wilson and Bob Smith as Christians. Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, the cofounders of AA, attended Oxford Group meetings, which is why people think they were Christians. However, both were involved in other spiritual experiences as well. Wilson and Smith both practiced spiritualism and believed in the validity and importance of contacting and conversing with the dead (necromancy, which the Bible forbids).1 Wilson described one particular encounter he had one morning in Nantucket with several entities, who supposedly told him their names. One, who called himself David Morrow, said he had been a sailor during the Civil War. Later that same day Wilson just happened to discover Morrow’s name on a monument in the center of town.2 The AA biography of Wilson says:

It is not clear when he first became interested in extrasensory phenomena; the field was something that Dr. Bob and Anne Smith were also deeply involved with. Whether or not Bill initially became interested through them, there are references to séances and other psychic events in the letters Bill wrote to Lois [Wilson’s wife] during that first Akron summer with the Smiths, in 1935.3

The Wilsons were conducting regular séances in their own home as early as 1941. They were engaging in other psychic activities as well, such as using an Ouija board.4 Also, as Wilson would lie on a couch he would "receive" messages (in a manner similar to that of the occultist Edgar Cayce) and another person would write them down. His wife described it this way:

Bill would lie down on the couch. He would "get" these things. He kept doing it every week or so. Each time, certain people would "come in." Sometimes, it would be new ones and they’d carry on some story. There would be long sentences; word by word would come through.5

It is interesting to note that in 1938, between the séances at the Smiths’ and Wilson receiving messages while in a prone position in the 40s, Wilson wrote the AA Twelve Steps. He was lying in bed thinking. The official AA biography of Wilson describes it this way:

As he started to write, he asked for guidance. And he relaxed. The words began tumbling out with astonishing speed. He completed the first draft in about half an hour, then kept on writing until he felt he should stop and review what he had written. Numbering the new steps, he found that they added up to twelve—a symbolic number; he thought of the Twelve Apostles, and soon became convinced that the Society should have twelve steps.6

Whether or not creating the Twelve Steps involved occultic activity, Wilson and Smith’s commitment to spiritualism was intrinsically tied to their creation of and leadership in AA. Wilson does not identify any specific entity related to the original writing of the Twelve Steps, but he does give credit to the spirit of a departed bishop when he was writing the manuscript for Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, which constitutes Wilson’s commentary on how all of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions are to be understood, interpreted, and practiced.

Wilson’s interest in spiritual matters was all-inclusive, all except faith in Jesus as the only way. For awhile Wilson seriously considered becoming a Catholic. He described his relation to the church this way:

I’m more affected than ever by that sweet and powerful aura of the church; that marvelous spiritual essence flowing down by the centuries touches me as no other emanation does, but—when I look at the authoritative layout, despite all the arguments in its favor, I still can’t warm up. No affirmative conviction comes.7

Wilson did not want to attach AA to any one faith. The official AA biography of Wilson declares:

Bill felt it would be unwise for AA as a fellowship to have an allegiance to any one religious sect. He felt AA’s usefulness was worldwide, and contained spiritual principles that members of any and every religion could accept, including the Eastern religions.8 (Emphasis added.)

Wilson could not have believed in the "faith once delivered to the saints" because he did not believe Jesus’ words when He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). Wilson complained, "The thing that still irks me about all organized religions is their claim how confoundedly right all of them are. Each seems to think it has the right pipeline."9 (Emphasis added.) Obviously, according to Wilson, Jesus is not the only "pipeline" to God.

Alcoholics are often hypercritical of Christianity, especially organized churches and doctrines. They criticize Christians for being hypocrites. Condemned by the Bible, they resist the Word of God, but are happy to believe selected sections that only talk about love (separated from the whole counsel of God with God’s righteous holiness and man’s filthy wretchedness). Rather than worshiping the Holy God of the Bible they worship a god "understood" by them without any condemnation of sin.

