Understanding and Practicing Step Three

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There is a notable progression from the first two steps to Step Three, and all are notably linked to one another. (docstockmedia/Shutterstock)

There is a notable progression from the first two steps to Step Three, and all are notably linked to one another. (docstockmedia/Shutterstock)

It is now March, which means it’s time for the third article in our series on the Twelve Steps. Step Three is often lumped together with Step One and Step Two as one of the primary steps that must be taken before we can move forward and begin taking action to solidify our recovery. It is especially linked to Step Two, as both maintain a focus on spirituality. All three of these first steps are also very much geared toward letting go of our self-will and learning to accept that we are powerless on our own.

While these first three steps may be thematically linked, Step Three stands out in a great many ways. The corresponding chapter in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions notes that the first two steps require a great deal of reflection, leading to important realizations about ourselves. In Step Three, we begin making a move toward real action. We have developed the necessary faith and willingness to begin our true work in recovery. We can now open doors that have remained shut for quite some time. And we can rejoice, because upon opening these doors we will often find that we had no reason to fear what was behind them. Step Three is when we will begin to truly feel a new freedom and a new happiness.

Of course, it isn’t always so simple. There are some potential complications that will stand in the way of completing this step, at least for some people. You must be absolutely positive in your convictions that you have fully taken Steps One and Two, or the benefits of Step Three may be lost on you. More importantly, however, you must understand what it really means to give up your self-will, and you must be willing to accept that your work in this regard is only just beginning.

What Is Step Three?

Making a decision like this can seem difficult, but it will open many doors for us. (Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock)

Making a decision like this can seem difficult, but it will open many doors for us. (Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock)

Step Three, as described in the 12&12 as well as other AA literature, is as follows:

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

Right off the bat, some people will be turned off by this. Even though the last four words are highlighted, many will be stuck on the word that precedes them. But as we’ve discussed before, you do not need to believe in any particular god (or any deity at all, for that matter) in order to surrender to a Higher Power. As long as you accept that something in the world is greater than yourself, that you do not have complete power over everything, you can develop the faith needed in order to remain sober. And if you truly believe that AA, NA, or any other such program has done right by you, then you have in many ways already made a beginning on Step Three.

There are some still who may be confused by the wording of this step. What is the difference between turning over our will and turning over our lives? And if there is a difference, how can we achieve both? The easiest way to comprehend this is to view our will as our decisions, and our lives as our fate. In taking this view, we gain a fuller understanding of Step Three.

Our will, for instance, is something that can be hard to turn over. But every single person who has a sponsor has done this to some degree. The willingness to run things by others instead of constantly seeking to call the shots ourselves will do us much good. We have turned over our will to someone with a more objective view of ourselves. Through prayer and meditation, we may also learn to listen to the whispers of the spirits of the earth, and we will often realize that we know all along when our self-will is telling us to make a decision that may cause harm to ourselves or others. Drugs and alcohol drown these whispers out and dull our inhibitions. Without them, we can finally comport ourselves as fully-realized and functional human beings.

Turning over our fate, our lives, will be a bit harder for some. There are many who take issue with this part of Step Three because they feel like they cannot leave everything to fate. Surely we must have plans in life…we cannot simply let things happen to us. But to some extent, we must. We will not always get our way. And in such cases, we cannot let our anger and our resentments turn into a fully-fledged emotional disturbance, for this may lead to a nasty relapse. Instead, we have to be malleable. Perhaps we did not get what we wanted, but we have still been granted an opportunity to learn and to grow. If we cannot express gratitude for this opportunity, we will lose far more than we will gain. We will take our self-will back, and try to control our fates in a way that simply isn’t possible. The meaning of Step Three is, above all else, that we must gain a sense of humility and embrace our powerlessness in order to thrive.

What It Means

There are three frogs on a log. One makes the decision to jump. How many frogs are on the log? (Mark Bridger/Shutterstock)

There are three frogs on a log. One makes the decision to jump. How many frogs are on the log? (Mark Bridger/Shutterstock)

The meaning given above might be confusing, so allow us to elaborate a bit. When we say that we must accept our powerlessness in order to thrive, we are not just talking about powerlessness over alcohol. That was Step One, but Step Three requires us to give up a little more. The 12&12 pictures what AA founder Bill Wilson considered to be a common complaint against Step Three:

“‘Yes, respecting alcohol, I guess I have to be dependent upon A.A., but in all other matters I must still maintain my independence. Nothing is going to turn me into a nonentity. If I keep on turning my life and my will over to the care of Something or Somebody else, what will become of me? I’ll look like the hole in the doughnut.’”