Helplessness and a Higher Power

Yancey furthers the irrelevancy and deceptive confusion by stating:

As an alcoholic once told me, "I have to publicly declare ‘I am an alcoholic’ whenever I introduce myself at group. It is a statement of failure, of helplessness, and surrender. Take a room of a dozen or so people, all of whom admit helplessness and failure, and it’s pretty easy to see how God then presents himself in that group."

Yancey adds:

. . . the alcoholic must recognize individual helplessness and fall back in the arms of the Higher Power. "First of all, we had to quit playing God," concluded the founders of AA; and then allow God himself to "play God" in the addict’s life, which involves daily, even moment-by-moment, surrender.

Step One

The "helplessness" and the "Power greater than ourselves" (God?) represents Steps One and Two of the 12-step gospel. Step One is: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable."

Step One may actually give license to excuse oneself from certain genuine responsibilities and valid commitments. Believing oneself to be powerless over such so-called "addictive agents" may also serve to exonerate self from responsibility to others. Furthermore, certain sinful activities attributed to the so-called codependent are seen as symptoms of a condition requiring recovery rather than sin requiring repentance.

According to the Twelve-Step system, when the person admits being powerless over others or over responses to the actions of others, he is not guilty, but helpless. How can anything be a person’s sin or fault if he is powerless to do anything constructive in the relationship? After all, it’s an addiction! By coupling this with blaming another person, one can exonerate oneself from guilt. Saying the addiction made me do it is even more convenient and sophisticated than saying, "The devil made me do it."

By claiming to be powerless, one can wash one’s own hands and walk away scot-free. Thus the admission of powerlessness over the so-called "addictive agent" empowers a person by relieving him from guilt and responsibility. Thus relieved of some guilt feelings—exonerated by it not being "my fault" but the addiction’s fault—the person is supposedly free to do something about the so-called addiction. This is very similar to humanistic psychological theories that say that even though society has caused a person to be a certain way, he can change himself if he gets in touch with his real self. In fact, most of the material written on addiction and codependency repeats the humanistic lie that man is born good and that inside each person is a pure core, an innocent (yea, holy) child, which is a source of trustworthy wisdom and truth.

If a person’s behavior is due to an addiction disease, it needs healing. Thus the disease mentality takes over and recovery is the goal. Even if he has been a victim through so-called codependency, he can extricate self by refusing to be responsible for others. Therefore recovery is all about taking care of self, loving self, and being good to self. And it’s available to everyone.

Step One is a dangerous counterfeit for both Christians and nonChristians. It serves as a substitute for acknowledging one’s own depravity, sinful acts, and utter lostness apart from Jesus Christ, the only savior, and the only way to forgiveness (relief of true guilt). Step One is also a substitute for Christians to acknowledge that without the life of the Lord Jesus Christ in them, they are unable to live righteously. Apart from Christ in them, they are unable to please God.

Many Christians attempt to make Step One coincide with biblical confession. But they generally substitute powerlessness for sinfulness and admit a life that has become unmanageable without confessing disobedience. In fact, most of the popular codependency/recovery books indicate that feeling guilty is the last thing an addict or codependent needs.

Step One is too broad a step and misses the mark. Instead of leading directly to Jesus as the way to salvation and eternal life, it leads anywhere that might please the self. Jesus said:

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it (Matthew 7:13-14).

When the Holy Spirit reveals a person’s condition of total depravity and convicts him of sin, that person realizes he is undone and needs a Savior. When the Holy Spirit convicts a Christian of sin, the Christian realizes that he has been operating according to the flesh rather than living by faith in Christ and walking according to the Spirit.

Instead of teaching people to admit powerlessness over an "addictive agent" that has produced an unmanageable life, the Bible indicates that all are born sinners, unable to please God. Paul is very clear about this in his letter to the Romans:

For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:5-8).

This is an indictment upon the entire human race, and it goes entirely against the popular humanistic notion that all are born good and that society spoils them.