How ironic that the people making this complaint are those who once had no problem whatsoever turning their will and their lives over to the care of poisons. Really think about the word “intoxicated,” and you will see the folly in the logic above. Those who were willing to slowly kill themselves to escape from life are suddenly convinced that they had freedom before they were asked to live without self-will. But slavery is the nature of the disease from which we suffer. If Step Three has even a grain of potential to help us break free from these bonds, it is absolutely worth trying.

The 12&12 examines Step Three in an even more interesting way. According to the following passage, our dependence on a Higher Power means becoming more independent as human beings. The book states:

“…it is startling to discover how dependent we really are, and how unconscious of that dependence. Every modern house has electric wiring carrying power and light to its interior. We are delighted with this dependence; our main hope is that nothing will ever cut off the supply of current. By so accepting our dependence upon this marvel of science, we find ourselves more independent personally. Not only are we more independent, we are even more comfortable and secure. Power flows just where it is needed. Silently and surely, electricity, that strange energy so few people understand, meets our simplest daily needs, and our most desperate ones, too. Ask the polio sufferer confined to an iron lung who depends with complete trust upon a motor to keep the breath of life in him.”

Yet despite this dependence, we still like to maintain the illusion that we have complete control. We value our intellect, our willpower, and our pride above all else. We may even try to control and manipulate others, instead of truly helping them by sharing with them what we have learned about the power we are granted when we truly let go of control. If we are not living by the creed of hope, faith, and trust, then we can help no one. We may occasionally perform some service work to feel as if we are more valuable, but even this seemingly charitable nature can be perverted to serve our own egos.

There are those, too, who will believe they have completed Step Three when they have not. They will think that they have fully recovered, and that the rest of the Twelve Steps are just actions we must take to repair our lives in some fashion. But this is not quite so. Remember that in Step Three we have only made a decision. If three frogs are on a log and one makes the decision to jump, there are still three frogs on the log. That poor little frog hasn’t jumped yet, but that won’t stop him from congratulating himself as if he had. Step Three is only one part of a longer recovery continuum—it is by no means the end of our battle. We must remember that if we are to truly practice Step Three in earnest.

How to Practice

Step Three will require a great deal of self-reflection, often through prayer and meditation. (Kitja-Kitja/Shutterstock)

Step Three will require a great deal of self-reflection, often through prayer and meditation. (Kitja-Kitja/Shutterstock)

Perhaps Step Three is not the end of the process, but it is still an important component. The 12&12 reads:

“…we who are alcoholics can consider ourselves fortunate indeed. Each of us has had his own near-fatal encounter with the juggernaut of self-will, and has suffered enough under its weight to be willing to look for something better. So it is by circumstance rather than by any virtue that we have been driven to A.A., have admitted defeat, have acquired the rudiments of faith, and now want to make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to a Higher Power.”

In other words, we must accept our past. We must be willing to admit that we likely only entered recovery after hitting rock bottom. We didn’t see the light; we felt the heat. Anyone who gives themselves too much credit for remaining sober has almost certainly forgotten this fact.

We must also remember when practicing Step Three that we have to be careful about how we utilize the concept of dependence. In forming a sober support network, many of its members will be fellows in recovery as well as close friends and family. But we can never put all of our dependence upon a single person, especially not if they have enabled us in the past. This form of dependence will be as harmful to us as it is to them, as we will be repeating similar behaviors to those we performed while in active addiction.

Despite much of what we have said, Step Three will require some degree of willpower. After taking Step Three, we will be prepared to do the rest of the Twelve Steps, which require much action indeed. Obviously, this will take some will of our own. The difference is that we are no longer deciding what our will should be and enforcing it without regard to the consequences. Instead, we are paying attention to what is right and what is wrong, and we are using our will to be the best people that we can be. Once we have learned to do this, we have begun to grasp what Step Three is really all about. We cannot do it without faith, as well as much prayer and meditation. But once we have begun to truly accept the faults of our previous uses of willpower and have sought to utilize our will only as much as it is needed to make things right, we will be ready to move on from Step Three and begin our true work in recovery. The conclusion of this chapter in the 12&12 states:

“Once we have come into agreement with these ideas, it is really easy to begin the practice of Step Three. In all times of emotional disturbance or indecision, we can pause, ask for quiet, and in the stillness simply say: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Thy will, not mine, be done.’”

Do this every day, and Step Three just might keep you sober for as long as you live.


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