By God’s law, all are guilty. Before a person is converted to Jesus Christ, he is under the domination of sin, whether he acts it out in sinful habits of substance abuse or in other sinful ways. Nevertheless, such a pronouncement of guilt does not have to lead to hopelessness or helplessness. Instead it should lead to Christ. Paul explains in his letter to the Galatians:

But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Galatians 3:22-27).

Therefore faith in Christ is the answer to all problems of sin, whether in relationships or substance abuse or whatever the complexity of sinning, being sinned against, and responding sinfully. Jesus Christ is the answer and faith in Him is the way out of hopelessness, helplessness, powerlessness, and sinfulness. Jesus empowers believers to overcome sin and to please God.

How grievous it is when hopeless and despairing people are sent to something or someone other than the One who is our only Hope! Is the Good News of Jesus Christ only for those who are suffering mild problems? While a person may gain temporary advantage through various programs that offer something else besides Jesus Christ and Him crucified, there will be dreadful loss in the long run.

Step Two

When Wilson first formulated the Twelve Steps, Step Two was: "Came to believe that God could restore us to sanity." Wilson had had a religious experience he thought was God. Therefore, such a statement seemed natural. However, he met with opposition from those who were close to him in the AA movement.

Thus he changed the wording of Step Two: "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." Wilson believed that those concessions regarding references to God were:

. . . the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.

And, indeed, the gate is wide. The "Power greater than ourselves" can be anybody or anything that seems greater than the person who takes Step Two. It could be a familiar spirit, such as the ones Bill Wilson had. It could be any deity of Hinduism, Buddhism, Greek mythology, or New Age channeled entities. It could be one’s own so-called higher self. It could even be the devil himself.

The extreme naivete of Christians comes through when they confidently assert that their higher Power is Jesus Christ. Since when did Jesus align Himself with false gods? Since when has He been willing to join the Pantheon or the array of Hindu deities? Jesus is not an option of one among many. He is the Only Son, the Only Savior, and the Only Way. All Twelve Step programs violate the declarations of the Reformation: Only Scripture; Only Christ; Only Grace; Only Faith; and Glory to God Only. Instead they offer another power, another gospel, another savior, another source, another fellowship, another tradition, another evangelism, and another god. Jesus’ majesty and His very person are violated by joining Him with the gods of the wide gate and the broad way. Jesus emphatically stated that His gate is strait and His way is narrow. His is the only way to life, while all other ways lead to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14).

Twelve-Step programs are in essence New Age religions and archetypical precursors of a one-world religion. They do not hold a common doctrine of God and His creation. Instead, each group holds a common goal, centered in saving self. In AA it’s sobriety; in Co-dependents Anonymous it’s feeling good through unshackled selfhood. The common goal of the one-world religion will be peace—for the sake of survival. Each goal is centered in self and in the now, not in God or eternity. The goal takes precedence over the One True God. Whatever god or goddess is chosen as the higher power is subservient to that goal. All of these fit into the New Age spirituality: no absolutes, many ways, self-enhancement.

When one configures his own image of god and places himself under that power, he is essentially his own god, because he finds that god within himself and within his own experience. Thus Self is truly the god of Twelve-Step groups and many other forms of New Age religions. Twelve-Step religions call on a nonjudgmental deity according to their own imaginations, rather than a God who is self-existent, holy, and external to the believer, but who has made Himself known through the Bible.

When self is god, one is left to a life-long religion of works, because one must be continually saving self. That is why one must continue to attend AA meetings, follow the Twelve Steps, and help other drunks. While sobriety itself is not one of the works listed among the Twelve, it is the goal of every step. Even the seeming self-giving to help other drunks (other addicts or other codependents) is for the sake of one’s own sobriety. One’s life is thus devoted to the goal of selfhood.


1Pass It On. The story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. 1952, 1953, 1981, pp. 156, 275.

2Ibid., p. 276.
3
Ibid., p. 275.
4
Ibid., p. 278.
5
Ibid., pp. 278-279.
6
Ibid., p. 198.
7
Ibid., p. 281.
8
Ibid., p. 283.
9
Ibid.

PAL V9N4 (July-August 2001)


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